By Reid Forgrave Sep 17, 2015 at 8:54p ET
Life can change in an instant, and for 17-year-old Jack Enright, that instant came early in the evening on March 4, under the lights of his high school lacrosse field not far from Columbia, S.C., as his older brother was standing in the penalty box with no idea their family‘s life would soon never be the same.
Jack and his older brother, Connor, always had been attached at the hip. Connor was 22 months older but only a year ahead in school. They did everything together: tossing the baseball, watching football, working out at the gym. When Jack fell in love with a new sport that combined contact and speed, he quickly convinced Connor to give up baseball and take up lacrosse. Connor and Jack would both become captains of their high school lacrosse team. “We are as similar as you can get without being twins,” Connor said.
But the younger brother was the daredevil. Before every Chapin High School lacrosse game, Jack — dressed in pads, helmet and uniform — would do a standing backflip. He was even better at backflips and roundoffs than the cheerleaders. When they went wakeboarding on nearby Lake Murray, as soon as Jack got up on the wakeboard he’d start doing spins and flips. Growing up, the family lived on a massive hill. The boys would ride their skateboards down it. One day, Jack decided to put a ramp at the bottom of the hill. He would hit the ramp and fly into the neighbor’s grass. “I had no part of that,” the older brother said.
But on this perfect March evening, there wasn’t much showing off by Jack Enright. Chapin High was playing its crosstown rival, and the captain midfielder needed to shine. On faceoffs, Jack was doing what he usually did: winning almost all of them. He was the focal point of the offense, always doubled-teamed. He already had scored two goals — one of them showing his signature creative skill, where he dashed down the lane, was pushed by an opponent, and as he fell whipped his shot into the top corner of the net — when a player on the other team beat his man. Jack slid over to cover him. Jack poked his stick at him, then lunged toward him before he could take a shot. The opponent jumped just as Jack lowered his head — a freak collision. Jack collapsed to the turf. But he didn’t get up.
“The crowd got quiet when they saw he didn’t move,” Connor said. “People were trying to figure out who was hurt. I knew instantly it was my brother. I took off my helmet and ran.”
“I know this sounds strange, but am I on my stomach or on my back?”
Jack Enright after being paralyzed
The boys’ mother, Ann Enright, had been taking photographs on the sideline. She was already halfway to her son.
“Jack is the type who gets up,” his mother said. “Even when he broke his collarbone, he got up and just said something was wrong with his shoulder. Once I realized it was my kid who wasn’t moving, I didn’t care — I ran. I thought I was going to be embarrassing my child.”
He lay on the ground, his body rigid. He said he couldn’t feel his legs. He stayed calm as everyone else was freaking out.
“I know this sounds strange,” Jack asked his mother, “but am I on my stomach or on my back?”
Coaches called 911. Paramedics cut off his jersey and pads and rushed him to a hospital. His mother jumped in the back of the ambulance with him. She snapped photographs, thinking that treating this as their little adventure would calm him down.
Doctors took him in for a scan. Bad news: Not just a broken neck — that’s what Ann Enright had expected — but damage to his C6 spinal nerve. The front half of his vertebrae was crushed into the spinal column. It was an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning his spinal cord wasn’t totally severed. But he couldn’t move from his waist down.
Just moments before his injury, Jack Enright (left) was having a great game against a crosstown rival.
With dozens of Jack’s high school classmates waiting in the hospital lobby, doctors spoke with Jack’s mother. Doctors offered no chance for a full recovery. Then they gave her another number.
It was a number that could be taken one of two ways:
With the full acceptance of a life that will likely be spent in a wheelchair.
Or with a glimmer of hope.
“They said he’d have a 10-percent chance of walking again,” Jack’s mother recalled, “and I said, ‘Great — we’ll take it.’”
The morning after the injury, a case manager came to the waiting room — Ann Enright had spent the night sleeping there — and handed Jack’s mother a book. It was a guide to how to live life in a wheelchair. On the cover was a man in a wheelchair with his family. “Yes You Can!” the book read.
Jack’s mother took pictures as a way of keeping her son calm while medical personnel attended to him on the field.
“I lost it,” Ann Enright said. “I dropped my phone and cried, right there in the ICU waiting room. Don’t we get 72 hours? Can’t we see if he wiggles his toes? Don’t we get any hope?”
Hope is an odd thing when it comes spinal-cord injuries. Because the truth is, we don’t know everything about them. Sometimes people recover. Often they don’t. The role of doctors, nurses, physical therapists and occupational therapists is to balance hope with reality.
