Before her 4-year-old son died in a tragic accident, Ayla Rutherford, 29, was getting ready for her 6-year-old’s birthday celebration in Graham Washington.
She went to take a shower when her husband, Josh, also 29, woke up. She then heard a terrifying scream…their youngest son, Axel, had put a thumbtack in his mouth and aspirated it. Josh knew his son was choking and was attempting to do the Heimlich maneuver to save their child’s life.
While they waited for the ambulance, Rutherford said it was “the longest moment of my life.” She recalled the moment her husband called her name at 9:30 the morning of January 9 — saying she knew something was wrong.
“I immediately ran downstairs and I saw my husband and in-laws around him trying the Heimlich [maneuver],” she told The Daily Mail. “We thought my kid was choking — he wasn’t breathing. He was trying but he couldn’t. I was crying and screaming.”
Her mother-in-law called 911 as her husband searched her son’s mouth for whatever could be blocking his airway. Before long, Axel lost consciousness and turned blue.
“It felt like forever,” the mom recalled, “but eventually one of my neighbours across the street heard me screaming and crying. He started chest compressions. It was a three-way of trying to keep oxygen in him.”
“Eventually the [paramedics] showed up and tried CPR, then they started the paddles,” she shared.
After multiple attempts to revive the boy, they rushed him to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. Doctors couldn’t find anything in Axel’s throat but a scan revealed he had a pushpin “between his ribs” — and the pin had punctured his left lung.
The thumbtack “had blocked the way for his right lung to breathe too,” the mom added. “He couldn’t get oxygen no matter what,” she continued. “They found the pushpin between his ribs on his left side.”
It took doctors two hours to remove the pin from the boy, going in through a tracheotomy.
“When you’re not breathing, your throat closes up,” Rutherford explained. “They had to do a tracheotomy and cut a hole in his throat to get it out. They eventually got it out and it was just a regular size thumbtack,” she said.
But Axel was not out of the woods. He’d gone a long time without oxygen and went into cardiac arrest five times.
“He wasn’t going to come back from that,” his mom said. “They told us not to hope, but we did anyway.”
Axel battled for survival for three days while on life support. Doctors also did a brain test on Axel, which consisted of two tests that needed to be done 12 hours apart.
“We were praying really hard,” Rutherford recalled. “I was like ‘Please don’t take my baby. Don’t take him from me.’”
An Electroencephalography test, or EEG, showed that Axel had no brain waves.
“At the first brain death test, me and his daddy and the doctor were there. It took half an hour and she told us it showed signs of brain death,” she recalled. “We wanted to do the second one. Our entire family showed up for that test. It was midnight the next day that they did the second test,” she added.
Their doctor saw a “minuscule sign of brain life.”
This meant they couldn’t officially declare him brain dead.
“His pupil twitched a bit and when they took him off life support, he tried to take a breath,” she said. “He tried.”
The only thing left for the family to do was wait. Rutherford and her husband would visit him in the hospital. They read him books, sang him songs, and told him that “we loved him.”
“On the 16th, me and my husband and Soren were out going on errands when we got a call from the doctor about around 1 p.m. saying he did a brain death test without us knowing,” she recalled.
The doctor instructed them to come to the hospital quickly.
“The doctor told us he was really aggressive with Axel to see if he could get any brain activity. He didn’t,” she said.
On 1:35 p.m. January 17, Axel was officially declared brain dead. He was cremated and his family held a service for him on February 6. And telling their 6-year-old Soren was beyond difficult.
“That day we came home, me and his daddy sat him down and told him Axel died,” the mom recalled. “You use real words. You don’t tell him he passed away or he’s gone. You tell him that he died. You use real words — even though they hurt.
“We told him that he died, and we had to explain that he’s with Jesus and no longer sick, but he wouldn’t be coming home anymore,” she continued.
“He cried for five minutes then said, ‘I want to go watch TV.’ He’s special needs and didn’t really understand,” she added.
Axel had never put anything in his mouth before and his mom never imagined this happening.
“We were done with the baby thing. Of course, we were still cautious, but I was thinking where did he even get the tack? We didn’t have any pins like that in the house,” she explained.
The only thing that came to mind were the thumbtacks she used for her homeschool posters, but she swears she will only use sticky tack from now on.
“It’s just not worth it — it’s not,” she said. She still thinks of what would have happened if he would have swallowed it and it went into his stomach instead of aspirating it.
“If Axel had swallowed it, he’d have been okay,” she said. “It might have punctured his intestine or his stomach and he’d have told me his tummy hurts, then we’d have taken him to the hospital.”
On a GoFundMe page that the family started to help raise money for Axel’s funeral fees, the mom shares her son was a happy boy “filled with so much light and laughter.”
“He LOVED and I mean LOVED dressing up. From superhero[s]\ to Woody or Buzz to daddy’s shirt to mommy boots to drawing on his face to be Catboy from PJ Mask. And the hats our baby LOVED hats, any kind he could turn anything into a hat.
“A tack. A thumbtack did so much damage to his little body,” she added.
She wrote that she prays that anyone with a child in the house will remove thumbtacks because “there are other ways to hold things up that won’t hurt or kill a child.”
“I know that our hearts will always have a chunk missing because he took it with him,” she wrote.
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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