Something attacked my son while he was sledding in the woods. But what?
My child went sledding alone and emerged from the trees bloody and dazed. He still can’t remember what happened.
THROUGH THE LIVING ROOM window, I see my son standing in the street in front of our house. He’s wearing a black ski parka and snow pants. A woman I don’t recognize has pulled her car over and is standing a few feet away, holding his hat. I open the front door.
“Beckett?” I call.
“I think something’s wrong,” the woman stammers.
“Beckett!” I yell.
As if in slow motion, my 12-year-old son turns his head and looks up at me.
“Jesus,” I cry.
Half of Beckett’s face is bloody and swollen. I race down the steps and crouch in front of him, my nose touching his. He stares at me blankly.
“What happened?” I ask.
“A bird,” he says softly. “It took Mommy and Julia away.”
Beckett had been sledding alone in the Middlesex Fells Reservation near our home in Medford. Had he hit a tree? The wound is terrifying. His cheek is ruptured, grotesquely inflamed, and there’s a lot of blood.
His mother and sister are fine, I tell him. What happened?
“I don’t know,” he murmurs, his lips so swollen he has trouble forming the words.
As we drive to the hospital, I watch Beckett in the rearview mirror. He’s clearly in shock. He doesn’t speak as he gazes at the falling snow.
It’s flu season, and the emergency room at Winchester Hospital is overrun. But the ashen, wheezing mob in the waiting area is in better shape than my son, who is thankfully oblivious to people’s alarmed reactions to his damaged face.
Still in his parka and snow pants, Beckett is wrapped in a soft blanket and placed on a gurney. I tell the nurse what he said about a bird, but she’s dubious. Probably a sledding accident, she says. Gently, she swabs the bloody gash, revealing three deep scratches across his cheek.
After about an hour, he’s rolled away for a CAT scan. He’s then parked along the wall in a busy hallway, where a nurse checks on him periodically. My wife meets us at the hospital. I give Beckett a kiss and run to the car. I need to go into the woods.
I park in front of the house and hurry into the Fells, a 2,600-acre state park that is essentially in our backyard.
I climb up the nearby sledding path. Nothing. I follow some boot prints along a ridge and, looking down, see two red drops. Frantically, I brush away the fresh powder and find a large patch of blood. Beckett’s green plastic sled is under a bush nearby.
It happened here. He was walking from one hill to another when he hit the ground. Judging from the size of the crimson stain, he must have been face down in the snow for at least a few minutes. I look up at the trees. The silence is unnerving. I take pictures with my phone and hurry back to the car.
At the hospital, I tell the doctor what I found. She’s skeptical that my son has been attacked by a bird. I’m skeptical that he hasn’t been. He’s not reckless, I say. He would have bailed out before hitting a tree.
The CAT scan is negative for a fracture, she says, but Beckett is probably concussed. We’re advised to go home and let him sleep, and then see our pediatrician in the morning. My wife and I don’t know what to do, but without more information we figure Beckett will be more comfortable at home.
The night is terrible. Michelle and I haven’t felt so helpless since we returned from the hospital with a newborn. Beckett can’t eat or relax, and he sleeps fitfully in our bed, glassy-eyed, surrounded by pillows. He throws up four times — a common symptom of concussions — and the swelling doesn’t subside. In the morning, he has a fever. We’re at the doctor’s office when the door opens at 8 a.m.
The pediatrician is shocked that Beckett was sent home from the hospital. He summons another doctor to take a look at the wound, and together they agree we should drive directly to Boston Children’s Hospital. A room will be waiting, they say.
Beckett is admitted immediately, and a nurse hooks up an IV with pain medicine and an antibiotic for the infection. Very quickly, a light comes back into Beckett’s eyes and we’re able to breathe.
He’s moved into a private room and, over the next several hours, examined by a phalanx of specialists, including a plastic surgeon who painfully scrubs the wound, revealing a small puncture below Beckett’s lower lip. Two infectious disease doctors study the lacerations on his face. They also scrutinize the photos I took and talk about the types of wildlife that inhabit the Fells.
