Teen faces challenges with positive attitude



The first rule: Don't fall on the floor.
They tell you that in physical therapy, but it's more than just a rule for 16-year-old Jason Hitt as he learns to maneuver his way through life in a wheelchair.

It's mental, it's emotional, it's psychological.

"You get frustrated, but you've just got to do it," he said, taking a rest between exercises at Walton Rehabilitation Center on a recent weekday morning.

A rising junior at Hephzibah High School, Jason became paralyzed from the chest down in February after a car wreck. Even sitting straight up is an exercise these days - one in improving his posture and balance.

The accident It was Feb. 16, a Saturday afternoon. Jason and some friends were on their way to play basketball when he tried to pass a friend's truck on Fulcher Road - less than half a mile from home. He lost control of his Honda Civic and it plowed into a stand of trees.

When the world stopped moving, Jason's feet were still in the driver's side floor well, but his backside was between the front seats. His head was between his knees. He hadn't been wearing a seat belt.

Corey Rhodes, the friend he'd been passing, pulled over and had to push the car upright to get the door open. Jason asked him to scratch his leg, to see if he could feel it.

No one needed to tell him that he had a spinal cord injury. Jason's back was broken and his spinal cord was compressed to the width of a string at the point of injury.

Family support In the days following the wreck, Jason only managed to sit up once. Later, he kept tipping over because he'd lost his center of gravity and couldn't make the tiny adjustments most people make without thinking to stay balanced.

Now, Angela Griffin, Jason's physical therapist, tosses balls at him to help him improve his balance. He works at catching them with graceful basketball-player's hands, absorbing the momentum without tipping over as she gradually increases the strength of her throw. Other exercises in his outpatient therapy at Walton Rehab - halfway through a six-week course of therapy - include lifting weights for upper-body strength and learning how to lift himself up and down different levels of benches.

The benches, a struggling step in learning how to lift himself in and out of his wheelchair from the floor, are the source of the "don't fall on the floor" rule. It's delivered by Ms. Griffin with gentle humor.

It's not that Jason can't fall - of course there will be falls as he relearns how to move around and how to take care of himself. But if he does fall, he needs to fall on the cushioned mat that offers some protection, not the bare tiles, where there's a greater risk of injury.

Jason's family and friends helped provide that cushion in the hospital and later at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he met other teens who'd suffered spinal cord injuries.

His friends were distraught but supportive: visitors lined up at Medical College of Georgia during the 10 days he was there, before going to Atlanta. Later, many of them would drive over on weekends to visit him at Shepherd.

"Only two people at a time could go in, and we told them, 'You have to be strong,"' said Carol Eldridge, a family friend whose son Branson is a friend of Jason's. "They would come out and cry, then they'd walk around and collect themselves and go back in."

His parents couldn't believe it when doctors told them Jason would never walk again.

"This team of doctors got us in a room and told us he'd broke his back and his spinal cord was injured," said Jason's dad, Lee. "I still remember hearing that and not being able to grasp it."

Sister Ashley, 22, showed up after being phoned by their mother, Dale, and was as shocked as the rest of the family.

"Mama told me she remembered me saying, 'He just washed my car. He just bought me bread."' Ashley said.

Learning everyday things Ashley would become a mainstay during Jason's and Mrs. Hitt's three months at Shepherd, where Jason learned how to deal with everyday life in a wheelchair - everything from getting out of a car to sex education. Ashley and Mrs. Hitt learned how to help him with his daily routine and how to help him move to and from his wheelchair - tiny women figuring out how to help a 6-foot, 3-inch teen wrestle the lanky frame that would no longer obey him.

Jason had to learn how to sit up, how to move and position his legs with his hands. He had to adjust to wearing his shoes a size too big - 14 instead of 13 - so they don't put too much pressure on his feet. He had to monitor the position of his legs so that his knees don't turn in, because his hips could dislocate a little bit at a time.

Ironically enough, the first step in taking a step is to allow yourself to fall - forward.

Jason also had to learn to deal with the frustration and anger that led to crying bouts in the hospital. He had to learn to give up his privacy.

"Everybody's seen me naked by now," he said philosophically.

Another mainstay at Shepherd was his girlfriend, 17-year-old Katie Wall, a recent Hephzibah High graduate. "Katie-bird" to Mrs. Hitt, Katie visited Jason in Atlanta - "I've never driven on Washington Road, but I drove to Atlanta in the rain," she said - and sits with him at home when it's too hot to stand the summer heat.

She and Jason exchanged phone numbers for the first time the day before the accident. Their first "date" was four days later, when Jason was still at MCG.

"People say all the time, "Do you do it because you feel sorry for him?' " she said. "Well, no. This is normal to me, because it's always been like this with him. It's not a big deal to me."

Recovery Despite the paralysis, Jason's life is filled with constant movement. Every 30 minutes, he has to do exercises that relieve the pressure on his buttocks and the backs of his legs, to avoid pressure sores. Sleep is fitful, for the same reason - he shouldn't sleep in one position for more than six hours without moving.

He's also busy. Along with physical therapy three times a week, visits to the gym for workouts and trying to avoid his world history teacher - that's the only final exam he hasn't taken - he spends a lot of time with Ashley, a hair stylist who takes him along for her appointments.

He's far enough along in his recovery to be impatient about having a baby sitter 24 hours a day. If Ashley isn't around, his mother will try to take off work to be with him, even though she was away from work for more than three months after his accident and during their stay at Shepherd.

He's not going to do something wild and fall out of his chair, Jason said with fond exasperation.

And if he does fall, he'll get up, because he's getting on with his life.

Jason test drove a car with hand-held controls while he was at Shepherd, learning that he could eventually drive again. Working with recreation therapists, he learned how to swim and played wheelchair rugby and basketball - he's particularly interested in keeping up with the basketball.

"I'm already falling off," he tells Ms. Griffin as he moves from one level to the next in physical therapy. "I might as well go for it."

Reach Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223 or ademao@augustachronicle.com.


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