Daylin Toms survives brain injury to become championship wrestler

Brad Davis/The Register-HeraldShady Spring wrestler Daylin Toms, center, stands with parents Tina and Wayne Crook at their Cool Ridge home Sunday afternoon. Toms contracted encephalitis three years ago and suffered two brain ruptures. He battled through it, and recently won a national award after winning the Virginia Commonwealth Games in June.

Daylin Toms has loved sports since he was a toddler. Through the years, the sport that emerged as his favorite was wrestling.

He picked up the sport at age 4, and as the years went on he was giving the best wreslers West Virginia had to offer at his age group a run for their money.

But on Aug. 11, 2014, wrestling was taken away from Toms, and he was unsure he would ever get it back. At the age of 13, Toms contracted HSV Type 1 encephalitis, which is usually associated with cold sores. In Toms’ case, the virus made its way through his nasal cavity, causing a mass infection in his brain.

He was supposed to be getting ready for the first day of football practice. Instead, he and his family found themselves preparing for a nearly monthlong hospital stay — and that was just the beginning.

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Everything had indicated to Tina Crook that her son was suffering from the flu — except that it was August.

“He was actually misdiagnosed three different times before he was finally admitted,” she said. “He had flu-like symptoms — high fever, sore throat, his neck hurt, extreme fatigue. The fever kept getting higher. It was summer, so I thought, ‘It shouldn’t be flu.’

“We took him to the doctor's office and they said it was a virus and sent him home. A couple of days later we took him to the emergency room — same thing; it’s just a virus. He started vomiting then, too. They gave him some medicine to help with the nausea and sent him home.”

Two days later, concern reached a new level when Toms started slurring his speech. Tina and Toms’ stepdad, Wayne, took him to a walk-in clinic. This time, action was taken. Toms was sent to UHC Hospital in Clarksburg — they were living in Lewis County at the time — and what they found was startling.

“When we got there they did a CAT scan of his head and saw the massive swelling and transported him by ambulance to Ruby Memorial (in Morgantown),” Tina said.

Toms was admitted so doctors could monitor his condition. He had been experiencing seizures from the outset, but on the seventh day of his admittance he started to suffer massive headaches.

His brain had ruptured.

Three days later, a second rupture was discovered.

“When the brain ruptured he was having headaches and was just screaming out when he was awake,” Tina said. “They started treating the bleeds with steroids and sodium chloride and kept doing more scans to see if there was more bleeds.”

It got to the point that Toms was in the lab as much as he was in bed. In a 24-hour period, he was taken for CT scans every 1 1/2 to 2 hours to stay aware of any new swelling or ruptures.

The neurosurgery team had even been placed on standby. There was talk of removing part of Toms’ skull and placing a shunt, which is a device implanted to relieve pressure caused by fluid buildup.

Thankfully, the swelling never got worse but it would still be a while before he was out of harm’s way.

“It was so bad that the left side of his brain on the images was shoved over into the right side,” Tina said.

After 26 days in ICU, Toms was released from Ruby Memorial. He still had to do inpatient rehab at HealthSouth, but after a while he was allowed to go home, where he did outpatient work three days a week for a solid year.

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Part of Toms’ recovery was his academic work, but it was far from the normal routine of a typical eighth-grader. From the very beginning of his hospital stay, Toms basically had to learn everything all over again.

“He didn’t know who people were that he should have known,” Tina said. “He knew I was his mom, but he didn’t know my name. He knew, ‘That’s my brother. That’s my sister.’ But he couldn’t remember what their names were. He lost his ability to read, write, tell time, know colors. It took a lot of memory, too, from him.

“He was homebound for a year after it happened. We had a teacher that came to the house and worked with him. Of course, we basically had to go back to preschool stuff and start over.”

Slowly but surely, it all came back to him. But there were still problems. Because the ruptures occurred in the frontal lobes, Toms’ behavior and emotional state were severely affected.

“He might be fine sitting here right now and then all of a sudden snap over any little thing,” Wayne said. “Zero filters on his speech.”

“It would go from one thing being happy, to mad, to sad. It would just bounce around,” Toms said. “I could be the happiest person, then I would be mad in a heartbeat.

“Yeah, (it scared me) a little bit. Actually, it did a lot.”

He wasn’t the only one.

“He was suicidal,” Tina said. “Probably the first six months he was out of the hospital he said a thing to somebody that really hit me hard. He had told them that it felt like a part of him died and the other part was just left here floating around. He felt like he couldn’t be whole again until the two parts met up, and that he didn’t want to be here anymore. At that time I don’t think he felt like he would get better.”

“I remember bits and parts of it,” Toms said. “A lot of it I don’t remember.”

The medication didn’t help. He was on six to eight different meds at any given time.

“It would seem like every time he had an appointment, he was on four or five medications,” Wayne said. “We would tell the doctors, ‘Well, this is how he is responding’ and he was like, well, let’s try these one, two, three more drugs (in addition to the others).”

Thankfully, Toms’ mood swings improved and he is down to two medications — one to stabilize his mood and the other to help him sleep at night.

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Before long, Toms was finally ready to get back to what he loves — wrestling. But that idea was met with a lot of skepticism.

“We were told he could not (play) sports again, “ Tina said. “We were told that he would not regain everything that he lost. And they were wrong.

“They were wrong."

The family moved to Raleigh County before Toms was to get back into school and start his freshman year at Shady Spring. They began seeing a new pediatric neurologist, Dr. Surya Gupta in Charleston, and his prognosis was much more encouraging than the family had grown accustomed.

