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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Walking Miracle

Tuesday, March 5, 2002

After two months in a coma, Jared Witt proves doctors wrong and comes home - on his own feet.

In the midst of a windy snowstorm, 20-year-old Jared Witt walked through the door of his rural Newell home last Friday evening with a huge smile. Large signs with his name on them and colorful balloons had been posted at several spots around the Witt residence. His friends and relatives greeted the arrival with cheering and clapping.

It wasn't a birthday that everyone was celebrating, though.

It was his triumphant return back to Newell from a sudden motorcycle accident that caused severe facial trauma and torn neck ligaments, nearly took away vision in his left eye and left him in a coma for two months.

The trip back home was just the latest mile marker in a long road of recovery for Jared, who was able to beat the odds and walk up the driveway and through the entrance of his house sooner than anyone initially expected him to.

"I couldn't wait to get out and get back home," Jared said. "It was just something I knew I wanted to do, and I did it."

On the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2001, Deb Witt received a phone call from Ames. The news was not good. Jared had been riding his motorcycle back to class on the Iowa State University campus when the driver of a car, his line of sight blocked by vehicles parked along the side of a street due to construction, pulled out in front of Jared after yielding at a stop sign. The force of the collision sent Tom and Deb Witt's oldest son hurtling forward, his head ramming the side of the car.

The injuries were critical. Jared suffered severe facial trauma with an obstructed airway (necessitating placement of a trach tube in his neck), intercranial brain pressure, a fractured zygomatic arch under his left eye, torn neck ligaments, three compression fractures in his back, a fracture of his right first rib, severe pulmonary contusions and a fractured nose.

The incident also left Jared in a coma, and a brain monitor was inserted on the left side of his head to alert doctors to increased pressure his brain might experience during the first few days of his ICU care at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames.

Deb pulled Jared's brother, 18-year-old John, out of Newell-Fonda High School immediately, and called her husband, in Fort Dodge on a business trip, to tell him of Jared's accident. The three rushed to Ames, and an unexpected sight greeted them as they walked through the front doors of the hospital.

Jared's support team had already been assembled and was ready for action.

"When I went down there I fully expected to walk into the emergency room and just see doctors and nurses working on him, but what I ended up seeing was the whole waiting room full of all of his friends," Deb said. "It was amazing. That night there were about 40 boys that stayed at the hospital. That positive energy just about knocked me out of the door."

That positive energy from members of Jared's fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, and numerous high school classmates would help counter a pessimistic outlook by several doctors, who feared the MIS major at Iowa State might not be able to walk again, much less use a computer ever again.

"Over Thanksgiving, when he was pretty bad and our main doctor was gone, we had another doctor who pretty much said that he had severe brain damage, and we were not given very much hope at all," Deb said. "We weren't given much hope that he could ever walk or talk or do anything. But we had seen that he had been able to do some complex movements, so we were always hopeful. We always felt he was there."

Those complex movements included squeezing his brother's hand on John's 18th birthday four days after the accident, slowly twirling a white washcloth and, on Nov. 20, opening his right eye just a crack, sending waves of excitement over his family.

"It was just little baby steps at a time," John, who stayed with Jared every weekend and during Christmas break, said. "Each week there would be something new where he'd either squeeze somebody's hand or wiggle his feet. There was always improvement; there were never any steps backward. He just kept on making progress slowly but surely."

"Even though he was in a coma, he was able to respond to us," Tom said. "It was very encouraging for us to see that he could tell we were there and could respond to us."

Friends continued to flood Jared's room. High school teammate Mike Tiedeman gave Jared the ball he had scored his first touchdown with at Simpson College. Classmate Susan Mackey came to talk with Jared every weekend. Phi Delta Theta members set up a rotating schedule, making sure one of them visited their pledge brother every day.

Prayers and words of encouragement came from all over the state and all across the country. Family, friends and classmates prayed for Jared in the hope that he would be able to take more positive steps in the days ahead.

The days passed. More positive steps were taken. On Dec. 15, Jared was able to move his left leg. On Dec. 22, when his cousins stopped by, a full grin came over his face for the first time. On Christmas Day, when Deb asked Jared what he wanted for his first meal back home, her son was able to write down the word "steak."

One day later, Jared walked.

"Jared had written down 'I want to stand,' and when we told his therapist that he wanted to do this, she didn't think he could stand, but she put him up on the parallel bars to try," Deb said. "Then he went and walked 10 steps, and we all just melted."

Six days before he took those memorable steps, Jared had moved from Mary Greeley to On With Life, a traumatic brain rehabilitation center in Ankeny, one of the few such places in the area to have its own coma-stimulus ward.

Still in a coma when he arrived in Ankeny, Jared's status improved significantly over the next two weeks, and on Jan. 3, tests showed he had fully awakened from the coma. His memory began to return on Jan. 11, when he was able to surprise his dad with a phone call from On With Life.

"I picked up the phone, and then when I said hi, I heard this voice saying 'What are you doing?'" Tom said. "It was Jared calling me up from Ankeny. That was just a great phone call to get."

The next big landmark for the Witts occurred one week later, when On With Life arranged for Jared to visit the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. Two staff members accompanied Tom, Deb and Jared to the house that evening, and, much like the first day at Mary Greeley, a tidal wave of positive energy greeted the Witts when they walked in the door.

"I expected maybe 25 boys from his pledge class would be there to meet us, but when we walked in there were 70 boys lining the stairs and hallways and they were all clapping and cheering," Deb said. "It was a pretty neat experience. It was really touching to see how much they cared."

Jared's personality began to return during the first weekend in February, when he began to be able to talk more and initiate more detailed conversations. He was also able to use his cell phone for the first time, a sight which soon became commonplace as Jared called up all of his friends and family to excitedly tell them he was back and ready to talk. One month later, on March 1, Jared was discharged from On With Life.

Jared has a goal of returning to Iowa State this fall to continue work toward his MIS degree, but there are still mile markers he must pass. Surgery will be performed to close a hole in his neck where the trach was placed to allow him to breathe, and medical procedures around his eye and plastic surgeries on his face are also likely. He will also continue to wear a turtle-shell brace on his back to help the fractures in that area heal.

In addition, Jared will undergo intense cognitive therapy to work on increasing his executive functioning, memory and attention span. He will also be submitted to at least two more months of speech, occupational and physical therapy, which he began yesterday at Sports Rehab in Storm Lake.

The Witts said the experience had helped them bond even more as a family and has renewed their conviction in their faith, as they have been able to see Jared improve from squeezing hands and slowly turning towels to being capable of walking, talking and laughing.

"We've always been a close family, but this has just strengthened the bond between us even more," Tom said. "We just stepped up like they say and took care of each other when we needed to the most."

"We all had the goal of getting Jared home again, and God and faith got us through this," Deb said. "I strongly believe that. The many prayers we had from everyone were terribly important, and they were a big part of Jared's recovery and everyone getting through this."

As Deb spoke, another symbol of the progress of Jared's recovery lay on the kitchen counter. Fresh steaks were piled on a plate, ready to be consumed by the Witt family that evening. Jared's request for his first meal back home would be fulfilled.

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