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Toddler's Brain Injury Probably Came From Fall, Doctors Testify

Court: Physicians say the Simi boy most likely slipped and struck his head on the floor. A child-care operator is accused of violently shaking the child.

May 21, 1999|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The brain injury suffered by an 11-month-old Simi Valley boy two years ago probably occurred when the child slipped and hit his head on a hardwood floor--not at the hands of his day-care provider, two doctors testified Thursday.

The physicians were called by attorneys representing Margaret Major, a 49-year-old Simi Valley child-care operator accused of shaking the boy so violently that he nearly died.

Major could face 11 years in prison if convicted of felony child abuse and inflicting great bodily injury to Jack Read on Sept. 24, 1997.

Jack is now 2 1/2. Medical experts who testified earlier in the trial told the jury that Jack is permanently brain damaged as a result of injuries he suffered that day.

Those experts, including the boy's neurologist, concluded Jack had been shaken.

On Thursday, the defense opened its case by calling its own medical experts, who disputed that conclusion.

Dr. Paul Shultz, a San Diego neurologist, told the jury that Jack's brain damage was consistent with an injury such as a fall.

"I don't believe he was shaken," Shultz testified. "I feel we are dealing with a child who had blunt injury."

He said the most severe trauma was evident on the left side of the boy's brain, suggesting a blow to the head.

On cross-examination, Deputy Dist. Atty. John Blair said the doctor did not personally examine Jack and was paid $2,520 for his medical conclusions, plus $2,000 for his testimony.

Shultz acknowledged his opinion was based on other doctors' notes.

But under further questioning by defense attorney Richard Hutton, the doctor told jurors he has treated hundreds of shaken babies and Jack's case did not appear to fit that diagnosis.

Later in the day the emergency room doctor at Simi Valley Hospital who had treated Jack testified. Dr. Charles Drehsen told the jury that Jack arrived by ambulance on Sept. 24 with "life-threatening" injuries.

Major has said the child was fine all morning, but went limp about 1:30 p.m. while his diaper was being changed.

The boy's breathing was erratic and his ability to communicate, even for an 11-month-old, was not normal, said Drehsen, who testified he had immediately ordered a CT scan.

When the boy's parents, David and Jennifer Read, arrived at the hospital, Drehsen asked for a medical history on the boy. Drehsen said the father told him Jack had fallen "very hard" the night before and had hit his head on the floor.

"That bothered me," the doctor testified, saying at that point he believed there was "a very good possibility" the toddler had suffered the head injury the night before.

Jennifer Read told the jury Wednesday that her child basically "did a banana peel," slipping and striking his head on the floor. But she said he did not appear seriously hurt. In fact, she testified, he played normally all evening and exhibited no signs of a severe head injury.

But Drehsen and Shultz both testified that symptoms of a head injury, such as vomiting or unconsciousness, may not show up for 10 to 72 hours.

Drehsen also said children under age 2 can suffer internal brain injuries that are hard to detect because the skull is still soft and undeveloped. He said if the Reads had brought their child into the hospital the night before, he would have recommended a CT scan.

Blair seized on that remark in cross-examination, asking the doctor if they would always recommend a CT scan for a toddler who had slipped and bumped his head. Drehsen said new medical literature suggests that would be a good idea.

Drehsen told jurors that because Simi Valley Hospital was not equipped to handle such severe pediatric cases, Jack was airlifted to Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles.

It was there that a pediatric neurosurgeon told authorities the injuries were like those "of a child who had fallen out of a second-story window and landed on a driveway below," according to a police report.

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