SALT LAKE CITY — One year to the day that a distracted driver nearly stole his life, Hank Shipman enjoyed a morning of skiing, an afternoon of baseball and the peace that comes from embracing a blessing that was disguised as a tragedy.
"I've learned a lot in the last year just about life in general," said the 16-year-old Rowland Hall junior. "I'm pretty thankful for the whole situation actually."
The situation is one that turned his life upside down. A talented athlete who enjoyed ski racing, baseball and just about anything outdoors, was traveling from a ski race on Mount Hood in Oregon when a young driver on a cellphone passed a semi-truck on a blind curve and collided with a Suburban carrying half a dozen members of the Rowmark Ski Academy.
When he woke up, his teammates were climbing out of the car, he could hear the voice of his coach who was pinned in the driver's seat in front of him and he couldn't feel his body.
"I was sleeping at the time of the accident," said Shipman, who is the starting second baseman for the Rowland Hall baseball team. "When I woke up, I couldn't move and there was a lot of blood coming from my arms and my head."
It took 45 minutes for paramedics to cut him and his coach, Scotty Veenis, out of the Suburban. He was driven by ambulance to the ski resort and flown to a hospital in Oregon. His mother, at home in Utah, and his father, who was on the east coast, received phone calls about the accident.
The report of his condition was ominous.
"When we put him on (the helicopter), he was still alive," his mother, Julie Shipman recalls hearing from the team manager who called her. "I will never forget those words because implied in that is the fact that when I get there, he might not be."
By the time his parents arrived at the Oregon hospital he'd already undergone one surgery and was preparing for a second. He'd broken his scapula, suffered a compound fracture of his left femur, split his head open, suffered a traumatic brain injury and broken four vertebrae in his neck (C3, 4, 5, and 6), all of which were eventually fused together.
He was transferred to Primary Children's Medical Center two weeks after the accident and his baseball and ski team coaches visited him often. No one except Hank dared to dream of a life that included athletics.
"No one ever said for sure, 'You won't walk again,' " said Shipman, who had planned to ski race in college. "But I was told I would never ski again or play baseball again. With spinal cord injuries, a lot of it is really unknown. It's kind of up to you to determine where you are and what will happen."
His mother said she never doubted he would live, but she struggled with what he'd lost in the accident.
"He's always been such an athlete," she said. "I just kept wondering what do you do with your body, when you lose it at 16? As a parent you have dreams for your kids. … There are so many feelings. There is anger, resentment, frustration, the loss of the dream. Everybody tells me all the time how lucky and blessed we are, and of course I know that. But there is also loss. I have a feeling that in the long run the gain will be more than the loss."
Hank spent two months in the hospital — including his 16th birthday. It was there that others who'd suffered spinal cord injuries talked with him about what his future might hold.
He said one visit in particular had a profound impact on him.
"(The former patient) said, 'As soon as you accept that you'll be in a wheelchair, it will get easier,' " he said admitting it made him angry. "That almost motivated me."
He felt movement and sensation returning to his body as he continued to work hard in physical therapy. No one argued with him when he said he would leave Primary Children's on his feet, but no one really believed it either.
Even his coaches, who'd always admired his determination, didn't see him playing competitive sports this spring.
"No, but we tried to lift his spirits and we told him we wanted him involved in the program, even if it was here (in the dugout) keeping the book," said Rowland Hall head coach Ben Voegele. "He's been a leader since he was in ninth grade. That didn't change with the accident."
When it came time to leave the hospital, he walked out on crutches.
And a few months later, he was participating in open gym workouts with his teammates.
While he did so, he continued his rehabilitation efforts at Neuroworx in South Jordan, which is world renowned for the work done with spinal cord and head injuries. He said they helped him regain more than his ability to walk.
"I love sports," said Shipman, who's played baseball and skied since he was 3-years-old. "That was one of the things that drove me crazy — I wasn't able to be competitive at anything. My most competitive (moment) was playing UNO with one of my therapists or something."
So the folks at Neuroworx found a way to help him satisfy that craving.
"We had all sorts of competitions — sit-up competitions; push-up competitions, they really pushed me and I thin that really helped me a lot. Being competitive really drives me."
The ability to challenge himself and to feel the satisfaction of accomplishing more than anyone thought possible, is what continues to drive him. It's what makes standing at second base, with the sun at his back and his teammates by his side, worth facing every moment of fear and doubt.
"Yeah, those moments came in the first two weeks," said Shipman, who now hopes to be a doctor instead of a world-class skier. "Just why me? What did I do to deserve this? And in fact, I actually, for a while I wished the accident was something that was my fault. I wished I was driving; I wished I was skiing. But the fact that I was asleep, and that I just woke up, that I had no control in the situation, that really bugged me.
"Once I came to grips with it, things just happen and you've got to deal with it, things got better. I've learned a lot in the last year just about life in general. I'm pretty thankful for the whole situation actually."1 comment on this story
In redefining himself, he's inspired his teammates, his coaches and his parents.
"He's handled his injuries better than I have," Julie Shipman said. "I feel like I learn from him every day."
Adds Voegele, "I've never met a kid as tough as him mentally. He's proven to me that as long as you think positive and keep working hard, anything can happen."