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Boy's recovery stuns family, doctors

A dangerous game causes a grave head injury, but Brian Luben, 12, appears fine - though he has learned a lesson.

[Times photo: Jill Sagers]
Brian Luben sits in the driver's seat of an Oldsmar firetruck as paramedic Jill Ines-Galura looks on.

By EILEEN SCHULTE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


OLDSMAR -- Like the other students, Brian Luben had a bad case of the bus stop blues.

The mischief he got into next resulted in brain surgery and days in a hospital with his head swathed in bandages.

Brian, 12, and his friends had grown bored standing in the drizzle April 14, waiting for their bus to Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor. So they turned their attention to a new neighborhood trend: tipping a portable basketball hoop on a nearby driveway in the Woods at Forest Lakes subdivision.

The game worked this way: With the 10-foot-tall apparatus lying flat on the ground, they would hold onto the hoop and jump. The weighted base, typically filled with water or 300 pounds of sand, would pull the pole upright as they hung onto the rim.

It was Brian's turn to "ride the hoop." But as he was arcing upward, a larger boy jumped on the base. The pole jerked upward, then stopped hard, causing Brian to lose his grip on the hoop.

He fell, slamming his head against the pavement, and went into a seizure.

Jackie Haytchouk was dropping her daughter off at the bus stop when she saw the kids playing on the hoop. She was about to tell them to stop, but before she had a chance, Brian was already on the ground. She raced over to him.

His eyes were open but unfocused. Haytchouk got a neighbor to call 911.

An Oldsmar Fire Department crew was there within three or four minutes. Husband and wife Leo and Jill Ines-Galura, and acting Lt. Aaron Gonzalez -- all paramedics -- usually work on different shifts, but on this day they were working together.

Jill Ines-Galura found Brian on the ground in a combative state.

"He hit me a couple of times," she said.

The crew was debating whether to call for Bayflite and wondering whether the medical helicopter would fly in the bad weather when a Sunstar ambulance arrived. According to Haytchouk, Jill Ines-Galura made the decision to have the ambulance drive Brian to a hospital immediately rather than wait for a helicopter.

Jill Ines-Galura "was fantastic," Haytchouk said. "She made the decision to take him to St. Joseph's (Hospital in Tampa) because of the trauma center. She had him out of there in five minutes."

For the 20-minute ride, Jill Ines-Galura rode along as the treating medic.

"Once we were on our way to the hospital and there was nothing more I could do, I looked at him and said, "He's beautiful,' " she said, adding she knew he had a severe head injury by the way he was acting.

Brian had fractured his skull, causing a softball-size hematoma to form. Dr. J.E. Maniscalco, a neurosurgeon, was called in to Tampa Children's Hospital at St. Joseph's to open Brian's skull to relieve the pressure on the brain.

Brian's injury was so severe that Maniscalco initially estimated he had only 30 minutes to live.

At the time of the accident, Brian's father, Cpl. Glenn Luben with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, was teaching a class at the police academy in St. Petersburg. After his supervisor beeped him, Luben raced to St. Joseph's, at times using his siren and driving in the emergency lane to get there.

"My heart sank," Luben said. "I've seen so many victims with head injuries that die."

At the hospital, Brian was restrained and unconscious. Luben only had time to yell, "Brian, I'm here," before the boy was whisked into surgery for an operation that took 21/2 hours.

His wife, Inja, was working at her job in a deli in Tampa when she was called to the hospital. During the surgery, they waited with friends from the Sheriff's Office and the hospital chaplain.

Afterward, the surgeon told the couple Brian would be kept in a medically induced coma for 48 hours, and when he woke up, he could face loss of speech, memory or motor skills.

"Twenty minutes after surgery, we went to see him, see what he looked like, then we walked back to the waiting room and five minutes later the nurses summoned us," Glenn Luben said. "He had sat up in bed and was trying to talk and pull his tube out."

Brian asked where he was a few times, and he gradually became more talkative.

"We kept quizzing him. I was shocked, the doctors and nurses were shocked," said Glenn Luben.

Brian was in the hospital for four nights.

"He wouldn't eat that hospital food," Luben said. "He asked me to go to McDonald's. Then I knew he was okay."

Except for a horseshoe-shaped scar and a lump on his head, Brian apparently has had no lasting effects from the accident. His memories of it are few.

"I just remember walking to the bus stop," he said.

He did have a talk with his friends, though, about the bus stop game.

"I told them, "Don't ride on it any more,' " he said.

Days after the accident, the Lubens' own portable basketball hoop was knocked over by the wind. It crashed down on Luben's police cruiser parked in the driveway, causing minor damage.

"I said, "Somebody's trying to tell us something,' " Luben said with a laugh.

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