As a volunteer yard-marker at his 14-year-old son’s league football games, Randy Randleman saw the play that transformed his son’s, and his family’s, life forever.
It was Sat., March 26, 2016 and Randy and Katia Randleman were in Daly City watching their son, Will, play in a league football game. All of a sudden, there was a pause in action following the end of a play. Randy stood at the sideline, waiting for play to resume again. From where he was standing, he couldn’t tell what had happened or who was the player down on the field, not moving, but then all of a sudden, he saw the name on the jersey and it was Will’s.
Randy didn’t want to rush to his son as he didn’t know what had happened and didn’t want to embarrass Will, so he stood still while seconds seemed like minutes. Another volunteer yard-marker came up and stood next to Randy for support and by now, he felt it would be good to walk over to the scene and see what’s going on. “I could see the medical professional attending to Will ask him if he could move anything and Will responded he couldn’t move anything,” recalled Randy in an interview with NorCal SCI co-founder, Franklin Elieh, that also included Will, now nearly two years apart from his football-related spinal cord injury.
After some unnerving minutes until the ambulance made its way to the field, Will was taken, along with Randy, to San Francisco General Hospital. “When they had me on the stretcher and were taking me inside the ambulance, I could see everyone standing around me. I asked for my friend, Carlos, and told him I’d be fine,” recalled Will. Katia was taken up to the hospital separately by some friends.
Neither Randy or Will were clear what a spinal cord injury was and how it affected a body’s function, nor did they know anyone with SCI. “I thought it was like a shock to the system and that you probably needed a day or two to recover from it,” recalled Randy about that particular time.
In the meantime, the ambulance personnel were in contact with SF General providing them with critical information about Will’s condition. “He was very calm during the entire ordeal,” said Randy about Will’s demeanor. As soon as the ambulance arrived at the hospital, there was a group of hospital personnel waiting to get to Will and took him to a testing area. They quickly conducted an x-ray of Will’s neck while Randy stood outside the room watching over his son through a window.
The attending neurosurgeon came out to Randy and Katia and told them that they’ll also be conducting an MRI and to just wait. “Within not too long, the neurosurgeon came back out and told us that they’re taking Will straight to the operating room and that ‘he got what he needed to see from the x-ray and I don’t need the MRI’ and that the most important priority is to have a rapid intervention,” said Randy. The neurosurgeon asked for, and received, the parents’ permission to forgo the MRI and proceed with surgery.
The Randleman’s tried to get as much information from the neurosurgeon as possible, including prognosis. Will had fractured his C-4 and C-5 vertebras and his neck needed to be stabilized but his life was not in danger but it was simply too soon to tell about his future recovery.
Will’s recollection of his first week post-surgery was very limited but after he came out of it, he recalled having a lot of bad dreams and nightmares. At that time, he had no movement below the shoulders and was struggling processing what had happened to him and what the long-term effect, if any, would be. Will stayed at SF General for two weeks and toward the end, he was able to twitch his wrist. Yet, he was still being intubated (to assist with breathing) post-surgery and doctors were uncertain of his ability to move anything below the shoulders or breathing independently and they were unable to transfer him to another facility until he was breathing on his own or had a tracheotomy. Thankfully, by focusing on the breathing therapy and despite some early struggles, Will was able to avoid tracheotomy literally at the last moment and was able to get transferred to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
Due to Will’s age, he was admitted to the pediatrics unit at SCVMC but after two weeks, it was determined that he’d benefit the most by going to the SCI Rehab Center.
I met the family during their days at the Rehab Center, with his mother, Katia, coming to the weekly peer support meetings and asking lots of good questions while Will was spending his days in therapy. “They had me up in my wheelchair by 7:30 a.m. and I would just pass out by 9 p.m. from the exhaustion of the various therapy sessions and visiting with friends and family,” said Will, remembering fondly how intense the therapy started to become. By the time he was discharged just a few weeks later, Will was able to stand with assistance but could not stay up for too long due to a low blood pressure and he left for home in a wheelchair.
Through some minor modifications, they were able to make the house accessible for Will, keeping him on the first floor. The routine at home was somewhat chaotic for the parents given the variety of tasks they now had to perform on their own and follow through but they then got into a better routine. They did some in-home and out-patient therapy and within about four months post-injury, he started to get some function in his biceps. It was becoming obvious that he had the Central Cord Syndrome where the upper body motion is compromised and takes longer to return than the lower extremities. By the end of summer of 2016, he added swimming in the family pool to his list of activities.
Amazingly, Will returned to school in August of 2016 as a freshman in high school. With the assistance of an aide, he uses a combination of wheelchair and walking to get around the large number of people who can easily bump into him. He recalls the experience of being back in school as weird as he felt that a lot of people wanted to come up to him but were scared or perhaps embarrassed because they hadn’t stayed in touch with Will since his injury even though he didn’t dwell on it much. Over the course of time, the dynamics changed and his relationships improved considerably with his old friends as well as the new ones. With a population of 2,400 students at his high school, Will is the only student who uses a wheelchair.
Randy began using Instagram to communicate with Will’s friends and teachers about what had happened to Will and document Will’s recovery process all throughout his hospitalization and rehab. He felt that it addressed misunderstandings about what had happened and allowed people to show their support with their comments and know the details better from that approach without feeling uncomfortable.
Balancing school load and continuing his therapy proved, at times, to be overwhelming as Will had to fight fatigue. Randy and Katia had discussed the idea of holding Will back for a year in order to focus on his therapy and discussed with Will the idea but eventually backed off the idea.
In early 2017, Will was walking around the house fairly independently and moved back upstairs to his old bedroom after being able to practice walking the stairs, adding some more normalcy to his routine and is now completely independent.
In summer of 2017, Randy came across Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program (BORP) as he was researching recreational activities appropriate for someone of Will’s abilities and came across BORP’s adaptive cycling programs that offered Will the opportunity to use a foot-pedal cycle. It was a nice change once Will got inside one and was able to move fast again. Within two trips to BORP, he was able to cycle for an hour, becoming more enthusiastic about the new sport he was engaged with. It gave him so much confidence that, with virtually very little practice or training, he signed up for the 22-mile ride for BORP’s annual fundraising event, Revolution. The father-son team not only completed the 22 mile, 3 ½ hour-long course but were also the top fundraisers in 2017 with nearly $13,000 (though Randy admits doing the bulk of the fundraising work). Will received an adapted cycle as a Christmas present (admits topping out at 25 MPH) and is able to continue this activity closer to home now.
For now, Will’s primary goals are to increase his walking endurance (currently at about 15 minutes) as well as working to expand the use of his upper extremities.
WRITER’S NOTES: During my 12+ years of doing peer supporting, I have met over 1,500 newly-injured patients. It's become clear that one of the many factors that helps determine the outcome of someone’s post-injury life revolves around the support structure in place from their family/friends. It is true that Will’s injury was an incomplete one but combined with his own determination and the push and non-stop support provided by his family, he has come a long way in the nearly two years since his injury and I couldn’t be happier to see this young man continue to progress and improve.