Skyline High’s Tyler Hoog remains optimistic despite adversity

Paralyzed after an accident in August, junior’s life is forever changed

ATLANTA — Michael Hoog unscrewed the cap of a Gatorade and placed the opening of the bottle on his son’s lower lip.

Sitting in his wheelchair, bundled up in a black stocking cap and Baltimore Orioles Snuggie, Tyler struggled to get his head into the right angle to take a sip of his favorite drink.

“Dad, you need to tip it back more,” Tyler said.

“Oh, sorry, bud,” Michael replied.

To even get to this point of the day required a series of difficult tasks.

In the morning, Michael slid a full-body sling underneath Tyler’s 170-pound frame. With the harness set, Michael attached the four corners to a Hoyer lift and hoisted Tyler out of his hospital-style bed and into his power chair.

Even for Michael, a muscular former professional baseball player, the daily process has been taxing. Once simple tasks — drinking, eating, brushing teeth, going to the bathroom — are no longer matter of fact for Tyler and those who provide him with care.

Two weeks ago, Tyler moved from the inpatient facility at the Shepherd Center, one of the world’s top facilities for spinal cord injuries, into a temporary residence adjacent to the hospital. With blank, white walls, the room isn’t a warm and inviting place, but it serves its purpose — helping the Hoogs transition to their new life.

Tyler and his parents, Michael and Kim, have learned to live with the constant reminders that their journey will be long and difficult.

Four months ago, Tyler was a solid 6-foot, 3-inch, 185-pounder who was developing into a heck of a baseball player. He had just started his junior year at Skyline High School. Fall baseball practice was around the corner. Homecoming was weeks away. Movies and lunch outings with friends were routine.

Today, he sits in a motorized wheelchair, a quadriplegic at 17.

He powers his chair by sipping and puffing through a plastic straw which is connected to a small computer. How hard Tyler sips or puffs tells the chair how to move — a hard puff and the chair moves forward; a hard sip and it reverses direction; a soft sip makes the chair veer right; a soft puff turns it left.

Tyler, though he can control some things, hints at frustration as he asks for help.

Michael’s eyes show fatigue.

Kim’s voice demands a few more hours of sleep.

“Honestly, it sucks,” Kim said earlier this week. “It just does. It is hard. It hurts your heart.

“You’re reminded every day of, just, the things that the rest of us take for granted.”

Yet for all the challenges, the overwhelming characteristic of Tyler’s new life resides below the reddish-blond strands of hair peeking out of from under his stocking cap. Tyler’s smile, always inviting, is a constant and comforting reminder — to Tyler, to his parents, to his brother, to his friends, to his nurses — that life is a gift, no matter how it’s packaged.

Tyler comes home to Longmont tonight for the first time since a four-wheeling accident in late August left him paralyzed from the shoulders down. But his homecoming is not that of a crippled teenager with shattered dreams. Rather, he returns a matured young man eager to see what great things he can achieve, despite his physical limitations.

“Before this I had never been faced with any true adversity, so I didn’t know how to handle it,” he said from his apartment at the Shepherd Center earlier this month. “I never thought something as severe as this would happen to me, and no one ever does. But, when it did, I guess there was only two ways to take it: good or bad.

“Since I was naturally already a happy person, I wasn’t going to stop being happy and having fun and doing what I like to do just because of it.”

The accident

It was Aug. 28, a warm Sunday afternoon just two days after Tyler’s 17th birthday. He, his parents and four of his friends were returning to Longmont from a weekend of Jeeping near Buena Vista when they decided to pull off the highway near Bailey for one more run.

“At the last minute, we just tried to do another small ride,” said Davide Costazza, an Italian exchange student living with the Hoogs and one of the four friends on the trip.

Michael, Kim and two friends were in one Jeep. Behind them, Tyler drove his black Jeep Wrangler; Colton Dabney rode shotgun and Costazza was in the back. Tyler’s brother, Thomas, a 15-year-old freshman at Skyline, stayed home that weekend.

