Injured ATV racer battles his way back from paralyzing injury

Published: May 16, 2011  |  Source: pennlive.com  | Spinal Cord Injury:
157

On Feb. 19, ATV Pro Am racer Cody Wills of Lower Paxton Twp. crashed while competing in a qualifying race during Motorama 2011 at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. In flipping his four-wheeler and landing squarely on his head, the 20-year-old crushed the C-6 vertebra in his neck, partially severing his spinal cord. Neurosurgeons at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center employed cutting-edge techniques, including plunging Cody’s body into hypothermia for three days in order to limit the swelling of his spinal tissue and prevent further neurological impairment. Cody emerged from the surgery with the use of his hands, but only faint feeling and virtually no control below his chest. It could be a year or longer before the extent and permanency of his injuries are known.

A father feeds his passions to his son.

The boy takes to anything with wheels and a motor.

Having endured months of begging, his mother finally says “yes” to the boy’s first big ride.

The boy is no older than four, the baby of the family. But little Cody Wills rips up the coal hills of Tower City on his tiny three-wheeler. By afternoon, he’s dusted black from head to toe.

Then it happens.

A big dirt bike zooms up a hill. Little Cody and his tiny trike are just over the rise.

There’s a collision.

Cody is no match. He’s all but run over by the bigger, faster bike.

His father sees all of this from a distance. Just one thought registers: “That’s my son.”

Dad rushes to his boy, lying amid the coal dust.

The son who the family nicknamed “Bug Eyes” finally opens his big, bright peepers. Those eyes are the only thing the father sees on his son’s coal-darkened face.

Relief washes over him. He’s alive, his father thinks. Cody is OK.

Not exactly.

The boy’s shoulder is on fire with pain. Silent tears streak the coal dust on his cheeks.

But in the days before cell phones, young Cody has no choice. He must ride out from the isolated network of trails on his bent bike.

It’s the only way to his father’s truck.

On the return trip to the family’s Lower Paxton Twp. home, Cody holds on against the pain. He learns early to swallow the hurt, even as his big eyes brim with wetness and threaten to roll back from shock.

At home, his mother takes one look and rushes him to the emergency room. By now, he’s coughing up a little blood.

X-rays confirm the diagnosis: Cody’s collarbone is broken.

He won’t be back on his bike for months. But he will be back on it. That’s a guarantee.

The bug has bitten him. Injuries and a mother’s reservations cannot stop him now.

Cody Wills was born to twist back a throttle and let ‘er rip. He was born to ride pretty much anything on two, three or four wheels.

He does this willingly, rapturously, joyously for the next 16 years.

Until his next big accident. This one changes his life as much as the first one did, back when he proved his motocross mettle.

Cody is 20 now. He lies on the dirt track of the Pennsylvania Farm Show, having flipped his four-wheeler in a race and landed sharply on his head.

He looks up at his worried father with those same big eyes. Only this time, those eyes are begging for reassurance, rather than offering it.

Because Cody Wills can’t feel his legs.

The race is stopped
From high in the Farm Show stands, Cody’s older brother sees it coming.

The events leading up to Cody’s wreck are as vivid as a slow-motion, detail-rich Hollywood movie flickering inside Justin Wills’ mind’s eye. Justin knows his baby brother will hit the last jump of the Pro Am ATV qualifying race with everything he has.

On the motocross circuit, the two brothers are known as “Shake” and “Bake.” Cody is No. 77; Justin, No. 76.

Lately, however, Justin, 27, hasn’t been competing. He’s out of the fast lane and up in the stands. Cody has the spotlight all to himself.

Justin appoints himself his brother’s coach. The two laugh at the absurdity of such a title. They know it’s impossible to coach the split-second decisions born of instinct that the sport demands.

This is never more apparent than on that Saturday night in February, during the last of the ATV qualifying heats at the sold-out Motorama 2011 event.

Justin feels absolutely powerless in the packed Farm Show stands. He can only watch as unalterable events play out:

The other rider who swerved around the final jump cuts back over, attempting to reclaim the lane.

