Struggling on the long road to recovery

Nov. 21, 2004, midnight | By Renee Park | 16 years, 2 months ago

After being struck by a car, Blair athlete tries 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 because he has a "sensory integration problem," where bright lights and loud noises like a ringing telephone confuse him. Three generations of his family sit in a circle around him, cocooning him—even his little brother and dog seem to sense his need for quiet.

"The noise really gets me," he says.

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.

But even after the accident, Gillette attempted to make it back to Blair for practice. Eyewitnesses say that two police officers had to restrain Gillette facedown in the pavement, almost as if he was 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 there at the scene.

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

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

"I thought he'd be dead"

Demma was on his way home from Blair when he witnessed Gillette's 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," he 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, according to Assistant Principal Linda Wolf.

The practice run had also been one Gillette had done several times before without crossing the street, but this time construction blocking the bridge required the wrestling team to run across the road. Gillette had doubled back to help the last two members bring up the rear.

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.

Pedestrian fatalities account for about 13 percent of all Maryland motor vehicle-related deaths, according to the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (DHMH). Although Gillette survived this ordeal, the harsh consequences have forced him to reevaluate his future and have prompted the Blair community to reassess current safety guidelines.

Lasting scars, permanent reminders

Gillette's injuries have meant extreme changes and personal challenges. As of now, Gillette has 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 face 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 so easy to do. He is attending physical therapy to help him rebuild 12 pounds of muscle that atrophied during his week-long 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 strong, healthy athlete is unable to take a shower alone or go to 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, his "sensory integration problem" still makes him confused in bright or loud places like Blair.

Look both ways before crossing the road

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 DHMH. 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 injuries sustained while crossing streets.

"We, the community, have to do a better job about educating students about pedestrian safety," says Rothstein. "Pedestrian safety has to be a major, major concern."

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

Keeping options open

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, he is also a brown belt in karate with seven years of experience and teaches at the local YMCA. Now, although he can continue cheerleading and low-contact 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," said Gillette's mother. Gillette will wait to have his progress reevaluated next year.
The neurosurgeon's response has given Gillette a glimmer of hope. "His face lit up, he was so happy," recalls his mother. "He was like, 'You mean I could actually do that?'"

Although he says the situation still "stinks," Gillette is philosophical about the impact this 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." Gillette hopes to return to Blair's cheerleading team, where he is the only male member, as soon as he regains enough strength for jumping and lifting maneuvers.

For now, he has also held back on getting his driver's license; he was to have completed his in-car hours the weekend after his accident, but he is now wary of driving. "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 remind him that lives are always at stake on the road.

Playing the field one short

Cheerleading Coach Roxanne Fus vividly recalls the day of Gillette's accident. He had obtained her permission to miss cheerleading practice and warm-up with the wrestling team if he returned by 4:00 p.m. for practice.

But when 4:15 p.m. had rolled past and Gillette still hadn't shown up, Ms. Fus says she grew concerned. "James is really conscientious," she says. "He's usually on time." She sent out fellow squad members junior Jennifer Nguyen and senior Bianca Whitfield to find Gillette.

The team soon discovered that there had been an accident and Gillette had been taken to the hospital. "That's when everyone was in super-shock," says Whitfield.

The entire team was crying in the locker room for the better part of an hour after the news of Gillette's accident: "It was so unexpected," explains Whitfield. "He had just recovered from shingles a couple of weeks before and was finally bouncing back."

Wrestling for the future

Since the accident, both wrestling and cheerleading teams have been working hard to adjust to losing a key member of their teams. Wrestling Coach Jake Scott says the team has suffered more than just the loss of one of their strongest wrestlers. "It would definitely be a loss even at an emotional level and at a spiritual level. James is a very spirited person. He's very coach-able and very responsible."

According to senior Andrew Wallis, wrestling co-captain to Gillette, the wrestling team has lost an "older brother." "I'm the mean one and he's the nice one," Wallis explains. "Only three weeks into conditioning, James was offering to help [the new members] with homework and anything else."

The cheerleading team is currently struggling to prepare for an upcoming competition in December after losing Gillette, who is a member of their strongest varsity squad this year. Gillette's injuries had occurred the day before the fall pep rally, a devastating blow for the team whose most difficult stunt for the event, the second-floor scorpion, had relied on Gillette's strength. Without Gillette, who the girls have affectionately nicknamed "The Pimp," Whitfield says the team is not only lacking some lifting strength, but also voice volume and football knowledge to help with timing their cheers during games. "He's our go-to guy. He would tell us what's going on [during a game] because we don't know jack about football," she laughs.

Wallis says that like the cheerleaders, the wrestlers are still experiencing the consequences of Gillette's accident, but are working to overcome difficulties. "We're a little shook up. But the team has had a talk about it with the coaches," explains Wallis. "Basically all we can do now is train harder so that when we go out we're going to win for James."

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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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