Friday October 2nd, 2015

Rick Delashmit looked around the converted garage at all the equipment he and his wife had collected in the six years since the accident. Almost all of it was for their son Reece. There was the Quadriciser, which looks something like a NASCAR seat in a swingset, which helped gently work out Reece’s arms and legs. There was the iGallop, which simulates horseback riding, mimicking the motion of walking and aids in recovery. And there was the Kaye Stander, on which he strained for 90 minutes at a time.

And then there was the equipment that Jenn, his wife, and he had purchased for themselves—the treadmill and the total gym. They’d gone untouched—by anyone other than Reece.

Rick thought about his son’s schedule. How he went to school all day like any normal child, only to come home and go back to work—speech therapy, occupational therapy or physical therapy—for at least an hour every day. How Friday is the only change in Reece’s weekday schedule—and that’s when he does physical therapy for three hours instead. He watched Reece, who had lost the ability to talk and walk do to a brain injury, work tirelessly to reclaim everything he’d lost. And then Rick thought about himself—41 years old, 5’2” and 215 pounds. “What am I doing?” he thought. “I have the best inspiration right in front of me.”

It was April 2014, and Rick made a deal with his son: Whenever you’re working out, I will be too. I’ll run while you learn to walk again.

*****

Rick and Jenn had always been planners. They met when he was in sixth grade and she was in fourth, and he was her crossing guard. They lived only a block away from each other but didn’t reconnect until high school. In January 1989, when he was 17 and she was 15, they started going out. They decided to go to college together, at University of Missouri-St. Louis, and even shared a major—political science. They decided to get married straight out of school in September 1996. They decided to move 40 minutes across state lines, to Belleville, Ill., a year later. They decided to bank her salary and live on his while they saved for a house with a full basement—they wanted to be safe even from unpredictable disasters like tornados. And they decided to have two children, 22 months apart. They welcomed Reece into the world in 2003 and when he was 1, got pregnant again and had Harry. Everything had gone according to plan.

The plan perished in May 2008 as they were driving their Honda Odyssey home from seeing “Go, Diego, Go Live!”—a Broadway-style take on the Dora the Explorer spinoff show—at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. Rick was driving, Jenn was in the passenger seat, 4-year-old Reece was behind Rick and 2-year-old Harry was behind Jenn. As they were making the turn into their neighborhood, a car smashed into the passenger side. Jenn had cracked two ribs. Harry had suffered a mild concussion and was screaming. But Reece was silent.

He’d been buckled safely in his booster seat and he had no cuts or scrapes or bruises, but something was wrong. The family was taken by ambulance to a local hospital before Reece, Harry and Jenn were airlifted to Cardinal Glennon, a 195-bed hospital in St. Louis. There wasn’t room in the helicopter for Rick so he drove there frantically with an uncle.

By the time Rick arrived, he saw Reece hooked up to the breathing machine. The doctors told him Reece had suffered severe swelling in his brain and was in a coma. For the first 96 hours, it wasn’t clear if he would survive. He would spend the next four months in the hospital. After a couple weeks, Rick would have to return to his job as the general manager of a grocery store, so Jenn would stay with Reece during the day and he would relieve her at night. Jenn’s mother took a leave of absence from work to tend to Harry during the day. Despite the stress, Rick and Jenn stayed strong for each other and with each other. They had lunch at the cafeteria together, traded texts during the day and talked at the shift handoff at night.

“During the day, Reece would have to do therapy,” Jenn says. “And you go from the sweet little child you just saw graduate pre-K to a child who is taking the strength of five therapists to attempt to stand him up. He had lost all of his head control. He drooled all over himself. He had gone back to infancy. It was like he wasn’t there. He would make these horrible animalistic screams. It was just a horrible, horrible time.”

Initially, there were two nurses stationed in Reece’s room at all times. Eventually, he only needed one, and then he no longer needed a permanent aid. After three months, the hospital staff began to show Rick and Jenn how to operate the equipment Reece would need at home. They needed to know how to feed him through his PEG (Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy). They needed to know how to operate his tilt-and-space wheelchair, which helped him support his head. They needed a bath seat and a feeding chair. All the while, all Jenn could think was, I’m not a nurse. How am I supposed to do all this?

She’d planned to go back to her job as a teacher after Harry had reached kindergarten. That plan was put on hold with so many others. But a new purposed had emerged. As they were preparing to go home, a doctor had told Jenn that all the gains they’d see in the first 12 months would be all they’d ever get. He told her to “forget the old Reece.” She couldn’t accept that. “I will never forget the old Reece,” she says. “He’s why we continue to fight. What they told us we wouldn’t be able to get back again—we won’t rest until we have it.”

