Jeff and Kirsten Corrigan didn’t choose the path their lives have taken as the result of their son’s traumatic brain injury at the hands of a caregiver.
But they hope their experience can help prevent other occurrences of Shaken Baby Syndrome, a severe form of physical child abuse resulting from violently shaking an infant by the shoulders, arms or legs.
Their son, Ryan, 10, has endured a lifetime of profound cognitive and physical disabilities due to being shaken when he was 9 months old by a trusted caregiver, Mark Francke.
Mostly confined to a wheelchair, Ryan is non-verbal, cannot walk or stand on his own and has limited use of his arms.
He receives physical therapy once a week to work on stretching, range of motion and functional activities.
“A child’s body is a changing body,” says Sarah Bengtson, Ryan’s physical therapist at Witwer Children’s Therapy Center, 1079 N. Center Point Rd., Hiawatha. “It’s important to work with his spasticity (muscle tightness) and tone.”
Although integrated with his fourth-grade peers at Indian Creek Elementary in the Linn-Mar School District, he is in the Level 3, severe and profound special education program.
But his parents don’t want sympathy or revenge; they want to educate others of this 100 percent preventable condition.
“My tactic is to ease into education,” says Kirsten Corrigan, who speaks about Shaken Baby Syndrome through the Young Parents Network. “We’re not out to attack; we want to educate.”
The key to prevention is being aware that crying is normal for an infant. If the persistent crying is more than the caregiver can handle, put the child in the crib and walk away, she says.
“No child will die of crying, but they can die of shaking,” she says.
An estimated 1,200 to 1,400 cases of Shaken Baby occur each year in the United States. Of these, one in 4 babies die of Shaken Baby Syndrome; the other three need ongoing medical care for the rest of their short life spans.
Dr. Scott Nau, a St. Luke’s pediatrician who has treated Ryan since even before his shake injuries, says it takes fairly vigorous shaking to cause brain damage.
“It’s related to the tolerance and stress of the caretakers,” he says.
He treats several Shaken Baby Syndrome survivors who suffer from vision loss, seizures, gross motor disabilities and lack of communication.
When Jeff, 43, and Kirsten, 42, married in 1993, they realized they would not have children of their own due to health issues Kirsten developed as a teenager.
“Adoption seemed like a good possibility from the beginning,” she says.
They began the adoption process in January 2000 with Hillcrest Family Services in Cedar Rapids, thinking it may take up to two or three years to complete.
But, just 10 months after their home study was approved, they received the call — a baby boy was in need of adoptive parents.
Ryan was born April 17, 2001, to a 15-year-old girl who didn’t know she was pregnant until the day before his birth when she fell and needed an X-ray.
Although he was born slightly premature at 35 weeks, Ryan was a healthy baby.
After several day care options fell through, the Corrigans interviewed a number of in-home providers.
They chose Francke, an elementary teacher who was taking time off to be with his young daughters.
“We thought we found somebody we comfortable with,” Kirsten Corrigan says. “With Mark’s values, we thought he (Ryan) would be in good care. No doubt he was our top choice.”
Ryan had been in Francke’s care for 3 1/2 months with no problems. Until Jan. 16, 2002.
When Jeff Corrigan picked up his son that day from Francke’s home, Ryan appeared to be sleeping on the floor.
“I put on his snowsuit and noticed his arm was stiff,” Jeff says. “He had a shot the day before so that muddied the waters.”
When Ryan still did not wake up at home, the Corrigans took him to St. Luke’s Hospital where doctors discovered 1/4 of his blood supply was pooling on his brain.
Doctors determined it was a shake injury and flew Ryan to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City for surgery.
Jeff Corrigan immediately became the prime suspect because he was with Ryan before going to the hospital.
Before he went to Iowa City to be with Ryan, Jeff was surrounded by police investigators who also searched the Corrigans’ home.
“It was the worst nightmare in my life and I was being treated like a criminal,” he says. “It was surreal.”
Following a seven-hour surgery, Ryan was in a coma for a week, clinging to life.
“At the hospital, the social worker advised us to pull the plug because we wouldn’t want to be a caregiver of a child like this,” Kirsten Corrigan says. “I don’t think any one of us could have terminated his life.”
Ryan remained in the hospital for three weeks and wasn’t allowed to go home with Jeff until he was cleared by the Department of Human Services.
Francke, who refused a lie-detector test, was also investigated.
“It was hard for us to conceive that Mark could do it,” Kirsten says. “We were good friends.”
Another child in Francke’s care had rib fractures consistent with Shaken Baby Syndrome. Ryan also had injuries to his ribs, indicating he had been shaken before.
More than a year later Francke pleaded guilty to two counts of child endangerment in Linn County District Court, each with a sentence of 10 years in prison to be served concurrently.
Francke served just under 5 years in prison. The Corrigans have had no contact with him since he was released in 2007.
Their Christian faith has allowed them to forgive Ryan’s perpetrator.
“It’s always a continual thing,” Kirsten Corrigan says. “Forgiveness is as much for you. We had a child who was joyful. We wanted to be happy, we wanted him to see that. To be focused on anger would be to miss days with him.”
Parenting a child with special needs changes the way you look at life, she says.
“You have to live in the moment,” she says. “The highs are very high and the lows are incredibly low.”
The highs begin every morning when Ryan wakes up with a smile.
“I think we’ve become better people because of him,” Kirsten Corrigan says. “While we wouldn’t choose it, I don’t regret the life we have now.”
St. Luke's participating in Knit-In
St. Luke’s Hospital is participating in Click for Babies Knit-In, a statewide effort to bring about awareness and help prevent infant abuse, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in the St. Luke’s Center for Women’s and Children’s Health lobby, 150 11th St. NE.
Knitters are encouraged to gather and knit purple baby hats for distribution at Iowa birthing hospitals in November. The knitted caps will be given to babies along with educational materials to new parents about the Period of Purple Crying, which is a normal, although frustrating, period of increased crying infants may experience in the first few weeks and months after birth.
Frustration with an infant’s crying is the number-one reason someone shakes and harms an infant. By knitting purple baby caps, knitters can help St. Luke’s educate parents that crying is normal and it is never OK to shake or harm an infant.
“We must change the perception across society that infant crying — even excessive crying — is normal,” said Denise Easley, RN, St. Luke’s NICU. “It will help ease the stress parents are feeling when dealing daily with a crying infant. And easing the stress can help control the frustration that triggers an episode of shaking. Shaken Baby Syndrome is 100 percent preventable with education.”
To learn more, visit: http://clickforbabies.org/ or contact Easley at (319) 369-7724 or EASLEYDK@crstlukes.com
Tips to soothe a crying baby
- Feed your baby. Hunger is the main reason a baby will cry.
- Burp your baby. Babies do not have a natural ability to get rid of air built up in their stomach.
- Give your baby a lukewarm bath. A great soothing technique, but remember to never leave your baby unattended.
- Massage your baby. A gentle massage on a baby back, arms, or legs can be very comforting.
- Make eye contact with your baby and smile. Eye-to-eye contact with your baby when they are crying can distract and comfort them.
- Kiss your baby. This can help lessen the tension during fierce crying episodes.
- Sing softly. Lullabies were created because of their effectiveness at calming crying babies.
- Hum in a low tone against your baby’s head. Dad’s usually do this soothing feature best.
- Run a vacuum cleaner. The noise from a vacuum is referred to as white noise which is any sound produces a loud, neutral, masking sound. Babies find these noises hypnotizing.
- Take your baby for a ride in the car. The vibrations from a car have a sleep inducing effect on babies. Always make sure your baby is secure in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat.