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Young wrestler battles back after spinal cord injury

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Hunter GarstinHunter Garstin, 15, shows remarkable improvement 100 days after getting hurt during a match

ATLANTA — If Hunter Garstin gets the chance to wrestle again — if his body and his parents cooperate — he will.

But the 15-year-old Franklin, Ga. resident realizes that’s a long way off.

The Independence High School freshman suffered a spinal cord injury at a wrestling tournament 100 days ago. He was initially paralyzed from the neck down, but he has regained full use of his arms and partial use of his hands. He can manually operate a wheelchair and is working toward walking again.

“I want to get back out there,” Hunter said between rehabilitation sessions at the Shepherd Center, one of the top facilities in the country. “I’ve got to see what my physical condition is.

“My dad says, ‘It’s ultimately your decision, it wouldn’t be fair to stop you,’ but I don’t think they’ll let me. It’s hard to tell because it’s still so early.”

That he would even consider wrestling again speaks volumes about him and the sport that he just took up as an eighth-grader.

“Wrestlers just have something unique,” said Christian Garstin, Hunter’s father and a former wrestler at Brentwood Academy and Appalachian State. “Just with having the strength and the will, the determination, the drive that wrestlers have. I’ve seen that pay off more for him through this whole process than anything he could get from any other sport.

“I’ve never seen him more focused and more determined and work harder than he has to get out of that chair. There are two options: Walk out, or roll out. He’s decided he’s going to walk out. His work ethic has inspired me.”

It also has helped Hunter’s mother, Emily Garstin, a former Brentwood Academy wrestling cheerleader, as she tries to encourage her son.

“It’s heartbreaking to watch somebody so young have to work and struggle so hard with something we take for granted,” Emily Garstin said. “It’s still tough, 2½ months later. But watching him persevere through that is an amazing feeling in the opposite direction, one I wouldn’t get to see or feel if this hadn’t happened.

“It’s inspiring to watch all these kids and the way they support each other. It’s something not many people get to see. I try to focus on that and not Hunter’s struggle.”

Hunter and his dad were caught off guard by the injury — and its severity — that took place during a tournament Dec. 7 at Huntsville High School.

“I had my head down and I wasn’t supposed to,” said Hunter, who weighed in at 121 pounds that day and was wrestling at 126. “We (he and his opponent) were pushing on each other. I stepped back and my heel got caught in the mat. I fell backward, landed on my butt and all his weight came down on top of me.

“I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think it was that bad. I couldn’t move anything from the neck down. But I thought I was going to wake up and everything was going to be better.”

Christian Garstin said he was about 15 feet away.

“I had my camera and tripod set up on the corner of the mat. It happened right in front of me. It happened so fast, I didn’t even think there was an injury there.

“He was having trouble breathing; it was labored. I remember saying to him, ‘Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, you just got the wind knocked out of you.’

“That’s truly what I thought. The trainer said, ‘He can’t feel his legs,’ but even at that point, I honestly wasn’t worried about anything. I thought, ‘Now we’re looking at a stinger (a temporary nerve injury), we’ve got to go through the motions, ride in an ambulance and go to the hospital.’ I was joking with him about it being my first time riding in an ambulance.

“I didn’t think it was anything. You can’t tell from the video. There’s nothing you saw that said, ‘That’s bad.’ ”

Hunter underwent emergency surgery that night to fuse the C-6 — which had been dislocated — and C-7 vertebrae at the base of the neck.

“We went into the emergency room thinking he was going to get an X-ray and go home,” Christian Garstin said. “All of a sudden he’s getting surgery.

“I don’t know what it’s like to not be able to feel anything. It wasn’t something I could just fix. I couldn’t put a Band-Aid on it, pat him on his butt and send him back out.”

Six days after the injury, Hunter was transported from Huntsville Hospital to Shepherd, on the north side of Atlanta.

Garstin was an inpatient at Shepherd until Feb. 28. Since then he has been an outpatient there Monday through Friday.

Everything has been geared toward Hunter becoming more independent. His daily therapy includes occupational, physical and recreational sessions and goes longer than a typical day at school.

“He started in a power wheelchair; … he’s progressed to a manual wheelchair where he’s pushing a chair around all day long,” said his counselor at Shepherd, Cheryl Linden. “He started working on functional skills like feeding and dressing and bathing, being able to transfer himself in and out of bed and on and off the (therapy) mat.

“He can feed himself, brush his teeth, dress himself. It just takes him a lot longer. Fine motor skills where he has to utilize his fingers in more finite ways are very difficult.”

