When his father said, “Tonight your life is about to change,” they were prophetic words for Dylan Francis, now 17. The Scottsdale teen had been grounded indefinitely that January 2012 afternoon for making some bad decisions while his dad and stepmom, former “Good Morning Arizona” host Tara Hitchcock Francis, were out of town.
Remorseful about his behavior, Dylan gained permission to participate in a church-related event later that evening. And indeed, during a game of Capture the Flag, his life did change.
Dylan suffered an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) rupture on one side of his brain. After four surgeries and months of rehabilitation, Dylan and Tara share the story—and what they’ve learned over the past year.
Your strategy that afternoon for Capture the Flag was to scramble up on the roof of Hopi Elementary school. Pretty risky place for an AVM event. What do you remember?
Dylan: I started getting a really bad headache and my left ear started ringing. Like beyond loud. Then, the left side of my face started going numb. Everything started spinning around me.
After he’d left the house, Dylan called you, Tara, to apologize again. Soon after, you learned he’d been taken to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn. It all happened so fast.
Tara: It sounded almost like he was dehydrated. We thought maybe he had stressed about being in a little trouble. I got over there and it looked like he had been drugged. It was clearly something more than dehydration. I kept thinking someone slipped this kid something. It was scary.
Then the family received some shattering news. How did you react?
Tara: If anybody is sick, I don’t really panic; I just go into business mode. I just wanted to find out what was wrong. They did a CT scan and came back and said he had a cancerous brain tumor; they were air evac-ing him to Barrow Neurological Center. The minute I heard Barrow, I thought, OK, good. Everything is going to be fine. It didn’t even cross my mind that it wouldn’t be fine.
You were in a medically induced coma for nearly a week before you became aware of what had happened.
Dylan: I woke up in inpatient rehab. I had ataxia (loss of control) in my left hand. I could barely walk. To hear that I had had four brain surgeries, that was a huge shock.
You began the tough work of rehab. What went through your mind about how your life had changed?
Dylan: For about five months, I would wake up some mornings and feel like it had happened the night before. That was the hardest thing to deal with. I’ve gotten more used to what has happened now. It was hard when I had to use a walker and a wheelchair the majority of the day. That really sucked, especially because my walker wasn’t the greatest one, and they make a lot of creaking noises.
Can you point to a moment, Tara, when the enormity of what happened hit you?
Tara: His love in life is music. And for so long, he couldn’t listen to noise. It was very painful. And I remember one day specifically. He was trying to listen to his iPod with his headset on the lowest of volumes and he couldn’t do it. He was really frustrated, and he thought, am I going to be able to listen to music? And that’s probably the one day I got choked up at the hospital, thinking, he’s got to be able to listen to his music.
Dylan, can you point to a moment when things started looking up?
Dylan: The second I got off the cane, I went to California, and it was one of the best weeks of my life. I made the most out of my situation, though. I went to events, even with the walker, so I made fun of myself with the walker. I put a hula skirt around the walker at one of these events and danced, so I’ve actually used it to my benefit to have a more fun life. I get invited to more things now! Sadly, that’s the truth. Now that I’ve had brain surgery, I’m more popular!
So you’ve returned to school, you’ve re-connected with friends. You continue with your rehab schedule. Which therapies have helped, and why?
Dylan: Occupational therapy for rebuilding the motor skills in my left hand, physical therapy. I learned how to walk again, without an assistive device. Speech therapy. We mainly just focus on being organized for school again, because that was our main goal, ever since I entered the hospital, so I (didn’t) have to repeat sophomore year.
Tara, you retired from your morning show hosting career shortly before the events surrounding Dylan’s health occurred. There have been lots of changes in your own life over the past year.
Tara: I’ve always been blessed by good timing. Period. Whether it has been professionally, personally. Here I am for 15 years, and then I decide to leave, not retired, by the way, but I definitely decided to leave the station, and go figure. I decided to leave after all those years and the first time he’s in the hospital, for 46 days, I have nothing but time now to spend the day down there. And there’s no way I would have been able to do that had I still been working. I look at this as every day as a blessing.
Has the AVM changed your perspective on life, in general?
Dylan: It has. I’ve told a lot of my friends to live their lives a lot more fully. For a vacation, we hiked the Italian Alps. I was telling my friends if you get the opportunity to do something like that, even if you hate hiking, like I did, do it. Because you never know. Your life could change like that. It did for me.
Multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for Raising Arizona Kids and through her own company, Small Change Productions. This interview first appeared in the March 2013 print magazine.