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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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'Second chance at life'
Four months ago Drew Hixon lay in a drug-induced coma, his chances of surviving uncertain. Now the Tennessee Tech WR is on a remarkable road to full recovery.
By JOANNE KORTH
Published December 26, 2004
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Drew Hixon, accompanied by mom Rebecca, takes part in an agility exercise, part of his three-days-a-week physical therapy at Virginia's Inova Mount Vernon Hospital.
ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Drew Hixon sat on the edge of a rehabilitation table in a colorless hospital room, leaned forward and strained to touch the laces on his right tennis shoe.
The tips of Hixon's outstretched fingers reached the knob of his ankle, but no lower. The laces remained untied, draped over the sides of his Air Jordans.
He sat up, grimacing.
Barely four months ago, Hixon gave not the slightest thought to hurtling himself through the air to catch a spiraling football in an afternoon game against South Florida. The pass pattern, his last, ended in a violent collision.
Here, a physical therapist was assuring the 22-year-old he possessed the strength to perform a task third-graders take for granted. She held her fingers 3 inches apart to show Hixon how close he was to his goal.
Hixon tried again.
"I get frustrated, but it motivates me at the same time," Hixon said as he walked, limping to favor his traumatized right hip, down the hallway of Inova Mount Vernon Hospital outside Washington D.C. "I can't tie my right shoe. I'm close. How can I get there?"
The last time Hixon reached down to tie that shoe was to put on a Tennessee Tech uniform at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Not that he remembers doing it. The whole day - Saturday, Sept. 11 - is gone, erased from Hixon's memory by a jarring hit to the head that left him fighting for his life.
That he can grapple with shoelaces this holiday season is nothing short of a miracle, a remarkable turn in a frightening saga that gripped Tampa Bay for weeks as Hixon lay in a medically induced coma at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. When this community last saw Hixon, he was being loaded into an air ambulance in early October, still in a coma-like state, for transport to a rehabilitation facility in Virginia.
Look at him now.
Smiling, joking, hugging, checking the caller I.D. on his cell phone, thumbing through a notebook for his daily rehab schedule, arguing with his parents about going back to college in January, impatient to drive a car. Not bad at all for a young man who, not that many weeks ago, had to relearn how to swallow.
"We kept our faith, kept praying, believing God was going to heal him and answer our prayers," said Rebecca Hixon, who has been by her son's side nearly every day since the accident. "We kept loving him as much as we could. We're just eternally grateful to God and the people who have had a part in helping keep Drew alive.
"It's like a second chance at life."
* * *
The sock-putter-oner was on the floor in Hixon's small bedroom, upstairs in his family's cul-de-sac home in Leesburg, Va., a bedroom community about 30 miles outside Washington D.C.
The device is one of several provided by rehab therapists at the Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center at the University of Virginia to help Hixon get dressed by himself until he regains full strength in his right hip and leg.
He no longer uses the extra-long shoe horn or the hook that pulls up pants. As he rose from a comfy leather couch in the family room and headed for the bottom of the stairs, he walked past a cane leaning against the kitchen counter.
Didn't need it.
He climbed the stairs like anyone else, perhaps more deliberately, one step at a time. His ascension belied the serious trauma his body endured that day on the football field, when bruising to all four quadrants of his brain caused so much swelling doctors inserted a tube to monitor the pressure. Just one more tube among the tangle connected to his muscular arms and the one pumping air into his lungs.
For weeks Stan and Rebecca Hixon, who also have two daughters, Adell, 19, and Avis, 14, slept in a Tampa hotel at night and spent 10-12 hours a day at St. Joseph's. They searched for the slightest sign - a yawn, a tiny twitch - their son might regain consciousness.
Finally, after about three weeks, Hixon's eyelids flickered like he was trying to open them. The next day, they opened one-third of the way. The next, two-thirds. Hixon's family cheered him on as though he had hauled in a deep pass and was headed for the end zone.
C'mon, Drew, you can do it.
C'mon, Drew, open those eyes.
On Sept. 23, nearly two weeks after the accident, Hixon was taken off a ventilator and began breathing on his own. His condition was upgraded from critical to serious and he moved from intensive care to the pulmonary floor at St. Joseph's. Still, no one could say when Hixon, a college football player in peak physical condition, might regain consciousness.
Or what life would be like when he did.
"If someone is comatose more than a week or so after such an injury, the chances of someone improving to be near normal are small," said Dr. Rakesh Kumar, the neurosurgeon who treated Hixon at St. Joseph's. "The younger the person, the more difficult it is to predict. He was a young and healthy person, as we all know, so he had a chance. He had all the supportive care we could all give him."
In early October, doctors determined it was safe to transfer Hixon to the Kluge rehab center, a facility that specializes in coma stimulation. Tampa Bay, which for more than a month sent the Hixons cards, prayers and well-wishes, sent the family home not at all certain their journey would have a happy ending.
* * *
At Kluge, progress came at a painstaking pace, but the Hixons were nothing by now if not patient. After one week in a Charlottesville hotel, Rebecca Hixon began the daily routine of driving two hours each way to be with her son as doctors worked to stimulate his brain. She quickly went over the mileage on her Volvo's lease agreement.
Through the use of drugs that target the brain and physical therapy - Hixon was strapped to "contraptions" that helped him stand even while unconscious - he improved, ever so slowly.
Over a period of days, he emerged from the coma.
