“I touched my legs but I couldn’t feel anything. I knew something was wrong the second it happened.”
That’s how Black River High School student Tommy Smithberger summed up the shock he experienced Feb. 7 when he suffered a spinal break at a family member’s home.
The 16-year-old sophomore had been riding an inflatable tube towed by a four-wheeler.
After six days in intensive care at Cleveland’s MetroHealth Medical Center and another month of intense rehabilitation, Smithberger is now working out with Pirates football coaches and determined to walk again.
The worst-case scenario gives the Sullivan teenager just a five to 15 percent chance of regaining the use of his legs. But the doctor who performed his surgery expects him to be walking in braces in 14 months and eventually make a full recovery.
Regaining feeling in his hip flexors and a recent uptick in leg spasms are two signs that the best case scenario could become a reality, said his mother, Melissa Smithberger.
“Tommy is doing really well,” she said. “He’s getting the spasms all the time and the surgeons say that’s huge, a very big deal. His nerves are firing up and that’s also huge. It’s just going to take a lot of time but we’re all prepared for a long fight. Tommy is pushing his body in every way possible.”
Tommy suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning his brain is still able to regulate blood pressure and other important internal functions in his legs.
Matt Stafford, an assistant football coach at Black River, works out with Tommy nearly every night for over two hours.
“I do pull-ups and a lot of upper body stuff,” Tommy said. “We try to do some leg stuff too, just attempting that is important. We’ll hook bands up to my legs. I’m trying to pull them, but then coach will move them like I’m doing it. That can be kind of therapeutic in itself.”
“I remember the entire accident,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was but I could feel my spine digging into me. I was so mad. The thought of not being able to play football again or do work with my dad really bummed me out.”
Alternative means for recovery like apitherapy have also been called on by Tommy and his family.
Tommy’s legs are covered in honey bees, which are then coaxed into stinging him. Proponents of the therapy claim it can reduce secondary neuronal damage that follows a spinal cord injury.
“You let the stingers sit in the skin for about 15 minutes, to make sure all the venom gets in there,” said Tommy’s mother. “It’s a pretty strange sight to see but we don’t want to pass up the chance to try something that can help him.”
Through alternative, occupational, and physical therapy, the bright light at the end of the tunnel is the thought of walking under Friday night lights once again at Black River.
“I plan on playing football again by my senior year,” Tommy said. “My doctor said they’ll never sign off on it, but I’m going to prove them wrong.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.