AFTER CONSULTING, THE DOCTORS AGREE that the scratches and the puncture wound — combined with the force of the blow, the rapid infection, and the intensity of the swelling — suggest an attack by a bird. But another animal — a fox, for example — can’t be ruled out. So Beckett needs several shots to prevent rabies. And he needs them right away because rabies, if left undiagnosed for more than 48 hours, is fatal.
At midnight, about 14 hours after being admitted, Beckett is given a heavy dose of morphine. Then, clutching his mother’s hand, he does his best to lie still while a nurse wielding an absurdly long needle injects the rabies vaccine into his face. He’s given a total of 10 shots in and around the wound. When it’s over, the lights in the room are turned off and, traumatized, we all pass out from exhaustion.
The next morning, Michelle asks the nurse when Beckett might be able to go home. The nurse smiles.
“You can get comfortable,” she says.
Beckett remains at the hospital for five days, and his mother never leaves the room, taking up residence on a tiny cot in the corner. His condition improves little by little, but due to the concussion, he can’t tolerate much. If he tries to focus on Harry Potter — the book or the movie — he gets nauseated and his head begins to ache.
The infectious disease doctors take a particular interest in Beckett because one of them is presenting at a department roundtable and wants to highlight the ambiguities of our son’s case: The patient is being treated on the basis of what we suspect, but we’ll never know for sure what happened in the woods. For his part, Beckett’s content to remain in the hospital because he enjoys the room-service mashed potatoes.
The doctors’ conclusion, shared with us the next day, is that Beckett was attacked by a large bird of prey, probably a great horned owl. He likely encroached, unknowingly, on the bird’s nest and was blindsided with such force that he was knocked unconscious. The image of our son alone, face down in the snow, is haunting. We wonder what might have happened if he hadn’t managed to stagger to his feet and find his way home.
DO A LITTLE GOOGLING and you’ll discover that violent attacks of this sort aren’t common, but they do happen, usually in places where raptors and humans are forced to coexist, such as ski areas, golf courses, and suburban parks. Some victims compare the blitzkrieg to being hit in the head with a baseball bat.
The Fells includes hiking trails, meadows, and reservoirs, and over the years, we’ve encountered a lot of wildlife, including deer, foxes, coyotes, turkeys, hawks, and, once or twice, an owl with tufted ears and a storybook scowl, perched in a tree.
Andrew Vitz, the state ornithologist, tells me the Fells is home to raptors, including several types of hawks. But because hawks nest in the late spring and summer, they typically don’t behave aggressively in winter. If they do strike, Vitz says, hawks don’t inflict the sort of damage that was done to Beckett.
But great horned owls, which also reside in the Fells, are another matter. They nest in the winter and they’re bigger, more powerful birds, weighing about 4 pounds and capable of flying 40 miles per hour. Great horned owls are notorious for their stealth and strength. They strike without warning — their feathers are adapted to minimize noise during flight — and their long, needle-sharp talons can apply sufficient pressure to snap the spine of their prey.
“The great horned owl is a large, very strong bird, and when it strikes, it’s almost always at the head,” Vitz tells me. “What happened to your son is consistent with an owl attack.”
But don’t panic. What happened to Beckett isn’t common. Not even close. The state doesn’t keep a tally of bird strikes, but Vitz says his office receives between two and five reports of attacks annually. A few victims might require stitches, but extended hospitalizations are rare, Vitz says.
It was an upsetting experience for all of us, and the effects, most of them psychological, linger. Even though he has no memory of the attack or its immediate aftermath, Beckett is still reluctant to take his dog for a stroll in the Fells without a chaperone. And my heart jumped this winter when I read about a man in Maine who was struck in the head by what one newspaper described as an “aggressive dive-bombing” bird. Cross-country skiers were warned to watch out for the angry raptor.
Today, 14 months later, Beckett’s face is healed. After an intense soccer game or a dip in the ocean, his cheek will blush slightly, a reminder of that day. So is the deep, insistent hooting we sometimes hear at night, or the surprise appearance overhead of a hawk as we walk together in the Fells.
Beckett will usually marvel at the wingspan and then look up at me, smiling nervously.