Here is the latest cover story I wrote for Upper Providence Living. Blake and his family are truly amazing people. It was an honor to spend time with them.
As the Emersons prepared for their family vacation in July 2016 on Fish Lake in Sturgis, Michigan, they anticipated leaving the routine of everyday life behind. Family and friends gathered yearly and celebrated summer while creating fond memories that would last a lifetime.
In retrospect, this vacation would impact a family and community forever. Because of a spilt-second decision that Blake Emerson, then 23, made on July 23 at 10:00pm during day one of vacation, many lives would be impacted forever.
Blake’s battle would serve as a reminder for all who met him and continue to hear his story that life can change in an instant. From day one of his tragedy, Blake fought hard to narrate his story and control the direction in which the pages turned. With the support of many, Blake would allow all who knew him to witness a miracle.
After spending their first day on the lake, Blake explains, “My cousins, brothers and I decided to go down to the lake for one last swim of the evening. Like hundreds of times before, I threw my shirt off on to the boat next to the dock and took a dive into the water. This year the water in the lake was shallow and unbeknownst to me, I dove into about three feet of water. Immediately, I hit the bottom with such force that my eyes shot open.”
The impact from the dive created a large abrasion on Blake’s head. Because he tucked his head under after he hit the water, vertebrae C4 and C5 of the cervical spine were broken and he had a large contusion on his spinal cord between C4-C6. “I couldn’t move my extremities or utilize them to push off the bottom of the lake to return to the surface. I knew I had to either hold my breath, float to the surface, or hope someone saw me. After about 10 seconds, I went unconscious.”
Kyle, Blake’s twin brother, shares that at this point, “We were in the water and saw him dive in but were out at a floating dock beyond Blake. My cousin Jess’s boyfriend Brent was still on the dock and noticed that Blake didn’t come up from his dive. Brent jumped in, nudged Blake with his foot to see if he was playing a joke and realized he wasn’t. Brent grabbed Blake and dragged him to the edge of the shallow water.”
Jess ran to the cabin to get help. Leigh, Blake’s mother explains, “We were thinking it was some simple injury, but were quickly told it was serious. As we ran down to the dark lake, we witnessed Blake being pulled through the lake, unconscious. My husband Dan and I jumped into the water.” Dan explains, “As a nurse for 30 years, Leigh knew to stimulate Blake to bring him out of unconsciousness.” Blake’s next recollection was “my mom rubbing my sternum to elicit a reaction. I told her that I can’t move anything and I think I really screwed up.”
Leigh instructed him to not move. Family was able to place a nearby, floating thick wooden disk under Blake to prevent motion while another family member, Kate, called 911. Dan shares, “My brother Doug ran to the main road to flag down the ambulance and fire trucks that arrived after an unending thirty minutes. Blake wasn’t able to be medivacked because of the weather conditions in the area that evening. The Emergency Medical Team and Paramedics secured his neck with a brace and placed Blake on a stretcher.”
He was transported, with his parents by his side, an hour away to Bronson Methodist Hospital Trauma Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He would spend 10 agonizing days in the Neuro-Critical Intensive Care Unit.
Kyle and Luke followed the ambulance to the hospital with their Uncle Doug and Aunt Sarah. Blake’s younger brother, Luke, shares about the confusion that ensued at the house after the ambulance left with Blake. “I ran around trying to find Blake’s medical card and glasses. We had no clue what was going on. We were scared and confused. We couldn’t believe this had happened.” Both brothers and family quickly joined Dan and Leigh at the hospital and they waited unaware of the severity of his injuries.
As Blake endured a series of tests, the family waited several hours to hear a prognosis. Blake shares that “I couldn’t move anything below my shoulders, but remained conscious, despite the events being foggy. My injuries were considered incomplete. I had feeling below the level of injury. I had a flicker in my right toe and could move it slightly. That was the only movement I had immediately following the accident.”