Cody and his four-wheeler are hurtling through the air. The arching trajectory from the 25-foot jump puts Cody on a collision course with the other rider.

Cody and his bulky Suzuki LTR 450 seem to hang in the air forever. Then, all of a sudden, Cody’s bike lands heavily on the back corner of the other rider’s ATV. Cody’s bike flips violently, bucking its rider.

Cody goes flying.

The capacity crowd makes a guttural sound. More than 7,000 spectators leap to their feet.

Cody lands hard on his helmet-protected head. His neck sustains the full impact of his fall.

A red flag halts the race.

And Justin Wills knows his little brother is hurt as he sprints from the stands.

Cody’s mother, Judy, can only watch through the buffer of a camera lens. It provides a bit of distance and lends a layer of insulation from the ever-present danger.

She’s taping or taking pictures when Cody wrecks.

She’ll never look at those images.

At least two videos of the Feb. 19 accident recorded by spectators soon surface on YouTube. Judy Wills will never watch these, either.

She doesn’t have to. The sounds and scenes still play in her mind.

Cody’s girlfriend, Kayla Maxey, just bought him new gear and a chest guard for Christmas. He’s wearing them in the race.

Other times when Cody has crashed, it’s taken Kayla a couple of laps to realize her No. 77 is no longer bunched with the other riders. She scans the track until she spots him.

Without fail, Cody always gets up. If he can get his bike going again, Cody is right back out there, even if the lost laps spell a last-place finish. If he cannot, he pushes his bike off the course and readies for the next race.

Either way, Cody Wills always gets up. It’s an article of faith for Kayla.

Perhaps this is why the 18-year-old former Lower Dauphin High cheerleader breaks down before she even knows what’s wrong. Because her boyfriend isn’t getting up this time.

Instead, Kayla sees EMTs rushing to her fallen rider. All the No. 77 gear she bought for Cody is as plain as day. And Kayla can’t stop crying.

Cody’s father, Shawn Wills, rides with his son in the ambulance.

At first, it doesn’t seem that serious. Sure, Cody is a bloody mess. His head-first fall has knocked out teeth and badly damaged his upper dental plate. But these things can be fixed.

Blood is spewing from Cody’s mouth. Maybe this is why he doesn’t get the words out right away.

But just as the ambulance is pulling away for Harrisburg Hospital, Cody finally manages to voice his fear: He can’t feel his legs.

The EMTs test him, touching spots all the way up his legs to his lower back. Cody can’t feel this, either.

Almost immediately, the ambulance changes destinations. It now speeds toward the trauma unit at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. And Shawn Wills must call his wife.

‘Let Cody walk again’

The mother who rushed Cody to the hospital for his first broken bone pleads with the neurosurgeon.

Do something, anything, so her son can walk again.

Dr. Chris Zacko, Hershey’s co-director of neurological trauma and critical care, has come to the frantic family with the classic “good new, bad news” scenario.

After examining Cody in the emergency trauma unit, Zacko first tells the Wills that their son is stable. Cody will live.

His parents, brother, two sisters and his girlfriend exhale in unison.

But Zacko isn’t finished. The C-6 vertebra in Cody’s neck has been crushed. His entire neck has been compressed by the severe impact of his fall. There are other fractures and ligament damage, both elsewhere in Cody’s neck and at the base of his skull.

But the real culprit is the inflamed tissue of his spinal cord near the C-6 rupture. The doctor calls it an incomplete spinal cord injury. It’s difficult to say how extensive the damage is because the tissue there is so inflamed, so “angry.”

Worse, swelling from the initial injury will further scar the cord, adding yet another roadblock to the neurological impulses that must navigate this new-found bottleneck.

Bottom line: Cody won’t walk again.

The words are naked, absolute, point-blank.

Immediately, Judy Wills grasps for nuisance, the thinnest thread of hope to cling to. She’ll take any percentage, no matter how low. Just give her son a chance.

“Let Cody walk again,” Judy implores.