Tyler’s Wrangler, solid black from top to bottom, had ripped through many trails before, including some rough terrain in Utah’s Moab mountains earlier in the summer. This trail was “simple,” Tyler said — the rocky terrain made it a bumpy, bouncy ride, which the boys loved.

Ahead of Tyler, Michael navigated through a washed-out portion of the road, less than a mile from Colo. Highway 285 below, and then stopped. Checking his rearview mirror, he waited for Tyler.

The route was so bumpy Costazza’s phone bounced to the floor. He lay down in the seat, his hand pawing the floor in search of it. In that instant, Tyler hit the washout. He didn’t see it in time to slow down.

“I don’t know how fast I was going, but I probably gained more speed than I had intended to,” he said, recalling the memory from his wheelchair. “I remember trying to hit the brakes, and I remember flipping.

“What happened in my parents’ perspective is I flew about 10 feet, about 4 feet off the ground. The Jeep bounced and that’s when I hit my head against my roll cage.”

The vehicle flipped; the back half of the roll cage collapsed from the violent impact. Costazza, who the Hoogs consider family, was unconscious, but lying on the seat might have saved his life. Dabney was shaken, but escaped major injury and got out of the Jeep seconds after it settled to an upside-down stop.

Tyler was stuck, buckled into his seat, blood oozing from a gash on the top of his head.

“I knew right away I couldn’t move,” Tyler said, his eyes turned downcast. “I tried for my seatbelt a bunch of times.”

Michael and Kim ran to the Jeep.

“Are you OK?” Michael asked his son.

“No, dad, I’m not,” Tyler answered. “I can’t move anything, and I’m really scared.”

Kim saw blood pooling underneath Tyler; her eyes searched for Costazza when he didn’t answer her or Michael’s calls.

“It wasn’t easy, but the first question I had was, ‘Are Davide and Colton OK?’ ” Tyler said.

Michael ripped the door off the Jeep and found Costazza in the back seat. Radiator fluid dripped from the engine as Michael pulled Costazza and Tyler out. Kim sat with Costazza. Michael lay Tyler on the ground a few feet from the vehicle. Shannon McKee, a Skyline student who was riding with Michael and Kim, held a T-shirt against Tyler’s head to control the bleeding. Michael and Kim continued talking to Tyler to make sure he stayed awake.

Tyler repeatedly asked if his friends were OK.

“Those first 10 minutes were incredibly chaotic,” Kim said.

Within minutes of the accident, a couple driving on the main road stopped to help by directing traffic and calling 911.

Police arrived within 15 minutes; 10 minutes later an ambulance was at the scene. Paramedics worked quickly, asking questions to understand the nature of Tyler’s condition and then stabilizing his neck with a brace and his body on a backboard. Tyler was placed in the ambulance and driven to a waiting helicopter on the main road. He was transferred from the ambulance and secured inside the helicopter. Less than an hour after flipping his Jeep, Tyler was airlifted off the mountain and on his way to Denver’s St. Anthony Hospital.

He couldn’t move, he couldn’t feel anything and he gasped for air.

“I thought that was it,” he said.

Word spreads

Word spread quickly through Skyline High School that one of the more popular students in school was in the hospital.

Tyler’s brother Thomas tried in vain to keep his normal routine. He had yet to see Tyler — at his parents’ request, it wasn’t until Tuesday that Thomas went to the hospital — and didn’t want to talk about it. Headphones tucked into his ears, he stared at the floor as he walked to classes.

“It was awful,” he said. “People would still stop to talk to me. In the long run that was probably better because it forced me to talk about it and accept it more. But, at first, I was completely in denial. I was heartbroken. There’s no other way to put it.”

Halfway through the day, Thomas couldn’t take any more, and he went home. He skipped football practice; he stayed home the next day, too.

Across town at Silver Creek High School, Kellen Wenande wasn’t any more productive in the classroom. He and Tyler met years ago on the baseball field, and their families have grown close ever since. Word of the accident hit him hard.