Hope is hours upon hours of physical therapy, trying to get back the 25 pounds of muscle Jack Enright quickly lost after his injury, trying to ease his body back into movement.
Reality is knowing there’s a distinct possibility — nearly a certainty, in the eyes of doctors — that the rest of his life would be spent in a wheelchair.
It would take something powerful if Jack were to ever walk again. Hard work. An incessantly positive attitude. And, depending how you look at life, a miracle.
“At first there were those questions: ‘Why me?’ ” Jack said recently. “But eventually, after the first week or so, I shoved that out of my head. It doesn’t matter ‘Why me?’ It happened. We’re going to have to deal with it. What happened happened. It’s time to focus on the now. Because you can’t go back and change it.”
It’s jarring to hear this from a 17-year-old boy entering his senior year of high school. This is supposed to be the time of his life. But he couldn’t go to prom. He couldn’t go on the lake with friends this summer. He couldn’t even get upstairs to his own bedroom.
This is the moment where Jack could have looked at all his limitations and defined himself by them. For a while, he did. His muscles atrophied so quickly that he could hardly sit up. He couldn’t get from his bed to his wheelchair; medical workers had to use a crane-like contraption. A nurse had to help him shower.
“You look in the mirror and see all the muscle gone, and it’s like, ‘My whole life is gone. This is a new me,’ ” Jack said. “It was those little things that chipped away at me right after the injury. Getting the mind-set that I can get that back, that it doesn’t have to be like this forever — getting that mind-set was hard.”
But he got there. His dreams had changed, so Jack Enright made new goals. The first goal he achieved two months in. He wiggled his big toe. At first, his mother couldn’t even see it, but Jack said he felt it. Jack’s parents called his older brother into the hospital room. “Watch this,” they said.
“He showed me, and I felt like I was about to collapse,” Connor said.
At 3 a.m. some nights, Ann Enright would be sitting next to her son’s hospital bed, watching him sleep, wondering whether he would walk again and wondering how the family would learn to live with that. She never voiced those doubts to Jack. Mind over matter.
“You’re just happy they’re alive, and Jack’s one of those kids who is just so positive, so determined,” Ann Enright said. “We haven’t let anything negative seep in. We haven’t shown the struggling side. And people have been holding on to hope. With spinal cord injuries, it’s just all so unknown.”
There were many struggles. Not just the exhaustion from a full workday of therapy, and not just the constant frustration of being unable to do things that a few months ago Jack took for granted. But money struggles too. Ann Enright had signed up for COBRA health insurance. She borrowed against her 401(k). Her niece started a GoFundMe site to raise money for Jack. Neighbors, family, friends and the lacrosse community all rallied behind Jack, raising tens of thousands of dollars to offset his medical bills. Still, the family seemed to always be behind.
Instead of focusing on the struggles, though, Ann Enright focused on the markers of progress. Like when Jack was transferred to the Shepherd Center, a spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation center in Atlanta. Or when he learned how to handle his wheelchair on sidewalks and hills. Or when he became able to kick out one leg at a time.
“The best way I can describe being paralyzed is that you can try to move your legs, but everything feels like 1,000 pounds,” Jack said. “It feels like my limbs are made of cement. I can try as hard as I could, but no way I can get that foot up an inch. But as my legs got stronger, it got easier. If I tried super hard, I could get my foot up an inch.”
He learned to regain his balance by wearing a harness that supported 60 percent of his body weight. Then he eased up to the harness supporting 40 percent of his body weight, then only 20 percent. He learned to use a walker; at first he dragged his right foot behind, but soon he could step with both feet and walk across the room with the walker’s support. He had electro stimulators firing the muscles in his legs. He used a stationary bike.
A few months after the injury, in June, Jack had regained much strength. He was in a chair at the rehabilitation center. His mom was in the room, taping this moment on her cell phone. He tried to stand up. He held his arms straight out, lunged forward and . . . nothing. He grunted, but he couldn’t move. He tried again, and again, and again.
On the 20th try, Jack held out his arms, bent his torso forward . . . and he stood up.
“Oh, God!” his mother said. “Jack is standing! Oh my gosh!”
The Chapin community rallied behind the Enrights in an effort to support them both spiritually and financially.
He looked at his mom, pointed at her, smiled, winked and sat back down. A local television station aired the video and called it “miraculous.”
