Ben Stear struggles to hold his cell phone in his hands; his fingers just won’t cooperate.
Dialing a number, text messaging and listening to his iPod — activities once second nature for the 15-year-old — have become a major struggle.
“This is easily the worst time of my life,” said Ben, as he sits in the cafeteria of Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia on a recent Friday afternoon.
Nearby, his 12-year-old brother Mason is staring outside a large window overlooking Broad Street. Mason has become Ben’s “personal secretary,” helping him text and communicate with his friends.
Confined to a wheelchair, Ben is fighting to regain the use of his arms and legs after a hockey injury in June left him with a broken neck and fractured vertebra.
He has endured two surgeries, a 17-day stay in intensive care, two months in a Georgia rehab center, and several weeks living at Shriners, undergoing physical and Occupational Therapy.
Ben’s goal is simple: walk again.
“I’m a champ,” he says.
But it hasn’t been easy. There have been moments of sadness and Depression and the Warrington family has had to put their careers and lives on hold.
But their spirits remain high. Ben’s parents, Dawn and Ken, say they could never have gotten through it without the support from family, friends and total strangers, who have rallied around them to offer emotional and financial help.
“People have been unbelievably generous in a time when money is so tight,” said Dawn Stear.
Ben, a sophomore at Central Bucks South, has his own Web site — www.benstear.org — and a fund to help the family pay the mounting medical and rehab bills, as well as buy the equipment Ben needs to function. They estimate about $40,000 has been raised so far through community efforts.
It’s a help, but only scratches the surface, said the Stears.
Their insurance policy, for example, only provided the family with $2,500, which barely covers the special shower chair Ben needs. The family also had to make modifications to its Warrington home to help Ben get around.
Since the accident, Ken, a self-employed insurance broker, has had to take a step back from his business and is not accepting new clients. Dawn, who operates a day-care center in New Britain, has had to lean on her family to help her run the business.
Several fundraisers, including a dance and car washes, were held over the summer. And the Stears have gotten aid through the Wayne Gretzky Foundation and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Signed sticks and other hockey paraphernalia were set to be auctioned off at the Ben Stear 1st Annual BENefit at the Blair Mill Inn in Horsham on Sunday. It was organized by Wendy Geer of Newtown, whose son Nathan played hockey with Ben on the Glaciers club team at Face-Off Circle in Warminster. She hoped the event would raise several thousand dollars.
“It’s the least I can do,” said Geer. “It’s one of our own kids. They are really a good family, goodhearted. And Ben is the sweetest kid.”
A golf outing will be held Sept. 26 at the Bucks County Golf Club in Warwick. A benefit ice hockey game between Lansdale Catholic and North Penn is set for Oct. 2 at the Hatfield Ice Arena. And Ben Stear Night at the Philadelphia Phantoms will be held Nov. 14 during a game at the Spectrum.
“It’s crazy. The hockey community is a tight-knit world. They’ve been really wonderful,” said Ken Stear.
June 14, 2008
It wasn’t a league game, just an added match-up near the end of the season between the junior varsity CB South hockey team and a local club team, the Bucks County Generals. Ben had been playing hockey for the last two years, after making the jump to the ice from rollerblading.
Coach Rich Palmer wasn’t even sure Ben was going to show up for the game, and by the time Ben arrived at Face-Off Circle, the game was already into the second period.
The accident happened two minutes before the end of the period. A bunch of players had gone for the puck near the net. The referee’s whistle blew. Players were pushing and shoving and Ben ended up on the bottom of a pile of players.
It was on this ice the previous November that Ben had suffered a concussion, said Palmer.
This time it was much worse. Ben was on his back, unable to move his arms or legs.
Dawn, who was not at the game, got the phone call. Ben had broken his neck.
“My world stopped,” said Dawn.
Ben was rushed to Abington Memorial Hospital and then flown to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, where doctors diagnosed him with a spinal cord injury — a fragmented C5 vertebra — which causes bicep and shoulder movement problems and can cause a loss of function in the legs.
There are about 11,000 new spinal cord injuries annually, most caused by car accidents, falls and sports accidents. About 60 percent of those injured are 30 years old or younger and most are men, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.
Ben had two surgeries to relieve the pressure on his spine, and a plate was inserted at the back of his neck. When he was stable, the teen and his family traveled to the Shepherd Center near Atlanta for two months of Rehabilitation.
Ben has an “Incomplete Injury.” He has been able to regain movement in his arms, is starting to move his thumbs, and has feeling in his legs.
His ultimate prognosis, however, is uncertain. Doctors say his recovery could span the spectrum from staying where he is currently to being able to walk again.
Ben is determined it will be the latter. He continues to undergo therapy and is looking forward to returning to school at the end of the month.
“I want to go back now,” he said.
Coach Palmer realizes that Ben has a difficult road ahead of him, but also knows he is a hard worker who steps up when he’s needed, pointing to Ben winning the school’s Titan award in eighth grade, which honors a player that a team can count on.
Ben’s teammates were back on the ice two days after the accident, playing in his honor, and more aware of the dangers of hockey. Palmer says he hasn’t heard of anyone quitting the team because of the accident.
As for Ben, his hockey days are over. Even if he could someday play again, his parents have said no; even Mason has stopped playing the sport.
Ben has, however, been looking into sledge, or sled hockey, for physically disabled players. Sitting on a special sled with skate blades underneath it, players have a short hockey stick for hitting the puck, and another stick with steel picks to push themselves across the ice.
The game can be just as intense as a traditional contest.
Friends and teammates have visited him in the hospital and Ben says the awkwardness only lasts a moment. Teammates and players from other schools, including Hatboro-Horsham and Pennridge, have also taken part in car washes to raise money.
The support “is coming from everywhere and that’s great to see,” said Palmer. “We want to make sure Ben is not forgotten.”
For more information about Ben Stear, the fundraising events and to donate to the fund, log on to www.benstear.org
By: HILARY BENTMAN
Hilary Bentman can be reached at 215-538-6380