LINCOLN — Isaac Pfeifer loved football and loves it still.
Signs of that passion are all over his room at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, where he works to regain the use of his arms and hands and feeling in his legs after suffering a spine injury playing football last fall for Norfolk Catholic High School.
His helmet and jersey are in his room. So are his mouthpiece and black gloves. A signed photo of Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews is on display. So is a football given to him by Nebraska's 2001 Heisman Trophy winner, Eric Crouch.
Isaac said his affinity for football remains. It's hard to describe, he said.
“Just the feeling of hitting somebody,” Isaac said while sitting in his wheelchair. “Just the feeling of being on a team.”
Nobody questions how long a journey Isaac, a 17-year-old senior, faces in his rehabilitation. Nobody knows how far rehab, time and healing can carry him. A tug of war continues between hope and acceptance.
When his parents, Becky and Neil Pfeifer, first talked about making wheelchair modifications to their Norfolk home, it irritated Isaac, who said that wasn't necessary — that he would be fine. But at a family meeting in the hospital room around Christmas, he agreed to look at the floor plans.
His use of his hands has improved and his arms have grown stronger in his two months at Madonna, the Lincoln rehabilitation center for spine and brain injuries. His legs tingle, and that tingling increases when someone touches them. He hopes that's a good sign.
He dreams of walking again. Sometimes those dreams seem so real that waking up to reality is hard.
|Isaac Pfeifer of Norfolk, Neb., smiles during physical therapy, at the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Neb., on Jan. 18.|
The injury occurred in a Nov. 6 playoff game against Fort Calhoun. Isaac said in his first interview since the injury that he remembers “basically everything from the hit to just before surgery.” He crouched to make a tackle, then was down, his legs tingling and his movement limited to his head.
His coach, Norfolk Catholic Principal Jeff Bellar, hoped it was only that the wind had been knocked out of his linebacker. Isaac remained on the ground, and Bellar prayed it was just a “stinger,” a temporary jolt.
In Omaha, Isaac's oldest sister, 24-year-old Halee, listened to the game on the radio. The next-oldest of five Pfeifer kids, Wayne State College student Keshia, was with the family at the game. Halee learned immediately from Keshia's text message that it was their brother who had been hurt. Halee measured by the number of radio station breaks — three — how long the medical staff worked on Isaac on the field.
She got in the car with her fiance, Marcus Bell, and headed for Norfolk.
Isaac's coach held onto hope that perhaps it wasn't that bad. Then, with the game in the second half, he heard a helicopter and suspected it was Isaac being flown from Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk to a hospital in Omaha.
Halee and fiance Bell made it about halfway to Norfolk before Keshia texted Halee that their brother was being life-flighted to the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. The couple turned around and rushed back.
At the medical center, her brother had already been moved to the intensive care unit.
It was so scary. Isaac had trouble moving his head, and he and his sister cried together. “I was kissing his forehead and his cheeks,” Halee said.
She was relieved when a family friend, the Rev. Walter Nolte, walked in. Nolte, an Omaha priest, knew the family well from his time in Norfolk several years ago. Nolte choked up as his eyes met Isaac's.
“It was very emotional for both of us,” Nolte said. “I didn't want to scare him, so I didn't want to cry too much.”
Halee told her brother that it was OK to be afraid.
“Mainly, she was just loving him in a very motherly way, as a big sister,” Nolte recalled. Nolte gathered himself and led them in prayer, asking for healing and for the knowledge that they weren't alone in fear, pain and doubt.
Dr. Chris Cornett, an orthopedic spine surgeon, looked at the scans of Isaac's neck. It looked like the kind of spine injury that occurs when someone dives into a pool or lake and smacks his head on the bottom. Isaac was just relieved that his spinal cord hadn't been severed.
After looking at the scans, Cornett operated for about four hours. Two vertebrae in the neck had been fractured and the spine had shifted. Cornett used a rope to hang a 20-pound weight from Isaac's head to realign the spine. The surgeon took a small piece of bone from Isaac's pelvis and replaced one of the fractured vertebrae with it. Then he stabilized the back of the neck with rods and screws. The surgery went smoothly.
Afterward, he told the family that the odds were against their son ever walking again.
Still, Cornett said in an interview, Isaac is young and motivated.
“Our best option is just to work hard on therapy,” Cornett said. “Anything's possible.”
