Through faith, fighting back: Columbus student-athlete making strides in 6-month recovery from traumatic brain injury

Walking onto his home basketball court, Levi Sallee asks for a ball and breaks into a smile as his mother, Michelle, gently tosses one to him on the Columbus Christian Crusaders’ home court.

“Use a chest pass, Mom,” Levi Sallee teases, as he begins to demonstrate how to properly shoot a jump shot to his mother. “You bend your knees, get your hands up like this …” and as he shoots the ball, it’s all net.

“Are you trying to teach me basketball?” his mother asks.

The moment is just one of many the Sallee family is cherishing as Levi continues to astonish his care staff, family friends and classmates with his continuing progress.

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Levi is recovering from a single-car accident Sept. 2 in which he was critically injured, suffering a traumatic brain injury. Levi became the third Bartholomew County high school student to suffer a traumatic brain injury in two years.

The 16-year-old junior, who was in a coma for more than a month after the accident, surprised his parents recently by jogging out of the Crusader locker room with his basketball teammates in his warmups before a game. Levi dresses and practices with the team, and cheers teammates from a seat on the bench, but lingering impacts from the accident do not yet allow him to play.

Seeing her son jog for the first time in months was a moment that Michelle Sallee said nearly gave her a heart attack. Although worried that he might fall, it also demonstrated to Michelle just far Levi had progressed in the five months since his accident.

As Levi was preparing to join his teammates again on the floor in a Feb. 18 playoff game for the Indiana Christian School Athletic Association south regional final against Bloomington Lighthouse at Columbus Christian, he casually glanced toward his mother after she mentioned his first jog on to the floor.

“Well, you better close your eyes, because I’m going to do it again,” he said, giving her a smile of reassurance.

“I’m always up for a challenge,” Levi said of what he’s endured since the accident and how much he has improved over those months. “If God says, ‘Here, take this,’ I say, ‘OK, fine.’ “

“It’s a part of the journey — part of the journey God put us on,” his mother said. “The only way we have made it is with God.”

Start of a journey

Levi’s journey began just before Labor Day weekend last year, on a Friday night after the teen had finished soccer practice and was heading home with a classmate who was driving. About eight minutes from home, on County Road 1000N, which straddles the Bartholomew-Jennings county line, the car in which he was riding flipped five times, broke a telephone pole in half and hit a tree, landing upside down, his mother said.Levi suffered a fractured skull, head laceration, a brain contusion, lacerated liver, collapsed lung, two bruised lungs and two broken ribs, his mother said.

The teen’s parents, Tom and Michelle, got to the accident scene before emergency responders, with Michelle lying down on what had been the roof of the car trying to talk to Levi while her husband worked to get the doors open. Levi’s friend who was driving called them to tell them about the accident.

After emergency responders got Levi out of the car and on his way to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis by helicopter, the couple dropped off Levi’s younger brother, Joshua, 12, with a relative and drove to Indianapolis, calling relatives and friends on their way.

When the arrived, they learned Levi was undergoing scans and they couldn’t see him right away. But they entered a waiting room filled with 60 to 70 of Levi’s classmates, school personnel, church members — including about five ministers, Michelle Sallee said. Word had traveled quickly among the Sallee’s church and school family, with telephone messages and social media notifications prompting them to head to the hospital.

As prayers continued in the waiting room, the Sallees were allowed to see their son, who remained unresponsive although medical personnel were repeating his name, trying to get him to wake up.

When Michelle Sallee asked if she could please try, they agreed, and she said loudly “Levi William” in a voice that most children recognize when a first and middle name is said together by a parent.

He did respond, giving a thumbs-up, which caused doctors to bump up his coma scale evaluation at the time.

But the next 72 hours were critical, the family learned, as doctors monitored pressure on his brain and prepared for an MRI to determine the extent of his injury. The MRI revealed a traumatic brain injury, and physicians told the family that they could not yet provide a timeline for recovery.

“With brain injuries, it is waiting and waiting,” his mother wrote in an online Caring Bridge journal that the family shared with loved ones on Levi’s progress. “We believe in the power of the ultimate Healer.”

Within a week, Levi had opened one eye while in the neuro-critical care unit, and was taken off the ventilator, and even spent a little time in a chair. There were setbacks with pneumonia, but Levi was moved to the neuro-progressive care unit by mid-September and soon began opening his eyes, although he was not conscious yet.

On Sept. 16 he was transferred to Riley Hospital for Children’s patient rehabilitation center, where he began therapy six days a week. It was there that he began coming out of his coma, his mother said.

“With a neuro injury, they won’t give you any indication what to expect,” his mother said. “So little is known about how the brain can heal from brain shearing or if the neuro pathways are ripped,” she said. “To what extent can it repair itself, it’s a matter that they just don’t know right now.”