There is something Zacko and his team can try. It involves placing Cody into a medically induced coma, then plunging his body into hypothermia. It’s the only chance to control the swelling and limit the amount of permanent scarring to Cody’s spinal cord.

To accomplish this, Zacko prescribes a body temperature of 90 degrees. Doctors will bombard his system with steroids to control the inflammation, and artificially elevate his blood pressure to flood the site with healing oxygen and nourishing blood. All of this to calm what Zacko calls the burgeoning hematoma engulfing Cody’s spinal cord.

“If I had that injury, that’s what I would want done,” Zacko says later.

The six-hour surgery to insert a metal ring to replace Cody’s shattered C-6 vertebra lasts into the wee hours of Sunday morning, Feb. 20.

Cody is in the “deep freeze” for the next three days. He remains in the hospital for the better part of a month.

The degree to which these heroic measures are successful won’t be fully known for a year or longer.

Cody begins his long road back in rehab. It’s a bumpy, grueling trail unlike anything this motocross racer has ever ridden.

Good thing he isn’t alone.

‘He’s still Cody’

Make no mistake, this is a love story.

Cody and Kayla are romantics from the start.

They meet through mutual friends. Kayla is waitressing at Skyline Restaurant on Route 22 in West Hanover Twp. He inquires about her; she’s curious about him.

For their first date, he takes her for dinner at Houlihan’s in Hershey. It’s July 5, 2008. But these two are still seeing fireworks. They celebrate the anniversary of that first date each and every month.

Attempting to explain the mysteries of chemistry, Kayla says the two are alike in all the important ways, yet different enough to keep things interesting. She buys him motocross gear and parts for his ATV. Cody always makes Kayla laugh.

In typical Cody-Kayla fashion, she’s the first thing he asks about on the night of his accident. It’s as if Cody senses how shaken and upset Kayla is. He puts on a brave face.

“I’m OK,” he tells her, his mouth bleeding and the EMTs preparing to cart him from the track.

“I knew he wasn’t,” Kayla says later.

It’s the last time there are any false pretenses between them. The wet-eyed, fragile girlfriend who couldn’t stop crying that first night steps up to become a full partner in Cody’s recovery and rehabilitation.

She moves into Cody’s room at the Penn State Hershey Rehabilitation Hospital. She stays with him every night for the entire five weeks he’s there.

She learns everything she can about paralysis. So much that rehab RNs are soon giving Kayla their old textbooks and encouraging her to become a nurse.

She takes an unflinching role in Cody’s care. She dresses him from head to toe. She trims his scraggly goatee. She barbers his hair.

If Cody needs a catheter, show Kayla once and she’ll do it the next time.

Soon, she’s administering his shots and assisting with his thrice-daily bathroom regimen. The regularly timed program is designed to retrain Cody’s body, which can no longer sense when his bladder or bowels are full.

Kayla examines Cody’s skin each morning and night. Her eyes scan and her gentle fingers feel for tell-tale blisters or redness that’s the first sign of his flesh breaking down. If not treated, these seemingly ordinary ailments grow into devastating infections that can set back a paraplegic’s progress for months.

And Kayla is ever-vigilant for a potentially dangerous side effect of paralysis in which Cody’s typically low blood pressure spikes in response to unseen and un-sensed pain somewhere in his body. This life-threatening syndrome can be touched off by anything from an ingrown toenail or an overly full bladder to a pressure point somewhere on the skin. Because Cody’s body can no longer register pain in the regular way, it responds to such distress with a devastating headache and dangerously high blood pressure levels that can result in a stroke.

Of course, Kayla is with Cody for all of his rehabilitation.

These are frustratingly grueling exercises in recapturing what used to be mindlessly simple tasks — pulling on pants, tying tennis shoes, transferring oneself from a bed to a chair — even sitting up without passing out from a sudden drop in blood pressure.

Now, they are monumental feats born of limp limbs and a month’s worth of muscle-wasting confinement in a hospital bed.

Perhaps the best therapy comes late at night, when Cody and Kayla are alone together inside his rehab room and no subject is out of bounds.

