LIMA — For Nadine Jakim-Young, who was home just a few weeks ago to hug former Lima Central Catholic classmates and recall her youthful times growing up with six sisters, Saturday, August 19, was an emotional day.
Having left her family’s home in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., Nadine was driving behind her son Sam in a car filled with all the essentials for another collegiate year.
Sam, an economics major, was about to begin his junior year at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Now, ordinarily, a parent’s more serious tears are reserved for that first year of college when empty-nest emotions present themselves. But for Nadine, her husband, Warner, Sam’s older brother Nathan, and Sam’s twin sister, Leah, Sam’s return to the rigors of higher education came after 13 months filled with more than 13 lifetimes’ full of heartbreak, fears and challenges.
When I found out early last fall from Nadine’s sister Sue Morrissey and her husband Dick about the Youngs’ frightening story, one that began on a warm July day in Arlington, I wrote a column, “Prayers for Those We’ve Never Met,” to ask for spiritual help.
On that July day in 2016, not long at all after his sophomore year at UVA, Sam was at a local park walking with a girl.
In an impulsive act that had tragic consequences because, as so many of the impetuously youthful, he really didn’t look before he leapt, Sam jumped over a hedge, assuming the ground would rise up quickly to meet him. Instead, on the other side of that hedge, there was a 30-foot ravine.
Following a terrifying 911 call by the girl, Sam was transported to George Washington Medical Center as a frantic family also rushed to the hospital, and immediate surgery was performed, a spinal fusion, to stabilize the spine by inserting metal rods. Based on the visual inspection of the spine during the fusion and the gray appearance doctors saw, the initial diagnosis was unthinkable — a severed spinal cord in the L-2 lumbar region. The apparent new reality for the 20-year-old lean and agile former high-school lacrosse player was paraplegia.
After 11 days in the D.C. hospital, a godsend arrived in a pair of visitors who showed up to buoy the Youngs’ spirits.
“Sam’s friend Trevor, and his dad, Terry, who’d suffered a spinal-cord injury 10 years earlier and was in a wheelchair, came to George Washington and were so supportive. Not only did Terry show Sam that if a wheelchair was to be his new reality, there was a life for him after an SCI (spinal-cord injury), but he also was so knowledgeable about treatment and rehab.”
While Terry said he’d done his rehab at Craig Hospital in Denver, a nationally known treatment center for those who’d suffered SCIs, he also told the Youngs about another in Atlanta, the Shepherd Center. The facility was the completion of a dream of Harold and Alana Shepherd, whose son James in 1973 suffered an SCI while body surfing in Brazil after his graduation from the University of Georgia.
Initially paralyzed from the neck down, James, after spending five weeks in a Brazilian hospital, was flown to Craig Hospital, where he eventually regained his ability to walk with the aid of a leg brace and cane.
Frustrated by the lack of rehab options in the Southeast for those facing the daunting challenges of SCIs, the Shepherds enlisted the aid of others and spearheaded fundraising, and, by 1975, saw the beginnings of the fruition of their dream with the opening of a six-bed facility. Over time, the Peachtree Road facility has grown to a 152-bed state-of-the-art hospital specializing in spinal cord and brain injuries.
Despite the fact that it was summer, a peak time for SCIs due to swimming accidents, Sam was admitted.
Recalls Nadine about the initial move to Atlanta, “While, of course, Warner had to make trips back and forth because of his job, I decided I had to be with Sam full time, so I took a leave of absence from my job as a dietitian at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.
“Over the seven weeks I was there, living in an apartment just minutes from Shepherd, I couldn’t have been more impressed with such a supportive and knowledgeable staff. I even routinely saw both Alana and James Shepherd there in the facility lending moral support. Shepherd simply overwhelmed our expectations.”
While in Atlanta there was progress, there was still so much uncertainty, recalls Nadine.
“MRIs were difficult to read because of all the hardware in Sam’s back, and there was still so much swelling, but we began to have hope.”
The last two weeks at Shepherd, Sam was an outpatient, and Mom and son began a ritual that Nadine will remember always.
“Sam would look at me after a rehab session and say, ‘Mom, I think it’s time for some ‘walk-and-roll’! That meant he wanted to get out for a while. I’d push the chair, and we’d head to a nearby Chick-fil-a, a favorite of Sam’s.”
Returning to Arlington, the Youngs endured more challenges, surmounting each as it came, and not all involved Sam’s treatment, such as the major lifestyle change of moving from their home of 23 years.
Recalls Nadine, “You see, our house wasn’t wheelchair-friendly, so we had to pack everything up, store some of it and move into a rental in our neighborhood that was more suitable while subletting our home to help with our medical co-pays.”
Sam did his rehab at nearby Kreiger Institute in Baltimore. Around Thanksgiving, he underwent a procedure called debridement, where dead tissue is removed from a wound to improve healing. Another surgery adjusted hardware and also removed a cross bar, which was causing pain and potentially impeding healing.
Despite the uncertainty, there was a growing hope that Sam would walk again. One day, that hope strengthened when there was the tiniest flicker of a muscle movement in the toe.
Recalls Nadine, “It was the first sign of movement not artificially induced. While doctors cautioned it may be involuntary, we were so encouraged.”
As time passed, Sam’s circumstances changed for the better dramatically. First, during his outpatient rehab, Sam was actually taking some halting steps in a harness. Over time the elated members of the Young family saw Sam progress from harness to using a walker, and, finally, by opening day of the baseball season in early April, nine months after the accident, to using a cane when the Washington Nationals hosted the Miami Marlins.
The Nats’ 4-2 victory, no doubt, made scores of fans in attendance happy, but there’s a good bet none were happier than the Youngs, and especially Nadine, and, of course, it wasn’t just because the self-professed Nats fanatic saw her team win.
“Our mood on opening day? ‘Happy’ isn’t really a strong enough word. ‘Euphoric’ probably works better!”
By this time, the family had moved back into the family home, and, with each passing day, Sam’s steps grew more confident. While he still uses a cane in crowds for stability, he couldn’t wait for that third Saturday in August to get back to UVA. Perhaps, no student ever yearned to return to school more.
And, that explains why Nadine Jakim-Young, that former Lima Central Catholic T-Bird, Class of 1977, wiped a tear or two away as she followed Sam on move-in day. It was the end of a 13-month period of time, the toughest times she and her family would ever know, yet, paradoxically, the most rewarding because, in those 13 months, there came the realization that it is only through our struggles that we will ever know our strengths.
And so it has been for a family and especially a mom who was with her son every step of the way even when there were no steps to be taken.
Says Nadine, “Obviously, I’m so proud of Sam, but we had so much help from so many doctors and nurses and rehab therapists. And, of course, let’s not forget those prayers from so many, some, I’m told, from those we’ve never met.”
John Grindrod is a regular columnist and feature writer for The Lima News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.