Tilt table memories

As for Levi, he doesn’t remember much about his time in Methodist but does remember occasional glimpses of Riley.He particularly remembers being placed on a tilt table, a device that takes a prone patient and tilts him to a standing position — saying he hated it, and that it gave him dreams of his father putting him on a two-wheel dolly and wheeling him around at home. The tilt table was actually used to regulate Levi’s blood pressure and to help his brain remember his body existed, to make the connection between the nerve pathways, his father said.

On Sept. 26, Levi spoke his first word at Riley. He remembers his parents asking him what his “Bubby’s” name was, and Levi responded, “Joshua,” repeating his 12-year-old brother’s name. Levi was in speech therapy at the time, using a special speaking valve on his trach tube, which was inserted into his throat to provide an airway.

Through all of Levi’s 55 days in the hospital, a steady stream of visitors stopped by, something Levi said he loved.

In the early visits, his friends could only hold his hand and talk gently to him, but in later visits they would bring cards and posters, along with encouragement. Some even cheered him on during therapy.

In the first days, many of Levi’s friends had a difficult time seeing him in the condition he was in, his mother said.

“It was very scary for them,” she said.

But his classmates and friends kept visiting.

The only photo the family released during his hospital stay at Methodist was Columbus Christian junior Kyle Foster’s hand holding Levi’s hand while Levi was in the neuro critical care unit. The two have been friends since kindergarten.

In an interview at Columbus Christian last week, Foster said he is hopeful that his friend will make it back to the basketball court to play in a game before the two graduate next year.

“He’s fighting so hard to come back,” Foster said of his friend. “It makes you realize you shouldn’t take anything for granted.”

Levi began meeting many of the physical, occupational and speech therapy goals Riley was setting for him by the end of September, but work continued to strengthen the use of his left arm, trunk and core, eye tracking and more.

By the beginning of October, Levi could stand with assistance and had taken a step or two. In her journal, his mother said Levi continued to make progress each day, and thanked the “prayer warriors” who continued to support Levi and the family.

Prayer warriors, nighthawks

“Levi is so blessed,” his mother wrote on Oct. 1 in her journal. “We can feel God’s presence in every accomplishment. Levi continues to amaze his therapists. He has always been a hard worker. That does not appear to have changed. We thank you, our prayer warriors, for helping in his journey. The healing power of God is almost unbelievable to witness.”In addition to prayers, members of the East Columbus Christian Church and school families banded together in October to give the entire Sallee home a cleaning and do all the yardwork and other chores that had not been done since the accident, something the family deeply appreciated.

Throughout the months Levi was hospitalized, church and school families dropped off meals for the family and kept a steady stream of visitors stopping in. There were also “nighthawks,” volunteers who sat with Levi overnight so that his mother could get some sleep in an Indianapolis hotel room nearby.

By Oct. 27, Levi got the news that he could leave the rehab unit for home.

“I just wanted to be home,” he said of the moment of getting there permanently, after one brief home visit with his therapy team to make preparations. “You don’t know how much you miss lying in your own bed.”

And he missed his kitchen, too.

“Who in the world thinks of a kitchen table, and thinks, ‘I miss you,’ “ Levi said of returning home. “Then obviously, the fridge and the freezer.”

The family jokes that Levi never lost the teen-age habit of opening the refrigerator door and hoping to find something good to eat, staring with the door open hoping it might magically appear.

“He’s completely independent in everyday functioning,” his mother said of Levi’s current status. However, Levi can’t have caffeine — too much brain stimulation — something that is a bit annoying to him.

“A man without sweet tea is a mad man,” he said. “Peach sweet tea — eventually the brain doesn’t need more healing,” he said.

When his mother reminds him to be patient, he reminds her, “I am not good at patience.”

Returning to school

Preparations began for his return to Columbus Christian, with Levi’s hospital therapy team arranged and trained a group of about 10 of his close friends to be his school helpers.Levi made an early visit back to the school a few weeks before his release and was met with the Columbus Christian student body of more than 200 students standing in the hallways and circling the gym, giving Levi high-fives as he moved by in his wheelchair, Principal Kendall Wildey said.

The 10 students, a “Circle of Friends,” were in charge of helping Levi navigate the school, carrying his bookbag and helping him take notes as he continued to improve his left-handed writing skills.

Wildey said he was enormously proud of how the teens took Levi’s care to heart, treating him as if a member of their own family.

“It was not an attitude that we have to help,” Wildey said of how the students approached Levi’s return. “It was an attitude of we get to help him.”

Michelle Sallee said initially she planned to be at school every day to assist her son but soon found that the students had Levi’s schedule under control.

From meeting him at the school door at the beginning of the day, to every class change and at lunch, the students cared for Levi, someone they considered to be their brother, his mother said.