"Once he woke up, I was so relieved," said Stan Hixon, a receivers coach for the Washington Redskins. "Anything else was just gravy. Not knowing if he was going to be able to walk again or talk again or use his arms and legs at that point really didn't matter, just as long as he was going to live."
Though his gaze remained blank, Hixon held his eyes open for longer stretches. He began to move his limbs. Then one day he reached for the tracheotomy tube in his throat and tried to rip it out.
The Hixons were overjoyed.
"He had the will to try to do something, to pull the tube out of his throat," Stan Hixon said. "That's when I said, "I think he's going to be okay.' "
Hixon began the process of speaking, little grunts at first, very low. Then he moved his lips. Then sound came out, but very soft. Then a little more volume.
He began to eat solid food. He stood. He walked from one side of the bed to the other. Each day he made noticeable gains, seemed a little more like himself.
"It takes patience to wait through all that, which we're trying to get him to see now," said Rebecca Hixon, seated next to her son in the family room, the lights from the Christmas tree twinkling in a corner. "God didn't create the world in a night. He took six days. Rome wasn't built ... "
"I'm trying to break His record," he said.
His grin spread to a magnificent smile. Hixon, whose words are clear and marked by inflection, still has not heard many of the details about his experience. He listened intently to his mother as she told a story about him that he cannot recall, but when it got to the patience part, he had heard it before.
"According to the doctors I got out of Kluge pretty fast," said Hixon, who was discharged Nov. 23, six weeks after his arrival, in time to spend Thanksgiving at home. "I went from wheelchair to walker, walker to cane, cane to nothing, so that's good."
No, that's remarkable.
Doctors, for the most part, do not believe in miracles. But they forgive those of us who do.
* * *
Two classes shy of a degree in finance, Hixon would have graduated this past semester. He wanted to go back to school in January, a topic that sparked arguments with his parents. Not until doctors told him he was not ready mentally did Hixon accept the indefinite delay.
"He could function today in the world the way he is and get a job, we're not sure what," Rebecca Hixon said. "But we think he can go further and the therapists and doctors think he can go further, so we want to give him that chance."
Hixon goes to rehab six to eight hours a day, three days a week. The Inova Mt. Vernon Hospital in Alexandria is a 90-minute drive from home, two hours if rush-hour traffic is bad on the I-495 beltway, which it usually is. Until Hixon can drive again, react and make decisions quickly, he must settle for his mother's radio selections.
Incentives are everywhere.
At the rehab center, Hixon is like a student going from class to class. He carries a small notebook binder from physical therapy to occupational therapy to neuro psych to speech to memory. He has homework assignments. He gets an hour for lunch, cafeteria food. It is an exhausting day for his muscles and his mind.
Word puzzles, deductive reasoning, problem solving. Other than physical therapy, which works primarily his right leg and hip, Hixon's sessions are designed to exercise his brain, to help it process information faster. It is an odd concept. Most of us do not think about thinking, we just think.
"He gets tired very easily when he uses his brain," Stan Hixon said. "It's building up, getting stronger and stronger, but he still gets tired."
Hixon's long-term memory is sharp - he can tick off the seven schools at which his father coached, in reverse order, since he was born - but two days later does not remember a visit from his sister Adell, a student at Tennessee.
The lingering pain in his right side, which was slower to respond coming out of the coma than his left, could be the result of a hit he took in the season-opening game, the bruising to his brain or more than a month's inactivity. It likely is a combination of all three.
During a recent physical therapy session, he moved well from side to side, bouncing a basketball back and forth to his therapist, Bianca Bass. The athlete in Hixon is evident in his movements, the snap of his wrists as he sends the ball back. But to say Hixon is an A-plus rehab candidate because of his athletic background sells short the determination of anyone working to be himself again.
Be assured, Hixon will lose the limp.
* * *
Unable to attend his final home football game - Senior Day - Hixon made a videotape for his teammates. According to secretaries in the football office, there wasn't a dry eye in the room as Hixon explained that he gets up at 7 every morning, that his work day starts at 9 and ends at 4.
"Work hard," he told them. "I'm working hard."
He expects to recover fully.
The pain in his right side will subside. His brain will continue to heal. Decisions will come more quickly. He will regain the 35 pounds he lost lying in hospital beds, mostly muscle mass, that left him tipping the scales at 156 and his baggy-style jeans even baggier. He will finish his degree and get a job in the business world, or maybe go into coaching.
All in time.
His football career, which he did not plan to pursue past college, is over. He'll never play organized basketball or anything else that involves contact. He won't ride roller coasters and doctors have cautioned against drinking alcohol.
He likely will need to rely on memory devices, to carry an organizer, write things down, make lists.
And that's it.
Nearly a month in a coma, close to death, and, hopefully, the only residual effect is that he'll need to make notes. Ever the short-cut artist, he likes the idea of a recording device better.
One rather enjoyable change is that Hixon, quiet and reserved before the accident, now is downright chatty. He talks about football - which he still loves - about rehab, about his friends, about his girlfriend of two years, Terramani Collier, about going to the mall, about what's for dinner.
"He wasn't shy, just the type to sit back and listen and not participate," Rebecca Hixon said. "Now he talks a lot more. He smiles more. And I don't know if this is a phase, but he's curious about what happened, how we responded, how he responded."
And by refusing to accept a doomed fate.
"I know the difference in me, but I don't really feel different," Hixon said. "I know I'm going to try my best to get back to where I was and, eventually, I will be back."