When a family vacation abroad turns to tragedy: Finding life-saving care and support far away from home

A family bring their little girl home to Beijing more than a year following a horrible car accident that changed their lives forever.

Through their journey they found a circle of support at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

Tianyi Liu and her mother, Baoxia Li

Tianyi Liu, age 5, and her mother, Baoxia Li, pictured above, are making the long trip back to Beijing, China this week.  Over a year since they journeyed here as a family of four, with Tianyi’s father and older brother, for what was meant to be a family vacation to Disneyland.  They arrived to the Bay Area, intending to spend a few days here before going south, after just a short time, the unthinkable happened.  Mom and daughter were driving with another family when their car was struck by a drunk driver on the 101. Tianyi’s father and brother were not in the car at the time of the accident.

Tianyi Liu before accident

(Images taken at the Stanford University campus, before the accident in August 2015)

Tianyi was brought to Stanford’s emergency room where pediatric specialists with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital’s trauma team moved quickly to save her life. But the initial outlook was not good.

“At first, doctors did not expect her to survive more than 48 hours,” said Li through an interpreter. “But I told them, I had a very strong feeling she would survive.  And 48 hours passed, then 72, then 7 days and so on.”

Tianyi suffered a traumatic brain injury from the accident, rendering her quadriplegic, which means she will be dependent for the rest of her life. She underwent two brain surgeries, one following the accident in August 2015. Then after time in the ICU she was moved out of the hospital and into inpatient rehab at Santa Clara Medical Center in October 2015. In December 2015 her doctors recommended the second brain surgery, a shunt procedure in hopes to improve her rehabilitation progress.  Her mother is simply grateful that her daughter is alive.

Tianyi in the ICU

(Tianyi in the ICU, fall 2015)

“I remember all the faces of the nurses that cared for her in the ICU,” said Li.  “I am so thankful, they didn’t want us to worry, they told us they would take care of her and we should take care of ourselves so we can be there for our daughter.”

With the family being in the country as visitors and non-English speaking, the hospital’s social workers, case managers and patient experience team mobilized to work with medical interpreters to explain the health care landscape and help navigate and advocate for Tianyi. The Ronald McDonald House at Stanford has hosted the family for the past year; the family are grateful for the support in making their long stay as comfortable as possible.

“This horrible accident happened to this family here in our county,” said Packard Children’s case manager Halley Johnson, RN. “I think it’s our obligation to help them as much as we can.”  Baoxia and Halley share a tight bond, despite the language barrier and having communicated through an interpreter for almost a year.

Johnson was instrumental in advocating with the state to win the family insurance coverage through Medical and California Children’s Services, which was a journey in itself.

The hospital and the insurance helped cover the surgeries and intensive critical care, as well as the intensive outpatient rehabilitation services that Tianyi has needed for the best recovery. She was in outpatient rehab since January.

“Tianyi and her mom are the heroes here,” said Debra Seal, PT, DPT, PCS, director of Rehabilitation Services for Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. “On behalf of their team of the physical, occupational and speech pathologists who have worked with Tianyi, it has been an honor to be a part of her care.”

Tianyi’s rehab therapy has helped her to gain some control back in moving her head, which she most often uses to turn towards her mother’s voice.

“From the time they entered our hospital, this family faced incredibly difficult and complicated medical circumstances for their daughter,” said Tianyi’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Samuel Cheshier. “These are difficult conditions on their own, and added to it they don’t speak the language and are far from home. What stands out to me is how they’ve handled everything with remarkable strength.”

Early in 2016 the care team including Johnson and social worker Karen Jensen, MSW set out to make good on the promise her parents made to Tianyi to visit Disneyland.  Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, it was granted in April of 2016. “It was set up perfectly,” said Li.  “We had concerns about Tianyi’s condition at the time, but I felt it was important to fulfill our promise.  So someday she’ll know that we did what we said we would and brought her to Disneyland.”

Family at Disneyland

(The family visits Disneyland in April 2016)

Now, going home is bittersweet for the family and care team alike.

“I don’t know how to say goodbye to this hospital and the people here who are like family now,” said Li. “The medical team, the therapists, our social worker, case manager and interpreters, so many have helped us and we are very grateful.”

“We are happy she is strong enough to return home,” said Johnson. “I’ve been inspired by this family so much, I will miss them and hope we will have the opportunity to meet again someday.”

The team at Packard Children’s have worked to coordinate with Chinese health care providers to help the family transition to life back home and provide Tianyi with the care she’ll need.


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