Both harbor fears. At night, they lay them bare.

Kayla wants to know if Cody can accept what’s happened. Cody needs to be sure Kayla still sees him as her boyfriend, not someone she must take care of.

The hard questions cut right to the heart of the matter: How will their relationship change?

To label what has happened a test of their love is a trite underestimation of the colossal turn of events. Their lives have been altered, utterly. To move forward, each must cross the chasm dividing their lives before the accident and their life now.

Cody and Kayla must look into each other’s eyes and know that nothing has changed, even though everything has.

Kayla knows Cody is capable of showing a brave, humorous face to the world. Cody knows Kayla is special. But he must remain her beau, not her burden.

“I was just curious how she feels,” Cody explains.

“My biggest fear was how Cody would feel,” Kayla adds. “I needed to hear when it was just me and him.”

Together, they’ve found the answers.

“We are the way we were before,” Kayla insists. “It’s not any different. He’s still Cody. I never said, ‘I like this boy because he can walk.’”

And why not?

“She broke her foot once, and I still loved her through that,” Cody points out, smiling at the comically understated comparison.

Smiles through gritted teeth

The real world is not level.

This is the physical therapist’s mantra. It’s the reason they are such strident taskmasters, merciless in the dispensing of hard, grueling work.

Amy Flinchbaugh is as rough-hewn and hardened as they come. But only because she wants you to get your life back, as much as you can possibly attain.

When Cody arrives at the Penn State Hershey Rehabilitation Hospital on March 9, he’s been bedridden for nearly a month.

Never big with 135 pounds dressing his 5-foot-11-inch frame, Cody had been toned and fit — a regular iron-pumper at the LA Fitness in Lower Paxton Twp.

He’s down to 112 pounds by the time he enters rehab. His wasted arms and pencil-thin legs shock even him. He can’t sit straight up because the immediate plunge in his blood pressure causes him to pass out.

He literally has a mountain to climb.

It begins with getting out of bed and into a specialized wheel chair that tilts on an axis. This allows Cody to gradually adjust to sitting upright over the course of several days.

Cody’s nurses and therapists do this with a blood pressure cuff strapped to his arm. They check his pressure with every slight elevation in his sitting position.

That first week, Cody passes out more than once. This is how far he must go.

Yet, attitude is everything in rehab. Even veterans on the rehab staff assembled by Select Medical Corp. have never seen one like Cody’s.

His optimism remains untouched by depression, which drags down so many who suffer physical setbacks. His infectious smile is unbowed. He willingly does anything and everything his nurses and therapists tell him to do. If he doesn’t remember, Kayla’s there to remind him.

This doesn’t mean Cody is above giving good-natured grief about his torturous therapy.

“He told us the therapist is abusing him,” confides friend Travis West, 26.

“You mean the therapy?,” someone asks.

“No, the lady’s hitting him,” Travis deadpans.

Cody’s rehab room, filled, as it often is, with family and friends, erupts in laughter.

No one enjoys it more than Cody. But only because there’s a grain of truth there. Cody and Amy, his physical therapist, enjoy a love-hate relationship. This manifests itself in the form of tart, entertaining one-liners.

“Are we going to butt heads?,” the formidable physical therapists inquires.

“Oh, yeah,” a grinning Cody answers with relish.

There are smiles over gritted teeth. Laughs amid the sweat. But there’s no feeling sorry.

You look for it, almost expect it.

Surely, a 20-year-old thrown for this kind of life-altering loss has his down days. There must be bitter moments. He can’t possibly be immune to self-pitying thoughts, can he?

Yet they never come.

“He always makes the best of everything,” Kayla explains. “He is just thankful for all the stuff he does have.”

Muscling himself forward

Each week, he gets stronger.

Cody can sit for hours now, instead of minutes. He’s hefting five- and 10-pound dumbbells, instead of two- and three-pounders. Tone is returning to his arms. His abdominals are tightening.

Cody has gone through two wheelchairs. He no longer needs the specialized contraptions that adjust his sitting position or support his back. He tools around in a standard-issue model. He can sit ramrod straight with virtually no problems.

