This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2018.
My son, Seth, is a 24-year-old massage therapist from Ruston, Louisiana, and he will be competing for Team Louisiana as a powerlifter in the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. He has an amazing story to tell, but he can't quite do that himself. He lost his ability to speak after suffering a traumatic brain injury on Sept. 28, 2011, when his bike was hit by a van while he was training for an Ironman triathlon. The accident was so bad that an EMT at the scene later told us he coded twice.
That's right. Sept. 28, 2011, should've been the date on his tombstone. But he's very much alive today, teaching, comforting and inspiring people with his deeds. Actually, his body can do a lot of the talking.
The first thing people notice about him is how big and strong he is, which still surprises me because he was a svelte but fit 17-year-old before the accident. Now he can deadlift a 425-pound barbell. I call him Seth 2.0.
The second thing they notice are all the tattoos. As my husband, Charles, the bishop at the Power Church International in Monroe, likes to say, "It's a story written in ink."
IX XXVIII MMXI. That's the Roman numeral date of the accident, or what we refer to as Seth's re-birthday. It's at the top of his right arm, just above an angel with the word Invictus, meaning "unconquered." Seth designed the tattoos himself. He wanted his first one when he was 16, but we thought he should wait until he was 18. Back then, he was a youth pastor with a love for rock climbing, dancing and laughter-he was in college to be a nurse just like his older sister Sierrah. He also inherited the gift of preaching from Charles. In fact, five months before the accident, he delivered his first sermon to our congregation.
On the day of the accident, Charles and I had been in Arkansas for my birthday and were heading back home. Seth told Sierrah that he was going for a 60-mile bike ride. When he didn't return as he promised, she called his cellphone, and a state trooper answered and gave her the horrible news. An 81-year-old woman had hit him from behind and propelled him more than 50 yards onto the guardrail of a concrete bridge. He had been airlifted to the trauma center at LSU Hospital in Shreveport. When we arrived three hours later, we were told to prepare for the worst-they didn't expect him to live through the night.
The doctors had to remove the left side of his skull to accommodate the swelling of his brain. This vibrant child with an incredible smile was lying there in a coma, with a tube stuck down his throat and wires coming out every which way. I felt like I was trapped in a horrible nightmare. And I kept hoping somebody would wake me up.
PERCUSSUS RESURGO. That's now written on Seth's right arm. But Charles also inscribed it in his Bible the year before the accident. It means "When struck, I shall rise." Seth did not regain full consciousness until 10 days later. A doctor told us that he would be perpetually vegetative, requiring 24/7 care. He said we needed to place Seth in an institution.
He was transported to a hospital four and a half hours away from our home. Charles and I would take turns staying with him in the hospital. At one point, a doctor there told me, "He's not going to have his sight, he's not going to walk again, he's not going to talk again. He'll never understand humor, he's not going to have memories, he won't know who any of you are or even who he was." It was a list of nevers and nots and can'ts. But if we instilled one thing in our three children, it's that there's no such word as "can't." If we could teach him to walk and take care of himself once before, we could do it again.
We took Seth home five months after the accident. It was a couple of days before his 18th birthday. He was in a wheelchair and diapers, and he could not even step over our threshold without someone holding him.
QUITTING LASTS FOREVER, PAIN LASTS FOR A MOMENT ... SO PUSH THROUGH IT. That's Seth's mantra. The first part is tattooed on his right shoulder, the second on his left. Recovery wasn't easy-there were good days and bad days. One of the best days came in June 2012, when Seth started running by himself. The routine had been that Charles and the fiancé of our daughter Savannah would walk him up and down this steep drive we have, hooking their arms with his so he wouldn't fall. He would cry as he walked, but he wouldn't quit, and he got stronger and stronger. Then they started jogging, then running with him the same way until this one day he pushed them off him and ran all by himself. And he was laughing.
On his 19th birthday, we held a 5K race to benefit the Team Seth Foundation for Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness. And he ran the whole thing. He was proving everybody wrong.
Then he got into powerlifting. He was still pretty skinny at the time, but he was maxing out the leg press machine at the local gym. We felt that he needed another goal, and lifting weights was a way to make his right arm catch up to his left arm in strength, so we found him a personal trainer, Tommy Gallagher.
To give him further motivation, Tommy suggested I contact Special Olympics, and the next thing I know, Louisiana Tech and someone from Special Olympics Louisiana's home office in Hammond helped me organize a powerlifting training seminar for people with disabilities. That was February 2016. Two months later, we organized the first powerlifting competition in our area, and ever since, we've been walking arm in arm with Special Olympics, me as a volunteer organizer, Seth as a champion. In the three disciplines of powerlifting-bench press, deadlift and squat-he can lift a cumulative total of 1,155 pounds. Not bad for a man whose right side was once paralyzed and who was once told he would never regain the use of his right hand. And we believe he's going to bring gold back to Louisiana from Seattle in early July.
IT'S ALL GOOD. That's the message on Seth's left arm. It comes from Romans 8:28, which was the passage he was preaching to our youth group on the night before the accident. He told them this was the verse with which he started out every morning.
A little over a year after the accident, we had a chance meeting at the local ER with Jessica Trichel, an EMT who was first on the scene. She was so surprised at how good he looked, and so moved, that she got her own tattoo of the scene. We've stayed in touch, but if we try to thank her, she'll say, "It's all God."
Seth says the same thing, "All God." Which also means all God's children-the medics and nurses and doctors who brought him back to life and living; the relatives, friends and parishioners who surrounded us with love and prayers; the coaches and trainers who pushed him; the teachers who helped him get his college degree.
His brain is continuing to find new pathways, and he is now able to speak a few words at a time. It's as if his vocabulary is stored inside his head, and the cables that would move the words from the brain to the mouth have been snipped. But he can also communicate with texts and charades and handwriting-which ironically is better than it was before the accident.
You should see him with the other Special Olympics athletes. They're his parishioners now, and he's their charismatic pastor. He lives the words on his biceps every day: "Strength" on the right one, "Honor" on the left.
But do you know what Seth's biggest muscle is? His heart. He wanted to visit the woman who was driving the van that day. He wanted her to know he forgave her. We reached out to her family, and they told us she had Alzheimer's. When we went to their house, Seth went over to her recliner, and this sweet little old lady looked at him and said, "Oh, I'm so, so sorry." And there I was, watching this kid whose life was completely turned around, and he's holding and patting her hand, and he's comforting her. "Fine, fine," he said. "Look at me. Look at me. Strong. Look at me." She died soon after, knowing she had been forgiven.
That's why I can't help but think that in the midst of all of this pain, we found our purpose. The worst thing that ever happened to us has turned into the most beautiful thing that happened for us.
Kimber Hanchey is the Special Olympics team management director for North-Central and Northeast Louisiana.