“It just shows, Jack’s story, that you can do things if you just put your mind to it,” Connor said. “Don’t sit back and accept things. People see that video, and people say, ‘Wow, that’s a miracle.’ I’m not saying it’s not a miracle. But for him to do that, people don’t understand how much work he’s put in. How he’s exhausted every single day. How he’s worn out from therapy, from hours of therapy. But that’s his mind-set: ‘I’m not going to let this define me.’ It is what it is right now, but he’s going to work to change it.’
“You don’t have to just accept what life puts in front of you. You’re the author of your own book, and you can shape it.”
The point of the book the doctor had handed Jack’s mother in the waiting room the day after her son’s injury was that you need to be realistic about the future.
Ann Enright never even opened that book.
A miracle is not realistic.
That’s the whole point of a miracle, right? Something that you are told cannot happen, but then it does. Lazarus is raised from the dead. A woman survives an airplane crash after falling 33,000 feet. A man displays superhuman strength in pulling a car off a trapped child.
“Jack’s story (is) that you can do things if you just put your mind to it. Don’t sit back and accept things. People see that video (of him walking), and people say, ‘Wow, that’s a miracle.’ I’m not saying it’s not a miracle. But for him to do that, people don’t understand how much work he’s put in.”
Connor Enright, Jack’s brother
Some point to miracles as their reason for believing in God. Others think miracles are hogwash, a supernatural explanation for a natural phenomenon.
Why is Jack Enright now able to walk up the stairs to get to the bedroom at his mother’s house, one foot in front of the other without stopping or stubbing a toe? Why is Jack now able to drive a used Honda Element with hand controls and easy back-door access so he can put his wheelchair in by himself?
It is a miracle.
It is hard work.
It is both.
It does not matter which it is because what matters most is this: It is.
“What I’m aiming for is to get back to normal, to how I was,” Jack said the other day. “And hopefully act like this whole thing never happened in a couple years. In a year, I just want to be at my max potential. I don’t want to say I could have done that better, could have done this more often. I just want to be at my max potential.”
But is it realistic? Should a paralyzed man dream of a day when he’s no longer paralyzed? Is it healthy for Jack to, from the moment after his injury, have recurring dreams of standing up from his wheelchair and walking — then wake up with the awful realization that he’s still paralyzed but still clinging to that beautiful dreamlike feeling of walking? Is it healthy for Jack to keep those walking dreams in the back of his head all day long, to think of them not as a reminder of his limitations but as points of inspirations?
In a word: Yes.
“It’s realistic to me,” Jack said. “In my mind it definitely is. My therapists, a lot of them have been encouraging at times and then also realistic at times. They’ve gone both ways. But to me it just all depends on how hard I work.”
Who is to say? Some people have a spinal cord injury and can never walk again, no matter how much work they put in. Every spinal cord injury is unique. Some are like Jack, and work their way back toward how life used to be.
So Jack labored through months of full-time, Monday-through-Friday therapy: parallel bars and modified lunges and balance exercises and therapy bands and hamstring curls and hip flexor exercises, enough to feel that good burn afterward.
His mother modified their home for wheelchair accessibility. In late July, Jack came home. In August, he attended the first day of his senior year of high school. His books were loaded onto an iPad so he didn’t have to carry a heavy backpack. The school organized an assembly, and the student body gave Jack a standing ovation. At a pep rally before a football game, Jack rode in on a chariot.
The little markers of progress have kept coming. He walks up the stairs at his home, but he comes down those stairs on his rear end — just being safe. He attended the Major League Lacrosse title game, sat with the league’s founder and went to the locker rooms afterward. He sleeps in his own bed upstairs every night. He goes to an empty classroom at school to use a walker for 20 minutes a day to keep his muscles moving. During therapy he now walks with a cane, not a walker. He is able to walk, hands out to side, a couple steps at a time. The other day he stood in the bathroom and shaved his face with a razor by himself — no cuts, no falls.
“It’s already a happy ending,” Ann Enright said. “But I still don’t know where we’ll end up. I still don’t know if my son will walk. You just accept it. You’re so happy. You have to be grateful your kid is alive. There are ways around limitations in this world. You just make best of it.”
Jack has a new goal: to go on his senior class trip to Cancun in June. To get stronger, he’ll go back to Atlanta for full-time therapy during winter break for school.
“To me, it has to be like that,” Jack said. “If you don’t think that one day you won’t be getting around like you used to, there’s no point in trying. One day, it’s not going to be like this.”
As he speaks, you think about how far he’s come, how many of those little markers Jack Enright has already checked off since the evening of March 4, 2015, and you can’t help but believe he’s right.
Email Reid Forgrave at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.