Fridays are often less structured. Along with some occupational therapy, a handful of patients will gather in the teen room. They play air hockey or the “Rock Band” video game. They play ladder ball in the hallway or shoot pool in an adjacent room. Activities help with the patients’ recovery while allowing them to spend time in a less intense setting.

Hunter tends to play air hockey, in keeping with his competitive nature.

Shepherd occupational therapist Patty Antcliff said Hunter’s background as an athlete has allowed him to progress more quickly. From being able to only slightly lift his arms after the surgery and being able to flex his wrists upon his arrival at Shepherd, he can now lift both arms and is able to sign his name as well as text.

“I think from being a wrestler, he has an understanding and awareness of where his body is in space,” she said.

An aspiring marine biologist, Hunter was always big on swimming and running and had played recreational basketball. That was before he followed the footsteps of his dad and his cousins Franklin and Robert Garstin — wrestlers at Montgomery Bell Academy and Father Ryan.

“I probably wouldn’t be eager for him to participate in any sport right now,” Emily Garstin said. “Whether I would let him wrestle again is not a good question for me right now, but if he wanted to, I would let him.”

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, which monitors high school and collegiate athletics, there were 62 catastrophic injuries (brain or spinal cord) in high school wrestling from 1982 to 2011. Of those, two were fatal. There were 38 that were non-fatal, with the athlete sustaining permanent severe functional disability, and 22 that were severe, but with no permanent functional disability.

By comparison, high school football reported 769 catastrophic injuries for the same period — 115 fatal, 341 non-fatal and 313 severe.

Over that period, the number of catastrophic injuries per 100,000 participants was significantly less for wrestling (0.03, 0.54, 0.31) than for football (0.29, 0.87, 0.80).

Within 24 hours of his injury, a Facebook page had been created — Prayers for Hunter Garstin — by Hunter’s former stepfather, Roger White, and Sheri Lacy, a friend of Emily’s. The page has more than 17,000 likes.

When Hunter was an inpatient, there was hardly an inch of wall space in his room at Shepherd that wasn’t covered with a card, poster, sticker or some sort of well-wishing effort. A poster from the ceiling to the floor noting Duke’s appearance in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl hung to the left of his bed, and Alabama football memorabilia signed by Nick Saban and his wife are among the keepsakes.

“I had no idea just how much support I had,” he said. “I heard when I was in ICU (at Huntsville), there were lines of people waiting to see me. All the cards have been coming in, pulling me through and giving me hope.”

From amateurs such as former Father Ryan standout Michael Hooker, now at Chattanooga, to professionals such as Lex Luger, wrestlers have come to spend time with Hunter at Shepherd.

“We’ve had a ton of really inspirational people,” Hunter said. “It’s not just the people that have been through. It’s the other patients here. We’ve all been through it. We push each other every day, to get as good as we can.”

Emily Garstin has taken a leave of absence as a kindergarten teacher at Pearre Creek Elementary School in Franklin and stays primarily with Hunter. Christian Garstin, a Nashville attorney, typically spends long weekends in Atlanta.

“I don’t really know what to expect with the costs at this point,” Emily Garstin said. “Just his inpatient stay at Shepherd has been $2,500 a day.”

Once the family’s insurance coverage is maxed out, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s catastrophic insurance coverage kicks in. There is a $10K deductible and a maximum payout of $350,000 over five years, executive director Bernard Childress said.

Also, more than $10,000 has been raised through various local fundraising efforts, according to Independence parent Kim Little. Donations to the Hunter Garstin Benefit Fund can be made at any area Regions bank.

Hunter’s bedroom and bathroom at his home in Franklin are being renovated, with ramps and lifts being added to make it wheelchair-accessible. Much of the work is being donated, Emily said.

Hunter arrived at Shepherd with what is referred to as a complete injury — with no sensation or voluntary movement below the level of the injury.

As the swelling in the spinal cord decreases, function can return. He now is considered to have an incomplete injury, which would remain his status regardless of how much more movement he regains.

But it’s the voluntary movement in the second toe of his left foot that had everyone excited on Feb. 17.

He has since experienced further voluntary, though sporadic, movement in the third and fourth toes of his left foot and his quadriceps and glutes.

Counselor Linden said movement may continue to return with no rhyme or reason, in no specific pattern.

Of late, Hunter has gained sensation over most of his body.

“He can feel when you touch him and massage him and tickle his feet,” Emily Garstin said.

The goal is to be home by the middle of April.

“There’s something coming down there, something moving,” Hunter said. “Getting that is a blessing. It gave me hope and confidence that this won’t be permanent, that there’s more to come.”

Maurice Patton, The Tennessean

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