Even better, Cody is now muscling himself from his hospital bed to his wheelchair. He’s learned the mix of physics and leverage that is the “self-transfer.” It’s a major victory born of long, hard work.

Cody practices the upward pushes, again and again, until his arms are shaking.

“That’s getting the triceps,” encourages Amy, who admits she doesn’t count reps. Too boring. Besides, the therapist is more interested in pushing Cody as far as he can go. At this, she excels.

Between sets, Kayla holds a cup as Cody sucks water through a straw. He’s like a championship boxer in his corner between rounds.

Then Cody goes back for more.

This time, he’s lifting his entire torso, then pushing himself from side to side. It mimics the thrust and pivot needed to bridge the gap between his wheelchair and the bed or regular chair.

He does this first to his right, then to his left. He wants to be able to transfer in any direction.

But before Cody can get into his wheelchair, he needs to be able to sit up in bed all by himself. So he begins flat on his back. He holds out his arms, clasps hands, then starts swinging his extended limbs from side to side, like a pendulum.

Soon, the momentum is moving his entire torso from side to side. When he builds up enough energy, Cody snaps his entire body to the left, managing to roll onto his side. Then, he reaches for the rails of his hospital bed and muscles himself upright.

At home, he wants to be able to sleep in a regular bed. He’ll have to learn to accomplish this maneuver without using the bed rails.

Then comes the road test. Cody is out on the rehab parking lot on a raw spring day. Amy challenges him to propel his wheelchair up the slope of the driveway.

At first, Amy starts him a quarter of the way down. Cody powers up the grade without a problem.

Next, she takes him about half-way down. She counts bushes to keep track. Again, he mounts the summit.

“Are you tired?” Amy inquires.

“No.” Cody is firm.

“Good,” she says. “Do it again.”

It’s the famous refrain of the physical therapist.

This time, Amy takes Cody back even further, the grade becoming both longer and steeper now.

Again, he takes the hill.

Amy is pleased.

Kayla is cold.

And Cody just will not quit.

Because the world is not level.

“You can’t ask him to do something and expect him to say ‘no,’” Kayla adds.

Traveling by inches

Cody’s ultimate goal is to walk.

But his first step toward discharge from rehab is becoming independent, whether in his wheelchair or out of it.

This means dressing himself, cleaning himself, playing pool — even throwing a ball to his rambunctious little dog named Crash.

To prepare Cody for his return to his life, his team of occupational and recreational therapists practice all of these skills and more, right down to paying fetch with the rehab dog, Abba.

The fun stuff is pingpong, billiards and tug-of-war with Abba, a Lab-Golden mix.

All of it is therapy.

Around the pool table, Cody learns to precisely position his wheelchair. Swatting a pingpong ball, he sharpens his hand-eye skills. Muscling a pull-toy from Abba’s mouth, he strengthens his back, shoulders and grip.

Even Scrabble develops the fine-motor skills in Cody’s still-weakened hands. He can pick up the letter tiles from the stand, but not from the table. Not yet.

When it comes to testing his grip with Abba, Cody can’t be too successful here, either. But it’s not because of his injury.

Abba is prone to pouting if the dog loses one too many rounds of tug-of-war.

“You have to let him win every once in a while or he gets mad,” occupational therapist Lisa Sheaffer confides to Cody, who’s holding his own in a growling game of canine combat.

The seemingly mundane tasks of putting on shoes and pulling up pants are another matter, entirely. There is no joy. This is work, plain and simple.

Cody struggles to keep his balance sitting Indian-style, while using his hands and forearms to position his unresponsive legs.

It’s a long, long struggle to remove his Nike sneakers and pull on the white orderlies’ pants over his black sweats. By the time Cody gets his shoes back on and attempts to tie the laces, his hands are shaking badly.

Still, Cody twirls the lace around a finger to give him a better grip. He manages to loop the bow, but can’t quite pull it tightly enough to complete the job.

He jokes that he’s switching from laces to Velcro.

Better to laugh than cry.