“I was totally useless in the school world,” he said. “I did nothing for a week.”

At St. Anthony, Michael and Kim were beginning to comprehend the severity of Tyler’s injuries.

Doctors told them within hours of the accident that Tyler’s spinal cord was bruised, causing paralysis. He also fractured the C2 and C4 vertebrae in his neck and suffered a dislocation of C3. Injuries to the C1-C4 levels are the most severe, often life-threatening or leaving the victim a quadriplegic, because nerves in those areas control autonomic functions, such as breathing.

Tyler’s injury was considered “incomplete,” meaning he still has some function below the level of the trauma.

Paralyzed from the shoulders down, Tyler spent the first few days in intensive care, a breathing tube placed down his throat until doctors performed a tracheotomy.

“Could I have prevented this?” Michael would ask himself repeatedly as stood by his oldest son’s bedside.

Michael was devastated, and he let guilt engulf his spirit those first few days.

“All he did was stand there and stare at Tyler,” Thomas said of the first time he saw his father and brother together after the accident. “He would stroke (Tyler’s) arm and he would just stand there dumbfounded. It was hard to believe.”

Heart and mind

Tyler needed his parents to be strong. And Kim and Michael knew they needed each other.

It was the start of a long, emotional and educational journey for the Hoog family, yet Michael and Kim knew what roles they needed to play.

“As we left the hospital that (Sunday) night, we walked out and there literally was a rainbow over the parking lot,” Kim said. “I stopped and I showed him and I said, ‘Look, here’s the deal: I’m going to be the heart, you’re going to be the mind.'”

They threw their energy into Tyler’s needs. While Kim provided emotional support, Michael scrambled for insurance information and searched for a rehabilitation center.

He toured the Shepherd Center, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and Craig Hospital in Denver. All three are renowned spinal cord injury facilities. Michael chose Shepherd because of its emphasis on working with adolescents.

On Sept. 16, Tyler flew to Atlanta in an air ambulance, a Learjet equipped with a hospital bed, medical equipment and enough room for Tyler, Kim and two medical staffers. Tyler couldn’t move, couldn’t feel anything below his shoulders and, unable to speak, he struggled to communicate by blinking his eyes.

Determination to heal

“Let me know if I’m hurting anything, OK?” Kelly White said.

Lying on a vinyl, blue padded mat, Tyler closed his eyes and winced as White straightened his right leg. There’s no pain. Just another frustrating and uncomfortable spasm, caused because the nerves don’t always send a clear message to his brain. Tyler’s body would spasm at even the slightest touch.

“I just hate the spasms,” he said as White, an exercise specialist at the Shepherd Center, stretched his legs, feet, arms on a recent December afternoon.

It had been three months since Tyler arrived at Shepherd, and his progress had been remarkable.

Tyler hit a big milestone a couple of weeks into his stay by getting off his respirator. He learned to shrug his shoulders. He regained sensations in his right hand, and then his left arm and both legs.

He also could move his right bicep, a big step that has allowed him to occasionally brush his own teeth or feed himself, albeit with help from a mobile arm support attached to his wheelchair.

Physical and occupational therapy consumed much of Tyler’s time at Shepherd.

Done with one session, it was on to another.

As Tyler sat in his chair, occupational therapist Darci Pernoud pushed his shoulders back. Then, grabbing his right hand — slightly contracted and baby soft from disuse — she stretched his arm. Tyler winced, his body rocked by another spasm. The uncontrolled tension quickly subsided; Tyler smiled.

Even the slightest task — adjusting his arm, shifting his weight — can be a chore, but is rewarding when new movements or sensations are discovered.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s also very cool and liberating to be able to do it on your own,” he said.

Once a milestone is hit, the focus turns to exercise and strengthening. The exercise, such as his work with White, will strengthen his body and, it is hoped, promote gains in new areas.

“I have small goals,” Tyler said, with desire to heal pouring out of his confident voice. “I want to be able to move my hands again. I want to be able to hand drive (the wheelchair), get finger movement back, get wrist movement back.

