Struggling on the long road to recovery

Nov. 11, 2004, midnight | By Renee Park | 16 years, 2 months ago

After being struck by a car, Blair athlete struggles to get back on track

"My brain can't figure out what to do," says junior James Gillette as he slowly smoothes a blue blanket over his injured leg. "My head feels funny, and I can't really concentrate."

"He sort of shuts down," his mother adds. "He stands there and can't function right." Gillette nods in agreement and looks around the living room where the lights have been dimmed for his eyes, and even his little brother and dog seem to sense his need for quiet.

"The noise really gets me," he says. Gillette suffers from a "sensory integration problem," where bright lights and loud noises confuse him.

Gillette was one of three Blair wrestlers jogging across Colesville Road at its intersection with Franklin Road after school on Oct. 7 when the traffic light turned green. Moments later, tires squealed as a car tried to avoid the boys. Gillette was hit and sent flying several feet up into the air. He landed with a dull thud on the pavement, where a pool of blood began to form beside his body.

Even after the accident, Gillette attempted to return to Blair for practice. Eyewitnesses say that two police officers had to restrain Gillette facedown on the pavement as if he were a culprit because he demanded to be allowed up and struggled against them. The officers were concerned that Gillette had a potential spinal injury and would not permit him to move. "The cops were sitting on him because he's a strong boy," describes science teacher Charlie Demma, who was at the scene.

Now, two weeks later, Gillette grins sheepishly when reminded of the accident because head injuries and shock trauma have caused him to forget the incident. "I only know what other people have told me," he says.

Gillette, who is co-captain of the varsity wrestling team, suffered a broken right femur and a severe concussion that have prevented him from returning to school. His doctors hope he will be able to return by Thanksgiving, but Gillette might not have full reading and concentration skills for nearly six months. Doctors say Gillette might not play contact sports ever again.

Demma was on his way home from Blair when he witnessed the accident. He stared in horror as Gillette "popped up seven feet in the air" and landed screaming as his head hit the asphalt, dealing him a severe concussion.

Demma was watching from about 30 yards away as the accident occurred. "When I first saw it, I thought he'd be dead," Demma recalls. "But when I saw him screaming, I took that as good news. [It] meant he was breathing and alive."

Individuals involved in the accident have determined that neither Gillette nor the car's driver is to blame. The car had been taking a blind turn and was unable to see the jogging wrestlers, says Assistant Principal Linda Wolf.

This incident is one of many automobile-related accidents involving MCPS students that have occurred this academic year; in early September, Bethesda-Chevy Chase student Samuel Chase was killed crossing Massachusetts Avenue while wearing headphones. School officials say that Gillette was lucky to have lived-but the harsh consequences of his ordeal have forced him to reevaluate his future and have prompted the Blair community to reassess current safety guidelines.

Facing the consequences

Gillette's injuries have meant extreme changes and personal challenges. As of now, Gillette has a subdural hemotoma-bleeding in the brain-and must be tutored at home several hours a week in four subjects until all traces of his concussion disappear. He also is recovering from surgery on his right femur, where doctors had inserted a rod in his leg.

Gillette-who still has fading bruise marks on the right side of his face where his head hit the hood of the car and scabs on the left side from where he scraped against the road-is suffering mental setbacks from his concussion. Although he has passed all his cognitive skills tests and doctors say there is no permanent brain damage, he has difficulty concentrating on more than one task at a time.

Sadly, Gillette is no longer able to complete tasks he once found easy. He is attending physical therapy to help him rebuild 12 pounds of muscle that atrophied during his weeklong stay in the hospital. He is also taking occupational therapy to teach his brain to handle juggling several tasks at once.

Currently, this once vibrantly healthy athlete is unable to shower alone or use the bathroom without aid. The simple acts of walking or talking on a phone make him dizzy, and his brain is puzzled when he attempts to walk and put cups in the cupboard simultaneously. Although he can now watch television, he is still confused in bright, loud places like Blair.

Gillette's accident illustrates the need in the Blair community for more widespread awareness of pedestrian safety, says PTSA Co-President Fran Rothstein. In fact, children and adolescents should be especially aware of their risk for pedestrian injuries and fatalities, as they account for over a quarter of all nonfatal pedestrian injuries, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Furthermore, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control states that each year for over a decade, more than 500 children in the U.S. have died from traffic-related injuries.

Senior Andrew Wallis, Gillette's wrestling co-captain says the wrestling team has already taken measures to prevent future accidents like Gillette's and will no longer run off school grounds.

For Gillette, the worst news came when doctors advised him never to play contact sports again: If he sustains another head injury, it could cause permanent brain damage.

Not only has Gillette enjoyed wrestling, his favorite sport, since middle school, but he is also a brown belt in karate with seven years of experience. Now, although he can carefully continue cheerleading and karate, Gillette's future in wrestling is questionable.
His neurosurgeon said Gillette may be able to wrestle again his senior year in high school "if everything has come back 100 percent," says Gillette's mother. Gillette will wait to have his progress reevaluated next year.

Although Gillette says the situation still "stinks," he is philosophical about the impact the accident will have on his activities. "I am frustrated-I didn't ask for a car to hit me," says Gillette. "But you've got to roll with the punches as they say. It's unfortunate, but it's not going to hold me back."

However, Gillette, who is 16, is now holding back on getting his driver's license. "I'm a little nervous crossing the street now; I'm a little nervous driving," says Gillette. Even after his leg heals and he can sit behind the driver's wheel again, Gillette will have three one-to-three inch scars on his thigh to forever remind him that lives are at stake on the road.

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Renee Park. Renee is a senior in the Magnet Program (finally!) and is psyched about a brand new year of Chips, Chips and more Chips! She's currently wondering why she took MathPhys with Silver Chips and how soon she'll die, but meanwhile, Renee's enjoying writing, reading, studying … More »

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