“One of the first things he said was, ‘Get him back to doing what he used to do,’” Tina said. “Stuff’s going to come back to him better.”

“It would stimulate his brain and make it function better,” Wayne said.

There was apprehension on the part of Tina, who admits part of her wanted Toms to “stay in a bubble.” But Dr. Gupta’s words put it in perspective.

“When you think of a traumatic brain injury, you think, ‘Don’t let them hit their head,’” Tina said. “The way Dr. Gupta explained it to me, he said, ‘The brain is like any other part of your body when it gets injured — it heals. With Daylin, what blew out in his brain is now missing pieces. What’s not there can’t heal. But you can’t hurt it, either. His brain is as strong and as healthy as mine and yours. When it’s gone, it’s gone. You don’t get that back.’

“When he explained it to me that way, I was kind of like, ‘OK.’ There are a lot of traumatic brain cases where you end up with a gap between the brain and the skull. In those cases, one blow to the head can be fatal. His wasn’t like that.”

So she and Wayne stepped out of his way. But now Toms was having to enter a new school with a bunch of people he didn’t know and who did not know his story.

“It was hard. Pretty much through ninth grade I was a quiet person,” Toms said. “I made a couple friends, but not as many as now. I was just quiet.”

Wrestling, as one might expect, helped him with his transition. His initial return to athletic competition came on Dec. 5, 2015, at the inaugural Raider Rumble at Liberty High School.

He doesn’t remember the opponent, but in his first wrestling match in nearly two years, Toms had his hand raised in victory.

“It was pretty amazing,” he said. “It made me pretty happy.”

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As much as he loves wrestling, the transition wasn’t smooth at first. Just as he had with reading and writing and determining the difference between yellow and green or square and rectangle, he also had to learn to wrestle again.

Plus, the injury left him with speech difficulties that he was still trying to work through.

“His speech — if you took a five-gallon bucket, took a Webster’s Dictionary and cut out every word individually,” Wayne illustrated, “put them in that bucket and stirred them up, he knows the words but they may come out in the wrong order when he tries to say a sentence.”

“I wanted to (wrestle again), but, yeah, I was scared just to do it,” Toms said. “I had the speech problem. I was just so nervous about it all.”

Anthony Shrewsberry — Shady’s current head coach who was assistant to Dereck Scarbro that season — picked up on Toms’ apprehensions.

“When I first met him, he wasn’t sure he was going to come out that year,” Shrewsberry said. “I kept saying, ‘Come on out and at least try.’  I was running practice while (Tina and Wayne) went outside to let Dereck know. I stayed on Daylin all day, pushing him and pushing him and pushing him. And I could tell he wasn’t getting it real good, but I didn’t know the story yet.

"After practice when I was told, I could see what was wrong. I could see that he knew the moves. He just couldn’t remember everything and was real jerky.”

“I still remembered some of (the moves), but not much,” Toms said. “It was a big change, especially coming from middle school into high school. It was pretty hard.”

Also working against Toms was the weight he had gained because of the medication. He was wrestling at 220 pounds, much heavier than what he was accustomed, and he was unable to qualify for that state tournament.

That changed his sophomore year, when he was able to drop weight and get back down to 170. He actually wrestled at 182 and finished third in the Class AA Region 3 tournament, earning a berth in the state tournament in Huntington.

“It seemed like the more they worked with him in wrestling practice, and we kept stepping down and getting him off the medication, the weight just started coming off,” Wayne said. “It (wrestling) seemed like it got his confidence back, too. The better he did on the mat, the more confident he got in talking to people and he started coming back.”

And it just got better from there.

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In June, Toms competed in the Virginia Commonwealth Games at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He pinned all three of his opponents and came away with a gold medal.

But there was more.

“After I found out that he had won (the Virginia Commonwealth Games), I was looking on the web page and it said that you could nominate somebody for the Commonwealth Athlete of the Year,” Shrewsberry said. “Because I knew the story, and I knew it was a good story. When I entered him I didn’t think he had a chance because he is a West Virginia athlete and it was in Virginia. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try.' It was worth a shot.”

Indeed it was. Last month, Shrewsberry was contacted by Charity Waldron, the director of operations and media relations at Virginia Amateur Sports who is originally from McDowell County. The West Virginia native was excited to inform Shrewsberry that Toms had won the Youth Male Athlete of the Year Award.

Shrewsberry told Tina, who informed her son. It was almost like a journey had ended.

“He couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He was like, ‘Really? Really?’”

Mother and son will fly to Orlando on Oct. 31 to accept the award.

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Wrestling practice will begin Nov. 13, and Toms will be there. He had trouble putting into words how the journey has affected him, but those around him gave it a shot.

“I think he figured out he’s got some drive” Shrewsberry said.

“I think that more than anything," Tina agreed. “He’s realized that if he wants something, he’s got to work for it and to not give up.”

“That’s what I tell him. With my training and everything I learned in the military, you don’t quit,” Wayne said. “And when you do something, you do it 110 percent or don’t do it. Not everybody has the ability to do everything. You come across somebody who can’t. You push and push and push. You overcome. You adapt.

“Me and Anthony watched him a couple times on the mat last year and we thought, ‘Oh, here comes an arm out.’ No. He doesn’t care. The risk is there and we know it. That’s what he wants to do and we support him. We let him do it because one day he won’t be able to. You get like we are, get too old. At least he can look back and say, ‘I did this.’” 

“To make it this far, it feels great,” Toms said. “It was a pretty good feeling.”

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