“Those are all goals that can be met over time.”

A laugh and a smile

As Tyler drives his chair through the Shepherd Center halls, he and his dad talk about all the people that showed up at a benefit auction a month earlier and all the newspaper articles that have been written about Tyler since his accident.

“See dad,” Tyler said, grinning in Michael’s direction. “I’m a pretty big deal.”

Tyler isn’t Tyler without the ability to crack jokes at anything and everyone around him. In addition to physical movements, Tyler has regained his smile at Shepherd.

Humor isn’t a prescription, such as his physical therapy and the pile of pills he takes each day — to help control spasms, prevent blood clots, settle his stomach — but humor has played a significant role in his recovery.

“He has that same sparkle, that same gleam,” said Kim, adding that Tyler is the only youth at Shepherd not taking anti-depressants.

No topic — his paralysis, his use of a catheter, needing to be fed — is off limits to Tyler’s humor.

On a Friday night in Atlanta, Michael, Tyler and a guest entered a crowded seafood restaurant.

The hostess told Michael there was a 45-minute wait.

Michael looked at Tyler, “What do you think?”

In the pause, the hostess glanced Tyler’s way, too, then quickly found the group a table.

“I’m good looking, but I’m not that good looking,” Tyler joked.

Another day, Michael and Tyler were at an Atlanta mall when they passed The Walking Company store.

“We’re just kind of rolling and all of a sudden he starts cracking up and I’m like, ‘What?’ ” Michael said, laughter in his voice as he relived the memory. “He said, ‘Maybe I should go in there.'”

They took a picture of Tyler in front of the store.

Tyler’s friend Costazza calls him “one of the strongest people I’ve ever seen.”

“Me personally, I wouldn’t do what he’s doing right now. I’d probably be depressed, or worse.”

Peer strength

“Is that your new chair?” asked Jay, a good friend of Tyler’s who was injured in a diving accident.

“Yeah,” said Tyler, still figuring out the nuances of his Permobil C300. “Watch what this thing can do.”

Tyler leans his head forward and grabs the straw in his mouth. Sip, sip, sip. Slowly, the chair rises several inches.

“That’s cool.” Jay smiled in approval.

Tyler then asked Jay, who is now hand-driving his chair, how he was doing. They talked briefly of going home in the next few weeks. Then they said goodbye, and Tyler drove into the elevator.

The ability to improve physically is only part of what drew the Hoogs to Shepherd.

Sharing the experiences and challenges with kids his age, like Jay, is the other reason.

“I have friends my age now who know exactly what I’m dealing with,” Tyler said. “It makes it easier.”

Tyler and his friends each have different degrees of injuries — and different degrees of recovery. All of them have the same dream.

“Every one of us still has that hope that we’re going to walk,” Tyler said.

The inability to walk, however, has not prevented the teens from experiencing life in new ways at the Shepherd Center. Tyler and his peers have engaged in a variety of recreational activities, including painting, pellet gun shooting and bowling, for which special equipment is used to get the ball to roll off a ramp and down the lane. Tyler’s sip and puff straw, combined with his limited right arm movement, allow him to enjoy these activities.

“I never thought I’d be able to do this stuff,” he said.

As a group, Tyler and his friends have gone on outings together, to the movies and the mall. The coolest outing came courtesy of actor Vince Vaughn.

A family friend of the Hoogs, Vaughn has been in the Atlanta area filming a movie with Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill. Vaughn arranged for Tyler and his friends to visit the set, where they spent an afternoon.

“For those three hours, they were just normal star-struck kids,” Kim said.

The game

In Tyler’s last at-bat in a Skyline uniform, he lined out to first base.

“At least I hit the ball,” he joked.

While Tyler prefers to focus on what he can do, rather than what he can’t, baseball is different.

Baseball has always been a part of the Hoogs’ life. Michael was a star player at Niwot High School and then at the University of North Carolina before a brief career in the minor leagues. He’s been the head coach at Skyline for the past six years. If Jeeping isn’t the activity that has bonded Tyler and Michael, it is baseball.