The motorcycle rider who effortlessly logged so many miles is on a course of inches now.

Cody can go only as fast as his body allows.

Sensation returns

In the exam room, neurosurgeon Chris Zacko admires his handiwork.

He removes Cody’s plastic neck brace and studies the surgical scar hiding underneath.

It’s nearly two months since Cody’s accident. The surgeon’s signature is a thin line to the lower left of Cody’s Adam’s Apple. It’s a thing of beauty, and it’s healing perfectly.

By accessing Cody’s spine from the front, the surgery was minimally invasive. A rear incision would have severed key muscles and ligaments in Cody’s already-fragile neck, greatly lengthening his recovery.

Cody wants to know when the neck brace can come off for good.

Zacko furrows his brow, then puts a hand under Cody’s chin. The doctor gently manipulates his patient’s head up and down, side to side.

The surgeon orders another X-ray to see how the minor fractures in Cody’s neck are healing. But the signs are positive.

Maybe a week or two, Zacko answers.

Cody asks about exercises to strengthen his neck. Zacko tells him that without the brace, it will be work enough just holding up his head.

But Cody is thinking further down his comeback trail.

What about wearing a helmet, he asks. When will his neck be strong enough for that?

One thing at a time, replies Zacko. First, see how you do without the brace.

It’s just the beginning of the good news this day.

Cody announces that sensation is returning to his feet.

The first signs are little shocks, as if electrical impulses are making their way down Cody’s legs to his feet and toes.

Kayla checks her boyfriend’s progress daily. She makes Cody lie back and close his eyes. Then, she touches one of his toes, and Cody must identify which one. He answers correctly without fail.

“That’s pretty good,” Zacko says, then sees for himself.

Cody shuts his eyes, and the doctor touches parts of Cody’s feet through his tennis shoes.

Cody’s right every time.

Next, Zacko grips Cody’s hands. His hand strength is slowly coming back, too. So is Cody’s voice, rendered whisper-faint from the injury and his treatment.

“I think things are going well,” Zacko pronounces after the exam.

Cody is that much closer to going home.

Yearning for normalcy

The finish line is finally in sight.

Cody is set for an April 13 discharge from rehab. He’s so buoyant with the news, he can’t stop smiling.

There are so many things he wants to do — play with his dog, fish in his parents’ pond, hold wheelchair races with Kayla in the driveway, even learn to kayak.

Mostly, he wants to get back to feeling normal again. He wants a bed without rails, a room without blood pressure monitors, a morning free of interruptions from nurses. He wants his life back.

Cody sails through his rehab sessions. He’s become so adept at transferring from his wheelchair to the physical therapy tables in the rehab gym, why not try getting into Kayla’s car?

After all, he’ll need to master that particular maneuver when time comes to sign his discharge papers.

This argument makes perfect sense to his therapist. The next thing you know, Cody is wheeling himself out of the front door of the rehab with the quickness of a fleeing bank robber.

Kayla’s sports car, the one Cody rebuilt with his two hands, is low to the ground. But using all of his newfound skills — along with a little help — Cody bridges the gap between wheelchair and bucket seat.

He feels so good in the car, why not go for a spin?

Cody and Kayla turn to the therapist. Why not?

“Yes!” Cody says.

Kayla turns the key. The hum of the engine is music to Cody’s ears. Kayla drops it in gear. They do laps around the rehab parking lot. And Cody tastes freedom for the first time since his accident.

If only they could just keep going.

A painful delay

Like any competitor, Cody can’t abide changing the rules in the middle of the race.

Most of the week, he’s positively floating with the news of his impending discharge. Then, someone drops a caution flag on his plans.

As part of his release, Cody is fitted for a custom wheelchair. The high-tech model is capable of mounting curbs and overcoming most any obstacle. Better yet, Cody will be able to pop wheelies in it.

There’s just one catch. The rehab wants Cody to try out his new chair before his release. But the cross-country shipping will take a few more days.

Cody’s eyes well up with rare tears of frustration.