While in the waiting room, anxious to hear from a doctor, Dan shares that “We heard a call for a Code Blue. We referenced our notes, and realized that the Code Blue was being called to Blake’s room. We ran into the Neuro Critical Care Unit and were not permitted to enter his room. It was the scariest moment of our lives.” Blake shares, “I coded twice because of the level of injury. Because it was on the cusp of my diaphragm, my breathing was affected. My nurse shared when I visited the hospital this past summer, that he had a strange feeling and stayed in the room with me. My breathing quickly declined and he felt for a pulse, but couldn’t find one. After 30 compressions, I was stabilized, but then the same thing reoccurred. After the second round of compressions, I was finally stable.”
Blake explains what it felt like to be paralyzed. “I had hypersensitive areas throughout parts of my body. If someone put a sheet over me, it would burn. If someone’s hair rubbed against my hand, or someone squeezed my hand, it would hurt a lot and be really aggravating. Through testing that involved being poked with needles, it was determined that I had some feeling everywhere, but it was diminished in certain areas. Some of the needle pricks felt like I was being stabbed.”
After five days in the hospital, Blake had a surgery to stabilize his spine. “I had spinal fusion of C4 through C6 in the spine. I have titanium screws and rods in my neck.
After another five days, Blake was transported by ambulance, 12 hours to Bryn Mawr Rehab where he would spend 11 weeks inpatient. As an inpatient, Blake had hours of Occupational and Physical Therapy to aid in his recovery due to the spinal cord injury. Despite the frustration that Blake felt, he was instantly on a mission that led him on the road to recovery. This independent 23 year old, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, had been living in Baltimore. Prior to his accident, he was working full-time as a Systems Engineer for Northrop Grumman Corporation. Now Blake was a full-time rehab resident. His once strong body was now foreign to him. “I could shrug my shoulders. I thought I could bring my arm up to scratch my head and would end up hitting myself in the face.” Leigh adds, “He was considered a quadriplegic at the start of his stay at Bryn Mawr. He was in a wheelchair and required assistance being transferred around the hospital, from chair to bed, and even in bed, he required assistance.
Despite an adverse situation, Blake wasn’t overcome with fear. The ambiguity of the incomplete injury diagnosis helped him believe that he could regain total function. He fought with poise and strength. “The word incomplete made me realize that I have to try right away if I wanted to get back. I had a possibility. Through therapy the right side started to come back. My leg, ankle and hand were first, but my left side lagged behind. To this day, my left side still isn’t back to normal.” Blake continues to work with tenacity to strengthen his left side.
Luke and Kyle supported their brother during his journey. Kyle recalls, “As Blake’s brothers, Luke and I felt bad. It was so unfortunate what happened to him. I look back on that day and think about what could have been.” Luke who was 20 at the time adds, “I questioned ‘What if it was me?’ It is tough to think about.” This put Kyle and Luke into action mode. Kyle shares, “I started training for a marathon which is something I had never done before. I ran to channel my energy.”
Blake humbly explains that he didn’t feel badly for himself while recovering. “I was fortunate to be where I was. I would look around and see that people were in worse situations. I felt different than most people, but knew I was getting better each day. I rolled with the punches and have continued to do the best I can with what I am able to do.”
During his stay at Bryn Mawr, the Emersons did their best to turn his temporary stay into a “home” environment. Leigh says, “Friends of ours brought their RV to Bryn Mawr when the University of Pittsburgh was playing Penn State University where Kyle attended and Luke attends. For the first time in several years the teams played one another and we tailgated with friends and family. Bryn Mawr Rehab was behind this endeavor 100 percent.”
The community near and far supported the Emersons in so many ways. Dan says, “We saw such good in people. The community lifted us up and it was heartwarming. We live in a solid community. Because of the dinners that were delivered by neighbors for two months straight as well as other neighbors cutting the lawn, we were able to spend time with Blake at Bryn Mawr each night. The love shown towards our family was incredible. Numerous people came to see Blake while he was in the hospital. We are very blessed.”