Tyler’s room at Shepherd is full of memorabilia given to him by Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, University of Illinois coach Dan Hartlieb and Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, whose father was Michael’s coach at North Carolina. Tyler’s own No. 17 Skyline jersey is with him, too.

Baseball has always been a part of Tyler’s life, and it will continue to be. But it eats at him that his sophomore season last spring, when both he and the team struggled, will likely be his last memory as a player.

Tyler, who was the Falcons’ starting first baseman, was looking forward to playing two more years for his dad. He still plans to be in the dugout as much as possible, but it won’t be the same.

“The way I see it, even though physically I can’t be around the game, that doesn’t mean I have to stop learning about it or stop watching it,” he said.

Then, the smile fades. His green eyes close, his face turns a faint shade of pink, and Tyler fights back the tears.

“It just means that the part of my life where I stop doing it is over.”

Heading home

Tyler’s most recent accomplishment was graduating from Shepherd. Like all of his friends, Tyler’s time at Shepherd was short. It is designed as a temporary place for patients to begin recovery and learn how to live life in the future.

It is a future that may or may not include walking, but is filled with hope of leading a long, successful life. Tyler’s career goal of becoming a teacher has not changed.

He leaves Shepherd behind, but he will never forget it.

“Given the circumstances, it’s been a fantastic experience,” Michael said of Tyler’s stay at Shepherd. “To have that peer group and that bonding has been fantastic for him.”

Now it’s time to re-connect with the friends and family he’s grown up with. He’ll be home for Christmas Day. He can’t wait to bite into a White Widow sandwich at the Cheba Hut in Boulder. And, he smiles — naturally — at the thought of seeing his dog, Indy, once again.

Back home in Longmont, Thomas, Costazza, Wenande and Tyler’s cousin, Camden Palmisano, chowed on pizza and beamed at the thought of seeing him again.

“I’m just excited to have him back,” said Palmisano, the only one of the four who didn’t visit Tyler in Atlanta.

Tyler’s wheelchair doesn’t get in the way of them seeing Tyler as they always have.

“The whole thing of Tyler is his personality,” Thomas said.

That personality, they say, hasn’t changed a bit. Tyler still picks on them, jokes with them, and still has that knack for making everyone around him comfortable.

Now, they can’t wait to see how he shines back home. Naturally, they hope Tyler walks one day, but that’s not their greatest hope for Tyler.

“I just want him to stay (positive),” Wenande said, the other boys nodding in agreement. “If he can keep his attitude up, there’s nothing else he needs.”

Becoming a man

Michael and Tyler relax in their Shepherd apartment at the end of another long day.

Michael takes a sip of water as he listens to Tyler talking about the trials of the past four months and to Tyler beam with positivity about his future.

“He’s a hell of a lot tougher than I knew or anticipated,” Michael said. “I knew he had a lot of mental toughness, but I didn’t begin to think it is what it is.”

“I wouldn’t say I had a lot of mental toughness,” Tyler said.

“Oh, I would,” Michael said.

Michael sits at the kitchen table. Tyler, covered in his Orioles blanket and stocking cap, sits nearby.

A man’s man to the core, Michael looks at his son with admiration.

He will no longer coach Tyler on the baseball field. They may never share Jeeping the way they did before. But, Michael has taken on new roles in his son’s life, coaching Tyler through therapy, learning with him, helping him, supporting him since that life-changing afternoon in August. In turn, Tyler has been a rock for Michael during four of the most difficult months of their lives.

“I think this is one of those forcing events where Tyler has gone from being in between a teenager and a young man to being …”

A single tear forms in the corner of Michael’s left eye. He pauses. Seconds pass, 10, 20, maybe more. His eyes remain focused on Tyler.

Michael struggles to regain his composure. The tear slides down his weary cheek.

“… to being a man.”

By Brian Howell Longmont Times-Call

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