CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) – While 16-year-old Jaxon Hansen was undergoing surgery for a significant spinal cord injury at Iowa City’s University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in July, his parents Dave and Jess held on tightly to each other and hope.
Jaxon had suffered critical injuries diving into a pond. The Cedar Falls High School junior seriously injured his C5 vertebra, leaving him without feeling in his upper body and legs.
Standing in the ER and listening as doctors described Jaxon’s condition, the couple drew on their faith for strength.
“You never know until you’re in that moment what is going to hold you up or carry you through. Our God was part of that day, and we knew that it was going to take his strength, not ours, to get through what was happening,” Jess told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
At home in Cedar Falls, the Hansens’ other four children ages 5 to 12 were being comforted in the care of family and friends.
“People leaned in, without our asking,” said Jess. “We were grieving in those first weeks. We needed to be at the hospital with Jaxon, and we missed our other kids, and we worried ‘how will we meet everyone’s needs?’ People just fell into place to take care of the kids, provide meals, someone mowed our yard and got our mail, and people set up a website to raise money to help with expenses. We were blown away by the support and love.”
The months since Jaxon’s accident, she said, have been “a message of hope, strength, support, community and humanity at its best.”
There are days of pain and anguish, but determination and triumph, too. Jaxon’s homecoming this fall was one of the joyous days.
After surgery and hospitalization in Iowa City for three weeks, he was transferred to St. Luke’s Hospital Inpatient Rehabilitation-UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids. With his father at his side, he remained there for two months and underwent intensive therapy.
After about 70 days, Jaxon returned home. Although he is in a wheelchair and needs 24/7 care, he is regaining some motion in his arms, his mom said.
“Dave and I felt a little scared. Bringing him home felt like bringing home a new baby. They trusted us to bring him home and care for him. There’s been nothing better than having him home with us. His siblings couldn’t visit when he was in the hospital because of COVID-19. They were so excited to see him,” she said.
“He’s still Jaxon. He has his humor and personality and yes, he definitely has some hard moments, but we’re grateful that he seems like himself.”
Jaxon would rather talk about sports than himself, but said he’s thankful for “our community helping bring me home and helping in my recovery process so well. I’ve been so grateful to have this support.”
July 19 was a sweltering day, hovering near 90 degrees, and Jaxon and his friends were chilling near a pond. Jaxon dove in, but he must have struck something underwater. He was unconscious when he was pulled from the water, and “they weren’t sure he had a pulse,” Jess recalled.
“Once they got him to the emergency room in Waterloo, he had a slight pulse and began to come to a little bit. They believed he had a significant spinal cord injury and airlifted him to Iowa City right away. He was put on a ventilator before he was placed on the helicopter.”
At Stead Family Children’s Hospital, doctors determined he had injured a mid-cervical vertebra. “Jaxon was awake enough to say there was no feeling in his chest, arms and legs. Doctors wouldn’t be sure of the severity of damage until surgery.”
During the three- to four-hour surgery, surgeons were pleased to see the spinal cord was not severed, and there were no bone fractures. A permanent spinal cage was implanted around the C5 vertebra for support.
“The spinal cord was very severely bruised. The doctors said it was the best-case scenario because it was an ‘incomplete’ injury,” Jess said.
An “incomplete” spinal cord injury means the ability of the spinal cord to convey messages to or from the brain is not completely lost, according to the Christopher Reeve Foundation, and some sensation and movement is possible below the level of the injury.
Physical therapy began the third or fourth day Jaxon was in the pediatric intensive care unit, his mom said. Each day, Jaxon felt some sensations return – “tingling in a toe, in his arm – something more each day would wake up.”
Since then, Jaxon has regained some arm movement, and he is slowly rebuilding muscle mass. “He doesn’t have any voluntary movement in his legs, but he has range of motion in his neck and wrists, feeling in his chest and pretty much everywhere. Honestly, he has come such a long way already.”
He can feel the sensation of water on his legs, she said, but can’t feel whether it is hot or cold water and can’t completely regulate his body temperature.
While at St. Luke’s, Jaxon underwent physical and occupational therapy, sometimes two-a-days. He was educated about his injury and relearned skills such as brushing his hair and feeding himself – “all things to launch his full rehab journey and to prepare him to come home,” his mom said.
Jaxon is a three-sport athlete – football, basketball and track. Daily workouts and weightlifting had given him the strength and work ethic to sustain his recovery. “After the accident, doctors said they couldn’t ask for a patient in better shape because that would help him.”
His outpatient therapy schedule remains intense. He goes to St. Luke’s three times a week for microcurrent therapy, which is the application of electrical currents that helps tissue heal faster and relieves some pain caused by the injury. He also receives chiropractic treatments for whole body rehabilitation.
Aquatic or water therapy is an important component in Jaxon’s recovery. Former special education teacher Mike Hagensick, a University of Northern Iowa assistant swimming coach and owner of Panther Academy of Water Safety, is working with him.
Hagensick and Jaxon have two 30-minute sessions each week in the Western Home Communities swimming pool. Thanks to natural buoyancy and resistance, water provides greater opportunity to rehabilitate the body by improving and building coordination, core strength, fine motor skills, shoulder and neck strength and transitional body movements, all necessary for Jaxon’s continuing recovery, Hagensick said.
Jaxon works hard, but there additional benefits. “Water provides a sense of freedom, autonomy and independence, and it provides great emotional benefits. There’s science behind it, too, in that pressure from water provides a calming effect. The floating position helps support the central nervous system and that impacts emotional and physical health,” Hagensick explained.
“After those first few weeks, on Friday nights we’d talk about the God moments of the week. It’s been amazing. We’ve felt like God was pulling the community together, and it gave us joy and strength.”
The Hansens had roughly a month to prepare for Jaxon’s homecoming, including altering their home to accommodate his needs, including wheelchair accessibility. That’s when friends Luke and Katie Patterson of Patterson Construction and Design stepped forward with their “‘take care of you plan’ that would make a bedroom and bathroom accessible. Suddenly other people began calling – contractors, plumbers and others – to ask what they could do to help,” Jess explained.
Jaxon’s bedroom has become his friends’ hangout. “He’s our extroverted, social kid. He’s reconnected with his friends, and they’ve been great. His room is full every weekend. Emotionally, he’s been a trouper. He’s had some hard, painful moments, and he’s hanging in there.”
He had enough credits to skip this semester at Cedar Falls High, and he hopes to return to school online after Christmas, his mom said.
On Oct. 31, the Hansen family hosted a community event in downtown Cedar Falls to celebrate Jaxon’s homecoming and say “thank you” to old and new friends. They also raised funds for an RT-300 bike for Jaxon.
The integrated functional electrical stimulation (iFES) bike allows people with little or no voluntary leg movement to pedal a stationary leg-cycle. Computer-generated, low-level electrical pulses are transmitted through electrodes to the leg muscles to cause contractions and the pedaling motion. The bike will help with spasm and fatigue management, improve motor function, respiration and circulation, restore core muscle mass and reduce muscle atrophy.
“People are showing up with their unique gifts and offers to help. We’ve been worried at times, but the community keeps providing what we need, and it’s overwhelming, amazing and beautiful. We are so grateful and humbled.”
That faith and support make everything the family is facing “feel doable, that we can do this. I don’t know if we’d be saying that if we didn’t have the support of family, friends and this community. It’s like we’re floating, not really swimming yet. But if these people were not there, we would be drowning.”
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