Kyle started a “Team For Blake” Facebook page and Leigh shares that “People would reach out to us; send us videos to share with Blake, and offer prayers and support. It was a great way to post updates, videos and pictures.” Blake adds, “My friend from college, Ryan, made t-shirts with the TFB (Team For Blake) Full Recovery logo and my relatives made TFB bracelets, which many family members and friends still wear today.”
When Blake began his stay in rehab, he had to use a wheelchair because of his injury. After 11 weeks of inpatient therapy, with the assistance of a walker, Blake was discharged to his childhood home. “I lived with my parents for six months, but would return to outpatient therapy three times a week at Bryn Mawr. My grandparents would drive me on numerous occasions when my mom had to work. They were big supporters! The walker was annoying to navigate and I needed my parents to help me up the stairs. I lost my independence. After a few months though, I was able to use forearm crutches. I then moved on to just using canes. Eventually, in my house I could get around using nothing. If I lost my balance, I could grab onto something quickly.”
In November 2016, a team ran the Philadelphia Half and Full Marathon to support and raise money for Blake. Friends and family were on hand to support their efforts. Kyle says “For every mile I ran throughout training and the marathon, people would pledge money. I ended up running over 200 miles.”
Blake shares “We went down to Philly two days in a row.” Leigh adds, “We couldn’t get anywhere close to the marathon route, so Blake had to do a lot of walking with the help of canes, but he was able to be there to support them.” Dan reminisces, “There were people everywhere and it was hard for Blake to get around. However, this allowed him to show his support for people who had been helping him.”
Luke and his fraternity brothers at Penn State University created a “Tees for Blake” miniature golf fundraiser. “We turned our front yard of our fraternity, FIJI, into a mini-golf course with greens that we built to raise money for the rehabilitation equipment Blake would need at home. So many people showed up to support the cause.” Leigh recalls, “We went to Penn State with Blake and he was able to see the fruits of their labor. It was a neat experience to see so many people come together in Luke’s community to support Blake.”
In April 2017, Blake regained his independence despite insurmountable odds. He was finally able to walk out of his parents’ home and return to work in Baltimore where he continues to strengthen himself by training at a local gym. The work he endured during the 11 weeks of inpatient therapy and six months of outpatient therapy paid off. He finally could resume an independent life back where he had lived prior to the accident.
In November 2017, Blake returned to Bryn Mawr Rehab to speak during an event, Art Ability, an event that showcased art created by people with disabilities. The evening also consisted of a silent auction and dinner to support further enhancement of equipment. “They asked me to share my story. I was able to thank Bryn Mawr Rehab and highlight how they were able to help me reach my goals. The goal of the fundraiser was to raise money to purchase portable equipment for patients who couldn’t get down to the gym at the rehab. As a result of that night, Bryn Mawr was able to purchase two mobile harnesses (LiteGaits) that will help people as they work on relearning the walking motion.
Blake’s decision on that ominous night in July changed the trajectory of his life, but ignited a vital spark. Because of his determination, he turned an uncertain diagnosis into a resolution that his purpose on earth was to fight and inspire others. He mentors survivors and motivates them to face their battles with grit. “I’ve visited the rehab hospital and talked to patients who have had spinal cord injuries. I try to offer them advice. Everyone recovers differently and I tell people that it takes a long time. You have the potential to get function back, but we all make different recoveries. There is hope.” Anything is possible and Blake is daily proof of that truth.
Blake “showed up” like a warrior to battle. Every day he put on armor to fight the hardest fight of his life. Every day he brought a positive attitude. Dan reflects that “Blake never complained or even thought about giving up.” To show the permanency of his fighting spirit, he has tattooed on his right bicep “Proceed as if success is inevitable” and he is proving to do just that. He still has goals for a full recovery.
Blake, the community continues cheering for you. You are living proof that tragedy can be turned to triumph and as a community we are forever grateful to witness the continued miracle of your recovery. When you run alongside your brothers, we will know that you have completed your journey and reached your goal.