Levi started school in a wheelchair, graduated to a walker and eventually began walking to his classes on his own.

Being back with his friends every day is something Levi enjoys enormously, while still keeping therapy appointments at Methodist on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in addition to school.

A group of church and school volunteers continue to serve as drivers to take Levi to his therapy appointments. One of his drivers has been East Columbus Christian Church Pastor Ron Bridgewater, who took Levi a little early to therapy at Methodist a couple times so he could visit with some of the nurses who cared for him.

“They were almost in disbelief,” he said of their reaction to watching a video of Levi jogging out on the basketball floor. “They could not believe how far he had come from where he was in that amount of time.”

As of this month, speech therapists at Methodist have determined that Levi will no longer need that therapy in Indianapolis, although the family plans to pursue more treatment options locally if they are recommended, Michelle Sallee said.

What’s ahead

Levi continues to work on his short-term memory recall and processing, but he is taking a full load of classes this term, along with a study hall, and over the summer will begin courses in physics, anatomy, U.S. History and Spanish to catch up with classmates for his senior year.Before the accident, Levi was narrowing his focus on a career choice, but now says he wants to be a physical therapist, and plans to work toward a doctorate to achieve that — a seven- to eight-year process.

Asked what he will tell a patient who is struggling with physical therapy someday, Levi gives a slight smile and says, “I will tell them, ‘Look here, I didn’t think I could do it when I was 16. But somehow God gave me the strength to do it.’”

In addition to his school work, Levi also enjoys being part of the school’s theater program, and about three years before the accident had the lead role in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” something that required memorizing 200 lines. He missed a show while in the hospital, but has been cast in an upcoming production and is preparing to memorize lines.

“Before it was easy,” he said. “Right now, it’s not so easy.”

The Columbus Christian community adopted the phrase “Christ Strong making #Levi Strong” for T-shirts in support of their friend, with his basketball number 44 on the sleeve. The shirts also carry a Bible verse from Isaiah 53:5, which reminds: “… And by His stripes we are healed.”

Columbus Christian basketball players wear a No. 44, Levi’s number, on their jerseys.

Aaron Almarales, 17, a junior at Columbus Christian who is originally from Trinidad, said Levi was one of his first friends at the school when he arrived as a freshman. He had planned on being with Levi in the car the day of the accident, but at the last minute bowed out when he couldn’t get approval from his parents. Instead, he was among the students who drove to Methodist to see Levi.

What Almarales said he remembers is that Levi never gave up, and was getting back to his normal self really quickly.

“It taught me that in the time of suffering and pain, there is always a way out, by turning to God,” he said. “God is always in control.”

People sometimes ask the Sallees how they had the strength to go through what the family has experienced for the past six months, and Michelle Sallee said she answers that no one has that strength.

“It’s the power of prayer, the power of God that gives you the strength to go on the next step,” she said. “We are a family, and a church family and a school family and this was the journey of Levi and his brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Hand-me-down shawl

Among the boxes of posters, cards, stuffed animals and other items shared with the family to wish Levi well is a crocheted blue prayer shawl which Michelle Sallee holds carefully. It was brought to her by Lora Fathauer, whose son Cameron suffered a traumatic brain injury Sept. 18, 2015 when hit by a car while longboarding in front of his Columbus home when he was 17.Although doctors initially estimated his recovery could take a year and a half, Cameron Fathauer came home walking and talking five weeks after the accident. He is planning to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Boyce College in Louisville in 2018, his mother said.

When Michelle Sallee asked about the prayer shawl, Lora Fathauer explained that it came from Lisa Speidel, mother of Josh Speidel, the Columbus North basketball standout player who was critically injured in a car accident Feb. 1, 2015 near Taylorsville. Speidel also is continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury and is attending college at the University of Vermont and participating in the university’s basketball program.

The three young men have met and posed for a photo on social media last year, Michelle Sallee said. They sat and talked with each other about their experiences, conversation that remains private and shared only among the three.

“This is one of the most special things we received,” Michelle Sallee said of the shawl. “When I learned the original person to receive it was Lisa Speidel … and then it went to Lora Fathauer, all I could think was, I hope I never have to give it to anyone else.”

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Tom and Michelle Sallee, Elizabethtown, have two sons, Levi, 16, and Joshua, 12. They attend East Columbus Christian Church, where Levi is a junior at Columbus Christian School.

Levi and Joshua both play basketball in the school programs.

Levi also has played soccer and baseball for Columbus Christian and participates in the school’s drama program.

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“If God says, ‘Here, take this,’ I say, ‘OK, fine.’ ”

— Levi Sallee, Elizabethtown, recovering from traumatic brain injury

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“We are a family, and a church family and a school family and this was the journey of Levi and his brothers and sisters in Christ.”

— Michelle Sallee, Elizabethtown, mother of injured teen