MT. VERNON — Had he been able, he would have leaped out of his bed, fists raised. If his legs had responded, if his back had not been riddled with shooting pain, he would have been ready to brawl.
But, for perhaps the first time in his life, Drew Millwood’s body would not answer a challenge.
He wanted to rush the doctor, tell him to shut his mouth. But all he could do was clench his fists tightly around his sterile hospital sheets. He wanted to physically throw the man out of his room, but could only clamp his teeth together hard, pulling the skin on his jaw taut against his protruding cheekbones.
“I messed up pretty bad, didn’t I?”
Even as Millwood asked the question, he knew the answer.
Lying immobile, unable to feel anything but pain from his armpits down, he understood that the freak sledding accident in rural Mt. Vernon the day before would change his life forever.
Still, he hadn’t been prepared for the doctor’s response.
“You might never regain mobility below the middle of your chest,” he was told. “And you will never walk again.”
A rage unlike anything he had ever felt built inside Millwood. But instead of screaming, he held his breath for what seemed an eternity.
“You don’t know what you are talking about,” he finally whispered.
Millwood’s brother, Dustin, spoke to the doctor next.
“I think you had better go.”
On his way to becoming an elite athlete at Mt. Vernon Township High School and Rend Lake College, Drew Millwood learned to set high goals and pursue them furiously. He never feared looking an adversary straight in the eyes and confidently saying, “I am going to get the best of this battle today.”
As the surgeon stepped out of his room on that frigid January morning almost six months ago, the competitive spirit surged back into Millwood. Despite having just experienced the worst day of his life, the 19-year-old saw a new adversary; he had discovered a new challenge.
“I was mad,” Drew said. “When I get mad, I just get quiet. I finally told him he didn’t know anything. That if he thought I wouldn’t walk again, he was crazy.”
But on that day, the prognosis seemed far from crazy.
Earlier that week, Millwood had awakened to the type of glorious midwinter morning that commuters hate but little boys and restless teen-agers live for. Several inches of wet snow covered the ground, and a thick layer of white ice blanketed most of the roads, especially in rural areas.
When he hopped on the round, blue plastic sled and grabbed a rope attached to the hitch of a friend’s truck, Millwood was certainly not the only young man acting irresponsibly in the snow.
But he paid the most severe price.
Shifting from hip to hip as the truck rolled forward, Millwood displayed the balance and agility that had made him an All-South football receiver in high school. Gripping the rope, his forearms bulged and his shoulder and back muscles flexed, showcasing an upper body that had helped him break the Mt. Vernon baseball career home run record.
He had continued his baseball career at Rend Lake College, where he improved so much that his coaching staff believed a Division I scholarship was imminent. He believed a Major League team might eventually draft him — his dream since he was little.
After being dragged for nearly five minutes, Millwood let go of the rope. The truck ground to a halt, but Millwood’s sled skidded slowly to the side of the road, darted down a small incline and crashed into a 4-by-4 wood pole.
The pole was the only one within several hundred yards in either direction.
At first, Millwood didn’t know he was hurt.
“It’s a good thing we weren’t going faster or this could have been bad,” he told his friends with a chuckle as they tumbled out of the truck.
But when Millwood tried to get up, his legs would not respond and he suddenly experienced a burning sensation in his chest.
“Get me in the truck,” he said.
Then, when the burning got worse, he changed his mind.
“No, forget the truck. Call me an ambulance.”
Millwood was taken to St. Mary’s Good Samaritan Hospital in Mt. Vernon, where X-rays revealed a shattered T-5 vertebra. Bone fragments had cut a small hole in his lung, and a liter of blood and spinal fluid had leaked in and caused the burning.
While the outer lining of Millwood’s spinal cord was torn in several places, the cord itself was not severed. But severe swelling had cut off nerve input below the center of his chest, paralyzing him from that point down.
Millwood was taken to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis later that day. He had surgery the following afternoon to remove bone fragments, repair tears in his spinal cord and lung, straighten his spinal cord and attach a pair of 20-inch titanium rods to his back with 11 screws to keep it straight.
The doctor who performed the four-hour surgery found Drew’s parents, Johnny and Gaye Millwood, distraught, frazzled and anxiously awaiting word on their son.
“He told us the surgery was 100 percent a success, and that Drew was going to be all right,” said Johnny. “So we were relieved. But then he told us that Drew would never walk again.”
The surgeon’s next task was to give the news to Drew.
By the time the doctor left Millwood’s hospital room, the ballplayer was ready for a fight. A fierce battle has raged since.
“This is me against the injury,” Drew said from his Mt. Vernon home, where he returned after spending 111 days at the St. Louis Rehabilitation Institute. “This is me against everything that is trying to stop me from walking again. My legs not wanting to work; I have to make them work. The doctors telling me I can’t. The people in the hospital that were hurt that were telling me that I had better get used to sitting in a wheelchair.
“And, more than anything, the pain. In therapy, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t think straight; I couldn’t breathe.”
Perhaps the best way to understand exactly what Drew went through in the weeks after his surgery is to envision being him.
