Just a few years ago, Hayden Schaumburg was struggling to breathe and walk after a football injury left him paralyzed from the neck down.
But today Hayden, who was given only a slim chance of walking again by doctors at the time of his accident, works hard on his family farm, has a girlfriend and will attend the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences in Urbana come fall.
This 17-year-old, who credits hospital staff, family, friends and his own determination with his recovery, feels so good, that on Sunday he will be an honorary "hero" for Loyola University Medical Center's 5th Annual Health Hope and Heroes 5K Run/Walk in Maywood. The event raises money for pediatric health care programs at Loyola.
Hayden, who lives in Watseka with his family on their farm, readily admits he often felt discouraged during his yearlong recovery, which took place first at Loyola and next at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Chicago.
"The most frustrating thing was knowing how strong I was (before) and how much I had done," said Hayden. "I had to re-learn everything."
On a cold Oct. 17, 2014 night, Hayden tried to block an opponent during a varsity football game in Watseka. But the two inadvertently rammed into each other and Hayden landed on the back of his head and shoulder, collapsing onto the ground, dislocating and fracturing two of his vertebrae. He then called out for his dad.
After a local hospital decided he needed specialized surgery, an ambulance sped the teen to Loyola University Medical Center for a 10-hour operation to try to repair the damage. At Loyola, neurosurgeon Dr. Douglas Anderson and a senior resident (with the help of an anesthesiologist and assistant) were able to decompress Hayden's spine and fuse the vertebrae back into place.
"No question it's exceedingly important to try to move quickly to decompress the spinal cord and so forth," said Anderson. "But there was also an element of very good fortune in a way as well.
"His age worked in favor and his very good health otherwise, there were no postoperative complications and he was motivated," said Anderson.
A tracheotomy was also done and breathing tube inserted, which would remain for most of the 47 days he spent at Loyola.
"One of the hardest parts was not being able to speak and that was frustrating because sometimes people couldn't understand me and didn't know what I needed," said Hayden. "I literally felt trapped in my body."
Several days before discharge from Loyola, he overheard a doctor saying the tube would probably need to remain permanently. That was too much for him, he and his parents recalled.
"He got bullheaded and before he actually left for Shriners Hospitals for Children (to receive therapy), he had gotten himself weaned off," said Clint Schaumburg, his dad. "That kind of set the stage for his whole recovery and therapy.
"In that situation, it would be very, very easy to give up," said Schaumburg.
There are between 1,500 and 2,000 new spinal cord injuries in children and adolescents yearly, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama Birmingham. About 50 percent of the injuries occur in the neck, affecting the ability to breathe and move the upper and lower body. Most spinal cord injuries happen between ages 16 and 30 and 80 percent (after age 12) are in males.
At Shriners, Hayden received intensive occupational, physical therapy and recreation therapy, including a trip to Outback Steakhouse while he was still in a wheelchair to practice functioning outside the hospital. Hayden said the therapy was a challenge even for someone accustomed to doing hard work on a farm. He discharged in January, 2015, though receives follow-ups every six months.
"The vast majority of my patients are very resilient and he, in particular, was probably more resilient and positive about things than most," said Dr. Larry Vogel, pediatrician and medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Shriners. "Probably more important than what we did is really the patient and family, their resiliency and ability to cope with things."
His community also banded together when he was injured, performing much of the farming work that needed to be done. His parents "never left his side," during his recovery, said Jolyn Schaumburg, his mom.
Hayden said the nurses at Loyola also helped him through his difficult stay there. "I definitely believe in angels," he said.
Anderson, the Loyola neurosurgeon, marveled at Hayden's positive outcome.
"The amazing response this young man had and his determination … were on his side and it's the most gratifying thing in medicine to be part of that story in a small way," said Anderson. "I wish it would happen every time we see someone who experiences such a difficult injury."
Janice Neumann is a freelancer.