July 27, 2010 -- There's a kitten in Texas that owes one of its eight remaining lives to 9-year-old Clayton Williams.
After getting stuck in a tree last Tuesday, Clayton heard it crying and climbed the tree to rescue it.
But the kitten fell to the ground, and so did Clayton.
Clayton saw the kitten wasn't moving, and knew he needed to get it home.
The problem was that as a result of the fall, Clayton broke more than a dozen bones on the left side of his body.
"He said he army-crawled on his right arm and leg with the cat in his mouth," said Tiffany Williams, Clayton's mother. "The house is about 30 or 35 feet away."
Tiffany didn't know what happened until she heard Clayton whimpering outside.
"When I opened the door, he wanted to take the kitten to the vet," said Tiffany.
But she saw how badly he was hurt.
"Clayton looked at me and said, 'Mommy, I just broke my arm,'" Tiffany said. "I grabbed the phone book to stabilize it and wrapped it, and then I went to stand him up and take him to the car. Then he said, 'Mommy, I can't stand up,' so I knew he was in trouble.'"
The kitten was still unresponsive, but she had to tend to her injured son, so Tiffany said she put the animal in a safe place outside the house.
After convincing Clayton they needed to get him help first, she managed to get him to the car and drive to the local hospital, about 40 minutes away.
"He was really calm until we got to the bumps; the bumps made everything start hurting," Tiffany said. "When we got there, he was pale and his lips were white and he started screaming."
Clayton had to be moved about two hours away to Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, and doctors discovered about 16 broken or fractured bones on the left side of his body, including bones in his hand, wrist, shoulder blade, hip and elbow.
"The injury to his elbow was much more severe than what we normally see," said Dr. Milan Sen, the orthopedic surgeon at Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital who performed Clayton's surgery.
Despite his ordeal, Clayton refused pain medication after surgery, much to the surprise of his mother and his nurse.
"The nurse couldn't believe he didn't want to take his pain meds," said Tiffany.
Sen said Clayton was probably in some pain, mainly from the surgery itself. While he said he didn't know that Clayton refused his pain medication, Sen recalled that Clayton was quiet.
"He was pretty stoic, and wasn't communicating very much," he said.
Pain Response Varies Widely
Pain management experts say there could be a number of reasons why Clayton's reaction to pain seems so stoic. One of them relates to Clayton's desire to rescue an injured kitten.
"When people are severely stressed, they could go in one direction and be seemingly impervious to pain because the 'fight or flight' mechanism may induce them to ignore their pain at the time," said Dr. Michael Schmitz, director of pediatric pain management at Arkansas Children's Hospital. "The adrenaline surge may mask pain," he added. Schmitz is not involved in Clayton's treatment.
But another expert said the "fight or flight" response probably isn't the reason for Clayton's refusal of pain medication.
"Typically, this process occurs immediately after the traumatic incident [in this case], immediately following the fall from the tree, but not likely after the boy's crying from pain in the car on the way to the hospital," said Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, director of the Pediatric Pain Program at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA. She is also not involved with Clayton's treatment.
It could also be that Clayton's biochemical makeup is different than other people's in one key way.
"Typically, when we experience pain, our body has natural mechanisms that help fight pain internally. Endorphins are released and help reduce it," said Dr. Paul Christo, assistant professor director of the Multidisciplinary Pain Fellowship Program at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Maybe he has a greater ability to release chemicals like endorphins."
Christo also said that everyone has the same brain makeup that allows us to process pain, but some people have a higher tolerance for it.
There could also be another simple reason why Clayton didn't want to take his pain medication.
"Children are usually very scared in that kind of situation," said Schmitz. "The response to that can range anywhere from being stoic and communicating minimally to being very distressed and dependent on parental reassurance."
Sen, Clayton's surgeon, offered another explanation.
"With kids, they just want to get back to doing things. They want to get up and go as best they can," he said.
Experts agree that it's difficult to pinpoint a specific reason and it could be that Clayton's response stems from numerous factors working together. Regardless, some are intrigued.
"This boy's story is highly unusual," said Zeltzer.
Tiffany believes there's an entirely different reason Clayton didn't want the medication.
"My son is very tough," she said.
Although he protested, Tiffany said her son did receive pain medication after his surgery.
"I asked the nurse to give it to him so he could get some rest," she said.
Boy and Kitten Doing Fine
Clayton went home this weekend, and will spend the next six weeks in a wheelchair.
He still doesn't want to take pain medication.
"He's taken pain pills once. He asks for ice packs, but doesn't want any pain medication," said Tiffany.
She said he's in good spirits, but anxious to get out of his wheelchair.
"I know how hard-headed and stubborn he is, and I don't want him to do anything that can hurt him even more. He may try to walk to the bathroom by himself, which worries me."
Even though his mother and his doctor say he's doing fine so far, a full recovery is still a long way off.
"He still has at least three or four months or recovery left until he's using that elbow, and hopefully, he'll be able to use it fully again," said Sen.
Sen said he will also need physical therapy.
As for the kitten, it is alive and well.
"I bring Clayton over to the window so he can watch us feed her," Tiffany said. "He wanted to save that kitten more than anything else."