Imagine lying flat for 95 percent of the day, unable to even move around the bed. Visualize spending afternoons unable to sit up, dress, bathe or even put on deodorant. Then, picture nights lying awake, desperately hoping the pain will subside just long enough to allow a few minutes of rest.
Consider that the only possibility of improving is to endure torturous therapy, designed not to help a person walk, but just to sit in a wheelchair for more than five minutes at a time or raise an arm higher that the chest.
It’s not hard to understand why many in Drew’s situation give up.
But quit is not a word Millwood understands. It was not just physical gifts that helped him become a great athlete. He had developed superior mental toughness as well. No accident could take that away.
“I know Drew pretty well, and his mental approach has always been positive,” said Derek Martin, one of Drew’s best friends. “No matter what he does, he is confident that he will get it done. I have never seen him fail, and I can’t see him ever failing.
“That is what I respect most about him. This is not a football game. What he is going through is the toughest thing that any of us have ever gone through, and he is approaching it every day like he will succeed.”
That mental resolve would be tested.
Millwood was first rolled to the therapy room just one week after his surgery. His first exercises involved simple things like stretching and balancing, but the pain they caused was nearly unbearable.
“There were times during his therapy when I had to leave the room because I couldn’t watch,” Gaye Millwood said of her son’s early sessions. “He wasn’t crying, by any means, and he wasn’t saying he didn’t want to go to therapy. It was just the look on his face. I think he has a pretty high tolerance for pain, but I could tell that it was killing him.”
Millwood admits he has good and bad days, but he separated himself from many other rehabilitation patients by his will to go to therapy no matter what.
“There were days I didn’t want to go,” Millwood said. “There were a lot of days that I didn’t want to go. But it’s like anything else. You might not always feel like going to practice or studying, but if you want to get better, you have to do it. You just have to.”
Millwood gradually showed improvement. While lying in bed one day, he was able to slightly move his right big toe.
“My dad went crazy when he saw that,” Drew recalled.
That small wiggle was more progress than the surgeon had ever expected for Millwood, and it proved that at least some signals from Millwood’s brain were starting to get through.
“There were times when we would get discouraged,” his father said. “Drew would go for a week or two with no improvement, and we would kind of think, ‘Gosh, what’s going on?’ But then something would always happen. He would show some sort of improvement.”
Those little improvements were crucial to Millwood.
“At first, the doctor had told me that I would never get better,” Millwood recalled. “But they were still taking me to therapy every day. It hurt so bad that I didn’t want to go — and it didn’t seem like it was doing any good. I was doing therapy, but nothing was happening.
“But then I would have an improvement — even a very little one — and it would motivate me to keep working. Just knowing that the doctor was wrong and I really had a chance to overcome this thing was enough.”
While Millwood is still a long way from walking unassisted, his progress in the past six months has been remarkable.
He started at the lowest level on the American Spinal Injury Association scale, which is used to measure paralysis. “ASIA A” — complete paralysis — is where Millwood began and where he was told he would always be.
However, in addition to progressing two levels on the ASIA scale, Millwood has shed two major braces. The first, a full body brace he wore whenever he was out of bed, came off after three months. And he recently got rid of a portion of his walking brace that extended from his waist to his armpits. He currently performs his walking therapy with a walker and leg braces that extend from his waist down.
And on his favorite exercise, a stationary bike that forces his legs to pedal using electric shocks, Millwood routinely rides for nearly an hour on level six. The highest level is seven, and most people never get higher than level three.
In fact, his progress on the bike has drawn the attention of the institute’s research staff, which is studying the 19-year-old in an attempt to determine how he improved so quickly.
Brendan Tanner, Millwood’s first therapist at the institute, thinks he knows the reason for the quick progress.
“His mental approach has been phenomenal,” Tanner said. “That is huge. If the person that is trying to walk is motivated, if that is the primary focus of their lives, the odds are greatly increased they will be successful. There is no guarantee that they will be able to come all the way back. But the odds are a whole lot better.”
Millwood’s life has not become one-dimensional since his accident. He is taking classes at Rend Lake College this summer, and is signed up for a full course load this fall. He’s also considering buying a car that is specially equipped with hand brakes for paraplegics.
But while he’s trying to return some normalcy to his life, Millwood’s focus is on his rehabilitation. First and foremost, he wants to defeat his injury — to walk again.
And so he continues to battle, even though it’s not always easy. Sitting in his wheelchair at one of his brother’s baseball games, a sad sparkle returns to his eye. His spirit still aches to be out on the field performing, even though he knows his body cannot comply.
And while his progress has been steady and comparatively fast, the monotony of daily therapy is sometimes hard to take. Especially because the pain, which has subsided considerably, has never completely gone away.
And doctors will still not tell him he will accomplish his goal.
But in his heart, Millwood firmly believes he will walk again. He does not allow himself to consider the possibility that he could fall short of his objective.
“To me, that is not an option,” Millwood says, shaking his head vigorously after being reminded nobody can guarantee a complete recovery. “My timetable is six months. In six months, I want to be walking again.”
By TODD M. ADAMS