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Kelly: Med student wants to share gift of life

The young Nebraskan whose fleet legs ran for three touchdowns one night in high school is the same guy who is grateful on Christmas for the gift of life — and that he can walk at all.

Nearly electrocuted four years ago in a hiking accident in Tennessee, Caleb Baber fought back. His legs were amputated below his knees, but he won acceptance to medical school and, at 24, hopes to become a physician.

“I just want to serve people.”

His mother, Tami Tucker of Norfolk, Neb., said that as Caleb was flown to a hospital by helicopter, she spoke by cellphone to a rescuer on board.

“He said, 'I'm not going to lie to you — it's not good, and I don't know what to tell you other than to get down here.' We didn't know if he'd still be alive when we got there.”

Caleb received excellent medical care, and family members traveled far from home to stay with him in a Nashville, Tenn., hospital. How does he explain his ability to come back from such devastating injuries?

“My own drive was part of it,” he said. “My faith was a huge part of it.”

At Norfolk High School, Caleb was a wrestler, a pole vaulter and a football player, and graduated fourth in a class of about 270. He earned a scholarship to Lee University, a private, 4,400-student institution affiliated with the Church of God in Cleveland, Tenn., the foothills of the Appalachians.

While on a hike in the forest with five other students in September 2008, his sophomore year, he climbed a pole to get a better view of the Ocoee River.

He doesn't remember what happened, but his friends saw it. He came in contact with a Tennessee Valley Authority high-voltage transmission line. An estimated 69,000 volts shot through his shoulder and chin and exited a leg. He fell more than 20 feet, just missing a log.

The area was remote, but his friends were able to get a cellphone signal to call 911. A bicyclist happened by, rode down to a ranger station and guided rescuers back to where Caleb and his horrified friends remained.

After the helicopter ride, he was admitted to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center burn unit under intensive care.

Because of damage to his intestines, he had a colostomy bag for six months. As a result of his burns, layers of dead flesh were removed. He underwent more than 20 surgeries.

“It was very difficult,” Tami said. “The first time I saw how big the hole was in his shoulder, I almost passed out.”

Though 800 miles from home, Caleb received many other Nebraska visitors, including his brother, Levi; his sister, Rani Hughes; his father, Marcus Baber; and Caleb's grandfather Bob Baber. Lee University and his college friends didn't forget him, either.

Five and a half weeks after the accident, his legs were amputated. A month later, he returned to Nebraska and entered the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln. He obtained his right prosthetic leg and was released.

Then, in the midst of it all, he traveled to India to continue his mission work. He had first visited the country with a mission group while a teenager in Norfolk. Now, on one prosthetic leg and crutches, he did so again.

If Tami wasn't crazy about the idea, she just resigned herself to another instance of Caleb being Caleb.

“What are you going to do?” she said. “He was old enough to make his own decisions. If God placed India in his heart, that's where he needs to go.”

For Caleb, who now has visited there four times, India isn't a mere vacation destination.

“It's really an emotional connection,” he said. “The first time I went to India, I got my eyes opened to what an incredibly blessed nation America is. I realized then how much need existed in the world, and I wanted to throw myself into that.”

While helping to pass out cookies in a classroom that was more like a barn, he said, he was touched at the response of an impoverished boy who ran outside to give a cookie to his little brother. “It was an incredibly poignant picture of what it means to be generous.”

He also was moved by long conversations with an older man dying of AIDS. Some day, Caleb said, “I hope to go back and bring health care there.”

After returning home to Nebraska, he was fitted with his second prosthetic leg and put his crutches away. He eventually went snowboarding and ran a 5K race.

He returned to his university in Tennessee and graduated last spring, having applied to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. On his application, he wrote that even before his accident, he had intended to become a physician — but now he had a new perspective.

“My experience has, in fact, prepared me to serve people at the darkest moments in their lives in a spirit of candor, encouragement and a unique empathy,” he wrote. “The care I received encouraged me to fight for my life, mobility and freedom.”

He was accepted and began classes in August. But he said a combination of factors, including leg infections and a sudden inability to focus, led him to withdraw.

UNMC provided great counseling and support, he said, and is holding a spot for him in next year's class that he intends to fill. This fall in Omaha, where he lives, he worked part time in a private lab.

Since scoring touchdowns for the Norfolk Panthers, Caleb Baber has endured much. He has to type one-handed, he said, because of nerve damage to his left hand.

His faith in God remains strong, he said, but added that he is going through a period of critical thinking, “seeking to better understand what faith is.”

His mother, a middle school secretary, has faith in Caleb.

“He's always been a very determined young man,” Tami said. “Caleb can do so much for the Lord if he allows the Lord to work in his life and guide him. He should not have lived. There is a reason he is alive.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com




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