Perhaps some of the delay is owed to Cody’s uncertain financial situation. At the time of his accident, he lacked health insurance. And he signed a waiver of liability with the race promoter as part of the standard entry criteria for such events.

He has applied for medical assistance to cover the costs of his disability, but the application is still in process. Medical bills that could total $500,000 or more in the first year alone currently go unpaid.

Friends and family organize a few local fundraisers, but the money doesn’t amount to even a down payment on such a balance.

Still, a frustrated Cody offers to pay the $550 it would cost to ship his wheelchair overnight. The engine shop tinkerer accustomed to receiving his motorcycle parts the next day just can’t comprehend the delay.

He’s told that wheelchairs are different from motorcycles. Cody can do nothing but wait.

At the Wills’ home there is a race, too.

The family is finishing the downstairs rec-room into an efficiency apartment for Kayla and Cody.

The centerpiece of the project is a large, wheelchair-accessible bathroom and shower that’s being built-out from basement cinder block.

Shawn Wills and his contractor-daughter, Daisy, donate their time. Cody’s brother, Justin, insists upon purchasing the fixtures.

In front of Cody, Justin has been all smiles, jokes and wisecracks. But his father knows differently.

Cody’s accident has been toughest for the big brother who blazed the trail and set the bar for Cody all his life.

Outfitting Cody’s bathroom is one way a tough, big brother expresses his love without words.

‘I want to see the bike’

Cody has always been a fierce and fearless finisher. In a race, with competitors closing from either side, there’s no backing down, never any touching the brakes.

Cody doesn’t blink in the game of chicken. Instead, he twists back the throttle and hurtles himself all the faster toward his goal.

This instinct is what finally propels the baby of the family to overtake his big brother and his father. On the track, both of them ease up at the very moment Cody bears down.

Since the night of Feb. 19, Cody the finisher has been burdened by unfinished business. The racer who always climbs back on his bike has been prevented from closing the circle.

So, not long after Kayla drives him home down the Wills’ long driveway, with the family’s four dogs bounding in the yard, Cody makes a simple request. “I want to see the bike,” he says.

The whole family gathers around a yellow panel van parked near a garage.

Cody’s Suzuki has remained untouched inside the van since his dad and brother hauled it back from the Farm Show.

Justin rolls the ATV down a ramp from the back of the van. Cody eyes it from his wheelchair.

“I want to sit on it,” he says.

With his arms slung around the necks of his father and brother, Cody is hoisted onto the machine. His body wraps around its contours as if they were custom made for him.

He sits astride the four-wheeler without assistance, hands on the rubber grips, feet on the metal pegs.

Cody points out dings and dents from the crash. He jerks the handle bars, suspecting they, too, are bent.

Then, he flicks the ignition. It rumbles to life on the first try.

Cody smiles. There’s a glint in his eye.

He attempts to twist back the throttle, but his right hand is still too weak. He reaches over with his left, finally eliciting the desired response. The ATV’s engine whines shrilly. Cody’s smile broadens.

Someone shouts not to drop it into gear. This isn’t a joke. Rather, the prospect is totally within the realm of possibility with Cody.

Instead, he allows his motorcycle’s melody to play on. Its signature exhaust fills his nostrils.

Then, just as suddenly, Cody cuts the engine. It coughs dead. “OK,” he says.

His father and brother return Cody to his chair. These are his wheels — but only for the moment.

Because Cody Wills, No. 77 in your program, is coming back.

How to help

At the time of his accident, Cody lacked health insurance, and he had signed a liability waiver as part of the standard entry criteria to participate in the racing events. His application for public medical assistance remained in limbo throughout his monthlong hospitalization and 5-week rehab stay. The application was approved shortly after Cody’s April 15 discharge. It’s expected to cover most of his medical expenses and the costs of some major equipment, such as his customized wheelchair — but not other equipment necessary for Cody to live and continue his rehabilitation at home.

The Cody Wills Fund
c/o Metro Bank
6071 Allentown Blvd.
Harrisburg, PA 17112
717-540-7605

By JOHN LUCIEW, The Patriot-News