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Nick Balenger spent his birthday this past July in Hawaii... in an ICU — the same hospital in which he was born 17 years ago.
A lifetime ago, Nick was an athlete. Nine thousand miles ago, he was a baseball player, a little league coach. An eternity ago, a few cervical spinal nerve cells ago, the blink of an eye ago, it was July 25.
"I was at Big Beach in Hawaii, and running into the ocean," he recalls. "I dove into a wave, and the water depth was a lot shorter than I thought it was. I dove in and hit my head on the bottom. I was just floating there immediately paralyzed. My dad, luckily, was 10 feet away and pulled me out of the water. All the lifeguards came, took me away in a stretcher, and then off to the ambulance into a hospital."
He was awake the whole time.
"I remember everything," he says. "Cracking my neck on the bottom, floating in the water waiting for someone to get me... yeah I remember every second."
Nick's frantic father repeated to himself and to his boy "it's just a shock to the system, just a shock to the system." Nick thought he would be playing golf in a few days.
It was so much more than a shock.
"Nick has a cervical spinal cord injury," says Dr. Justin Burton, his physician at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital. "There is some bruising, you can also see some shearing and some tearing of the actual spinal cord itself. And in addition, when things are healing, you can get some scar tissue as well. Technically his spinal cord was intact, but the fibers were actually injured."
The swelling will take months to go down, and only then will anyone know just what Nick's actual injury is.
Several of the moms from the little league team that Nick coached have helped set up fundraisers for him. They had a golf tournament for him. His best friend, "who doesn't have the best reputation as a driver" took him for a joyride in a golf cart (strapped safely "with my sweater tied around my waist," Nick insists) to visit all the people who were playing.
Nick's dad, Steve Balenger, says he's amazed. "The whole community and Nick's circle of friends, from little league to baseball to teachers. When we were out there in Maui, one of his teachers called out to a local pizza parlor and had dinner catered to us in the ICU. You never think something like this is gonna happen to you, but it has and the support from everybody is pretty amazing." His mom works at the Four Seasons, and the company is having a dinner with five celebrity chefs in January to raise money for her son. Nick's father says it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to care for him. Remodeling the house to make it more accessible, special accommodations for college, specialized equipment, physical therapy... they add up.
But what is remarkable about Nick is that he's getting better. He can move his arms, even cutting his own chicken at lunch. It's not graceful, but he can do it.
Dr. Burton says it surprised even him, "the amount of recovery he's had is more than most. And that's how Nick is atypical."
Adjusting to a new life
Among people with spinal cord injuries, the most recovery is seen within the first six months, the first three months being the most important.
"From six to twelve months you don't see as much motor recovery," says Dr. Burton. "But I generally say you give it at least a year."
Nick is learning to walk now. He's out of his wheel chair, on a large padded table, legs in the air, as a physical therapist pushed her full body weight into his feet to stretch them out.
"Man that hurts!" he says.
Katie Seward, his therapist, is twisting and stretching his limbs, as she always does before a session. "To maintain his range of motion," she says. "So if he can't move his joints through him activating muscles, it's our job to kind of stretch them so that when he does get that strength back, he's not dealing with contractures or other things that would limit his mobility."
Nick is wearing a gray t-shirt. In black stencil print, it reads: pain is weakness leaving the body. "My aunt's friend gave it to me," he explains.
Movement is exhausting. Standing is exhausting. But with a few deep breaths, he launches himself from the padded table up to stand with the help of a walker.
An electrical contraption called a Bioness helps him with limited movements. It's a collection of sensors and electrodes that send pulses into his muscles.
"It's practice to get me walking normal again," he says. "When I step with my left foot, the electrical thing stimulates the nerve to kick my foot up."
Nick struggles to put one foot in front of the other. His left leg is weaker than his right, and it drags. His whole body shakes. He manages to move forward, sometimes with a gentle nudge from a therapist's foot. He makes it back to the table, and his leg is quivering in a spasm.
Nick says he feels awful. "I need some water, I feel nauseous," he says.
Steve Balenger lifts a cup of water to his son's mouth.
"You know how far that was? 60 feet. I counted the tiles," his father proudly reassures.
"A new record," Nick says casually.
One step at a time, Nick is surpassing the expectations of his doctors, his therapists, and his family. Steve Balenger is proud of his son.
"Nick's strength — day after day — he just grinds," says his father. "Every second of every day has changed for Nick. Every second of every day Nick works hard and doesn't look back and doesn't look forward, he just grinds. And I'm real proud of him. Real proud of the way he's taken this journey on. And just grinds"
Nick's hopes to be able to walk across the stage at his high school graduation in June.
[Music: Injured Teen: "First Day of My Life" by Bright Eyes from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning]
Photos: Nick Balenger