Family members converged on the Nebraska Medical Center that night, and back in Norfolk, friends, players, parents and fans held a prayer service at St. Mary Church immediately after the game.
The Pfeifers are strong Catholics. On a Web page, Keshia recently wrote: “God has a plan. So much good has come out of this and there is so much more good yet to come.”
Isaac transferred in mid-November to Madonna in Lincoln. The place initially jolted Isaac, his father, Neil, said. There were so many people in wheelchairs.
“All of a sudden it's 'I'm that guy,'” Neil Pfeifer said a few days after his son went to Madonna. “I just can't imagine what's going through that young man's mind.”
Kipp Ransom, a counselor at Madonna, knows that look of shock, that fear of the future and the difficulty grasping what's happened.
But Ransom also could tell early on that Isaac would do well in his rehab. He's a resilient guy, a competitor with a great family, lots of friends and strong faith, Ransom said. Those things count at these times.
Ransom understands, having suffered a paralyzing injury in 1986 as a Hastings High School wrestler. It takes time to accept limitations, said Ransom, who uses a wheelchair. Young people such as Pfeifer are battlers.
Isaac dug into his rehab. An occupational therapist at Madonna, Nicole Brown, has seen excellent progress in Isaac's use of his hands and arms. “Oh, yes. Tons,” Brown said.
He can open a peanut butter jar and pick up his water jug. “He started off being fed and didn't know how to even attempt it,” Brown said. “He's always willing to try those new challenges. He'll say 'Man, this is really tough,' but he just keeps working through it.”
A bunch of guys from the state-champion Norfolk Catholic football team visited one Sunday in December and watched a Packers game with Pfeifer. Pfeifer said his buddies couldn't know how much that meant to him. He called it one of his best moments in the past couple of months. The Pfeifers' dog, Ozzy, joined them.
Ozzy dashed down the hallway and into another patient's room and the guys, including Isaac, laughed hard. “That dog,” Isaac said. “He's weird.”
Brown, Isaac, some Pfeifer family members and another staffer and patient went to Lazlo's Brewery & Grill in Lincoln for lunch on New Year's Eve. Brown called it “community integration” and a chance to boost Isaac's confidence in his ability to feed himself.
Isaac dreaded it and described it as one of his toughest moments at Madonna. It was his first time in public after the injury.
He worried that people would stare and that his glass would slip through his hands. “It went pretty well. Nothing bad happened,” he said. “I ate the food by myself, so that was a plus.”
He works diligently, lifting 4½-pound weights strapped to his hands and wrists, picking up cards, pens and blocks to improve the use of his hands, and utilizing thick fabric loops to move his legs and put on gym shorts.
“And I'm just wiped out after that,” he said.
It takes six months to roughly two years, surgeon Cornett said, for a patient in Isaac's position to maximize his recovery. The modifications at the Pfeifers' home are going forward — wider hallways, a new bedroom for Isaac, a more open kitchen and an elevator.
It's not that anyone is giving up hope, said Neil Pfeifer, an insurance agent. It's just that, for now, his boy needs those modifications to get around the house.
“I think our family is united in that we do believe that he will walk again someday. ... We have tremendous hope,” the father said. “Now, the doctors haven't given us much hope. They've been very clear that the chances aren't good that he'll walk again.”
Neither Isaac nor his dad blames football. Neil Pfeifer said you might desire safety so much that you never ride a horse or go whitewater rafting or get on a plane. “If that's the case, you miss out on a lot of life,” the father said.
In Isaac's room are a poster from classmates with snapshots arranged around the words “We Love You Isaac.”
A small cross stands near his bed with these words inscribed on it:
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Isaac Pfeifer said his goal is “to be able to walk and have everything back to normal.” How realistic is the goal? “That I don't know,” he said.
In their worry, his parents have had long talks with Ransom, the Madonna staffer. He assured them that college campuses accommodate people in wheelchairs ... that Isaac still commands his future ... that life goes on.
Ransom doesn't curse his life in a wheelchair anymore. Sure, there are days when he wishes he didn't have to use one, because it's inconvenient. He doesn't wish it on anyone. But he can help others, he said. And he plays wheelchair rugby.
The Pfeifers took comfort from their conversations with Ransom. They will do everything in their power to help their son, Neil Pfeifer said, whether he goes to college or starts a business, or both.
Regardless of what happens, he said, his son's going to be OK.
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