A young man's 1998 graduation was delayed by a serious accident.
By PHIL NOVAK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
NEW SPRINGFIELD -- The pain never completely goes away. One person died, another nearly died and a family struggled to make sense of it all.
But life goes on. Three years after the accident that killed his cousin and left him first in a coma and then in a wheelchair, a time for celebration has arrived for Springfield Township resident Dale Patton, who is known as Willie.
Last week, Willie, 21, received his diploma from Springfield High School after battling serious brain trauma caused by a car accident the morning of March 4, 1998.
A senior at the time of the accident, Willie recently passed math and government, the only two classes he needed, through home schooling.
"He really struggled," said his mother, Patti Campbell. "That poor kid had so many problems. But he has come a long way. We're so proud of him."
What happened: Willie's cousin, Amanda Klink, was driving them to school along Middletown Road in the township when the car slid on ice. She tried to turn and crossed into the other lane, where the car hit a school bus. Amanda did not survive, and Willie suffered two collapsed lungs, multiple fractures to his legs and head injuries, and had to be resuscitated three times.
"There was not a part of his brain that was untouched except for his brain stem," Campbell said. "There was only one bruise on his head, but the force of the accident knocked his brain around inside his head."
The paramedics wanted to fly Willie to the hospital, but the helicopter was icy and couldn't fly. He was rushed to St. Elizabeth Health Center, where he spent 61/2 weeks in the trauma unit.
"He was in several different stages of comas," Campbell said. "They didn't know how he would recover."
Rehabilitation period: Unresponsive, but out of the coma, Willie went to Hillside Rehabilitation Center in Howland, where he stayed for six months. He was there with Tony Villio, another young man seriously injured in a car accident, who graduated from Chaney High School last week.
Linda Villio, Tony's mother, said she and Campbell talked often at Hillside. "I told her things would get better. I was positive that Tony would improve. I always knew it. And that's what I tried to express with her, to stay positive."
When Willie was finally released, he was still unresponsive, and the doctors told Campbell to have him institutionalized.
"I refused," she said. "I just wanted him home with me."
Rapid progression: Once he was home, Campbell said, Willie began to progress rapidly. He began responding to her and understanding the things around him. She was told he would have to learn everything all over again, beginning with numbers and the alphabet. She was shocked when he started to talk.
"He read the patch on the Hillside rehab instructor's coat, and both our jaws dropped," she said. "After that, it just started coming back."
Physical therapy: Willie has a paralyzed vocal cord, so he can speak only in a hoarse whisper. He's in a wheelchair, but he's receiving therapy from Excel Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation in Salem to help regain his muscles.
"All his muscles merged to his bones because they were not used in so long, but the therapy is working," Campbell said. "He picked up his arm and put it behind his chair to pet the dog, and he's never done that before. He can stand up on his own, but he can't stay standing."
Community help: The community rallied around Willie and his family after the accident. Several bars in the area organized a collection and raised enough money to buy a wheelchair-accessible van for Campbell.
"I couldn't even talk," Campbell said of the surprise. "One of my girlfriends put it all together, and I was just so grateful."
There's no telling what the future holds for Willie. Campbell said they will continue with rehabilitation and see if they can teach him a trade.
"We're going to try," she said. "We'll just have to wait and see. But right now, we're just thinking about celebrating his graduation."