By David Schriemer, M.D.
Andrew Gardner describes himself as a shy sophomore when he attended Vicksburg High School in 2010. He was a member of the track and cross-country teams. Andrew also was a bit of an adrenaline junkie, enjoying daring feats in water sports on Indian Lake and with his snowboard on the slopes in the winter. That daring changed his life.
On February 18, 2010 Andrew was attempting two full spins on his snowboard from a ski jump. He estimates he sailed about 23 feet in the air. As he landed, his board slipped out from under him and his helmeted head slammed into the ice. He was unconscious. On arrival to the emergency room, he didn’t respond to pain; no physical movement, no eye opening, no verbal response. He had a seizure. He was put on a ventilator and had an intracranial pressure monitor placed in his head to monitor for brain swelling. MRI of the head showed multiple small areas of bleeding in the brain and diffuse injury to the brain. It was not certain whether he would live or, if he did survive, how much brain function he would recover.
Andrew’s condition stabilized. He was able to breathe on his own and was taken off the ventilator four days later. His brain did not swell so his intracranial pressure monitor was removed. He woke confused with his right arm and right leg weak and spastic. He could not walk and he had difficulty swallowing. A tube was placed directly into his stomach to feed him.
Andrew’s cross-country teammates came to visit. Andrew’s parents, Dave and Sue, recall how much it meant to them to have the boys visit. Sue remembers one teammate leaving Andrew’s room, sliding down the wall and weeping as he sat on the floor. Andrew has almost no recollection of his time in the hospital but he believes he remembers seeing his mother’s face and the smile of one of his teammates.
He was transferred to Mary Free Bed Hospital in Grand Rapids on March 9. He had to learn to walk again. He needed to learn to swallow. He needed to learn how to organize his thoughts and pay attention. Emotionally he was up and down. He improved rapidly, faster than doctors expected. His feeding tube was removed, he could swallow, and he could walk. On his last day in the hospital his physical therapist thought he could try to jog. She was very pregnant and could not jog with him. Visiting that day was teammate Mark Beams, who volunteered to take the first jog down the hall with Andrew. Andrew came home April 6th and went directly to the Vicksburg track meet to watch his teammates compete.
Running became Andrew’s passion. It was his therapy. He could see the improvement daily. Much more difficult to deal with were the memory, attention, and emotional problems from his brain injury. Andrew returned to school that semester but had to drop two classes. He made up missed work in the others. Sue, Andrew’s mother, thinks he wasn’t the same emotionally for a full 18 months after the injury. Andrew pushed himself. Only ten weeks after his injury, Andrew ran the Vicksburg Hearty Hustle 5K. Even with an abnormal gait from his muscle tightness on his right side he finished proudly in 25:08. He was determined to run cross-country the next fall.
Track and cross-country coach Dave Smith reports when Andrew was in the hospital, ”It felt like a member of the family was gone.” He was gratified that Andrew’s teammates wanted to be helpful. He organized their visits so that too many didn’t visit at once. When Andrew returned to run competitively, ”His determination was incredible! Everyone was inspired by it. The younger guys realized if he can do it, I can do it.”
Andrew went on to win varsity letters in cross-country and track the next two years. He has continued to run in college. He will start his senior season this fall at Concordia University in Ann Arbor. He is well organized and serious about his studies. Andrew was an NAIA national academic scholar award winner this past year. He is on schedule to graduate this academic year with a major in biology.
Even though he still has some mild residual effects from the accident, Andrew looks back on this journey with gratitude. He reports he was searching in life and was starting to go down the wrong path. The accident changed his life for the better. He met God through this experience and has a strong faith. He has become more focused and continues to set goals for himself. He hopes to go to chiropractic school after graduating from Concordia.
Parents Dave and Sue report, “This was the most tragic thing that ever happened.” Not only did they have to deal with Andrew’s injury but both of their mothers died while Andrew was at Mary Free Bed in Grand Rapids. Even so, they were in the hospital every day. They are so thankful for the support of the community. “The cross country family was a godsend.” They see how Andrew matured. “He knows what’s important in life.” They are very proud of him.