So they held a fundraiser in the community, and they contacted a Variety, a children’s charity in St. Louis. The first weekend after Reece was discharged, in September 2008, Rick packed the car and drove him to a hyperbaric oxygen therapy center in Kansas City. They watched the Disney channel and did 40 “dives” twice a day for a month. They returned in January. Jenn and her mom took Reece to Tel Aviv in July 2009 to have stem cells taken out so they could be used in his brain again later. “Our opinion has always been: We don’t care as long as he isn’t getting hurt,” Rick says of the lengths they’ve gone to find possible treatments. “If all it takes is money and time, we’ll find the money and we’ll find the time.”

Progress came quickly at first. He learned to hold up his head again, to control his drooling and to eat solid food again. Within a year, he was off seizure medication. “When you’ve lost it all,” Rick says, “getting anything back is monumental. It keeps you going, it keeps you excited. You’re always chasing down the next one.”

Reece still faces significant challenges. He hasn’t regained his speech, but he understands everything, so the family talks to him normally. To reply, he uses sign language and a device called a Dynavox, which resembles an iPad and produces computerized speech. He gets no special treatment. When he comes home from school, he goes straight to work. When he throws a tantrum because his dad changes the TV from the Disney channel to hockey, he’s reminded that he has to share.

By handling every new obstacle with grace and strength—he had a full spinal fusion in April of this year which forced him to essentially start his recovery over from scratch—Reece brings out the best in everyone around him. At school, Reece works one-on-one with a paraprofessional, Rust Lisch, in his special needs class. Lisch, who backed up Joe Montana at Notre Dame and played in the NFL for four seasons, had never worked with special needs kids before Reece. He worried about everything from communication to diaper changing. Lisch was raised in and shaped by the production-based world of athletics, but Reece has helped him shed that mentality.

“I see society producing children like cornfields, and then someone like Reece comes along, and he’s like the flower in that field,” Rust says. “The tendency in our culture is to put all the people who can’t produce on a trash heap. But when you see how they can affect other people in their love and service and patience and humility, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Last year, Rust and Reece spent a day shadowing with a regular junior high classroom. It was the first day of class, and the kids were broken up into small groups for a team-building exercise. The teacher asked a prompt question. Silence. Then Reece got on his Dynavox and started talking, and the ice was broken, and the discussion began.

But Reece has produced the biggest changes within his own family. Because of him, Harry has assumed the role of older brother. Because of him, mom and dad decided to ditch another plan and had another child. Sophia is 2½ years old now. And because of him, mom and dad are healthier than ever physically and emotionally.

*****

Three years after Reece ran his first 100-yard dash on his walker with the help of his mother, Rick had his revelation and made the deal with his son. The first time he ran, Rick couldn’t make it the mile and a half around the neighborhood. He began with a modest goal: get down to 180 pounds, his high school weight. A winded mile became an easy mile, and then a mile turned into two, three and four. When he could run a 5k in 40 minutes, he and Reece decided to train for a race. Jenn, who had been taking occasional classes at the YMCA, didn’t want to be outdone by her husband and decided to start running as well.

They used to have a starch—rice, potatoes, bread—at every meal, but now it’s just proteins and vegetables. Jenn quit buying soda for the house. And she and Rick limit their ice cream intake. No more Ben & Jerry’s at 1 a.m. If Jenn wants a midnight snack—“more like 9 p.m. snack, because with Sophia now, I couldn’t dream of being awake at midnight”—she heads to the fridge and grabs a handful of grapes. Rick has lost nearly 70 pounds, and Jenn has lost almost 50.

For the race, Rick and Reece picked a Blacklight Run in August. Rick set up his son in his stroller and Harry helped clear the path. They finished in under 30 minutes.

“You make gains every day,” Rick says, “and every day you shed some more of that hopelessness you feel at first. It’s a long process. You still have days where you wish you could go to a show or get in a taxi or go on vacation like normal. But we’ve adjusted our goals. We have new plans now.”

In August, Rick posted a photo on the social media site Reddit. It was titled “He used to be in a coma, I used to be a fat guy. Now we're both recovering,” and it showed him running while Reece was standing and using his Dynavox. It earned 7,100 upvotes and nearly a thousand comments. It spread to the front page of Yahoo!, to Today.com and to the Daily Mail in London.

“I love that Reece gets this kind of attention,” Jenn says. “My hope would be that maybe there will be more research and a breakthrough the more attention there is. Brain injuries aren’t the prettiest thing in the world. Anything that can help, I’m all for.”

Their goals have changed, but they Delashmits are still setting them. Rick’s next race with Reece will be a half-marathon in October. One day, they hope Reece will regain everything he lost—that he’ll talk and walk again. They still dream of him going to prom and to college. Maybe that won’t be possible, but it doesn’t hurt to hope. They know as well as anyone that small steps can lead to sprints.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.