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After son falls out window, parents become safety advocates

Thomas Cunningham was 3-years-old when he fell from a second-floor window and cracked his skull on the concrete below. The window screen had come out of the sill. Now the parents are spreading awareness during National Window Safety Week. 

By StaffAssociated Press / April 10, 2013

Thomas Cunningham, 6, looks out a bedroom window as he is held by his mother, Becca Keen Cunningham, right, April 9 in Vancouver, Wash. Thomas fell from the second-story window several years ago and was injured in the incident. Since the incident the family has installed safety bars.

Troy Wayrynen/The Columbian, AP

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Vancouver, Wash.

Becca and Jason Keen Cunningham are careful parents. They got Mr. Yuk stickers from the Washington Poison Center and put them on anything that might be poisonous to drink, even though the cabinets are locked. They covered outlets, bought side-impact car seats and installed mesh between the deck and its railing so their three young kids can't fall through.

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But in 2010, when then 3-year-old Thomas fell out of his second-floor bedroom window, landed on concrete and cracked his skull, the couple realized they overlooked a critical safety device.

Window guards.

"It's a pretty sad irony," said Jason, who is a firefighter and EMT with the Portland Fire Bureau at Station 7.

In observance of National Window Safety Week, the Keen Cunninghams are helping spread the word about what parents can do to prevent these falls — especially as the weather warms up.

Thomas loved to sit in his window seat and was fascinated by the window blind cords. On Oct. 20, 2010, Jason wrapped up the cords, putting them where he thought Thomas couldn't reach, and stressed the dangers of playing by the window; the screen keeps bugs out, but it doesn't keep kids in. Thomas seemed to comprehend what his father told him, at least, in the way that a 3-year-old can.

"It's not enough," Becca said. "Kids don't understand danger. That's why it's our responsibility as parents to protect them."

The next day, just six days shy of his fourth birthday, Thomas was playing quietly in his room while Becca was downstairs. She heard a moaning noise and went up to her son's room, where she found the blinds up and the screen pushed out. Outside, Jason and Becca found their son lying on the back patio semi-conscious with a fractured skull.

Medics rushed him to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland. Thomas couldn't move or talk.

"I remember asking the ambulance driver whether he was going to live or not," Becca said. She watched her son's eyes flutter close.

The driver didn't know and neither did doctors as they performed an MRI and measured his inner-cranial pressure.

Thomas spent his birthday in a medically induced coma and was paralyzed on his left side. For five weeks he did in-patient rehabilitation at Emanuel to regain mobility and spent another year out of the hospital doing occupational, speech, physical and vision therapy. Today, he is proud to tell people he fell out of a window, was paralyzed and after a lot of hard work, got better.

On the surface, he appears like an average, hyperactive 6-year-old, who loves to play and learn. However, he will never fully recover from his fracture.

"That part of his brain is damaged forever," Becca said. "We'll never know what he would have been like. He's definitely altered."

"I destroyed my son's potential life. It will scar me and it will scar him," Jason said. "I lie awake at night thinking how easily it could have been corrected."

When Thomas hits adolescence, his frontal lobe and executive functions will fully develop. Until then, the Keen Cunninghams won't know if he's lost any abilities in that area of his brain. As a kindergartner at Hearthwood Elementary School, he performs well above grade level and attends an advanced reading class.

Thomas can't play any contact sports, but regularly takes tennis lessons with his twin brother, Zane; the incident rate of concussion while playing tennis is very low.

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