"He will fight every day:" Auburn boy hit by car defies the odds
Blake Finley admits he was a little wobbly the first time on his feet after three weeks in a coma, but soon, he was challenging his therapists.
"I'd walk around the whole playground, and I was like, 'This is too easy. Give me something harder,'" the 12-year-old from Auburn, Kan. recalled during a recent break from his packed schedule of sessions at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital's Lincoln campus.
After all, when you dream of playing FIFA and being the next Lionel Messi, you can't afford much time on the sideline.
"You do fancy foot tricks with (soccer), and the goalie can block it and throw it. That's what I like about it," he explained.
His goals were nearly cut short Nov. 30th, 2018, on a dark, foggy night, less than two blocks from his house.
"The neighbor kid came to the house and told us that Blake got hit by a car," Blake's mom Makaila Bryant said. "We thought he was joking."
A soccer ball had rolled into the street. Blake bent to pick it up, and was hit by a car, becoming pinned underneath.
"All I remember is wanting to get underneath the car to be with him," Makaila said. "I felt helpless and hopeless."
Blake suffered a skull fracture and bruised lungs, ankle and knee injuries, and severe, deep scrapes on his face, shoulder and leg.
"I pictured the worst. He wasn't going to make it; I wasn't gonna be able to see him no more; I wouldn't be able to hear his laugh; I wouldn't be able to hear his voice; wouldn't be able to see him play soccer," she said.
Pediatric trauma Dr. Kumar Vellaichamy was working in Stormont Vail's emergency room that night.
"His condition was very grim," Dr. Vellaichamy recalls. "We thought he was going to have significant neurological injury later on."
Blake needed help to breath, and was on a ventilator when his family finally got to see him.
"It's indescribable," his dad Robert Finley said of all the machines and tubes surrounding the boy. "It was very hard to see my son like that."
Blake underwent seven surgeries, including skin grafts, and was kept in a medically induced coma.
"Just seeing him lay in that bed, not be able to walk, talk or anything - it was the hardest thing," said Zach Martens, Blake's step-dad. "There was nothing we could do but just sit there by his bedside every day, and just talk to him and pray."
More than three weeks later, Blake woke up, with no idea where he was.
"(I was) scared," he admits. "I didn't know what happened to my leg and my shoulder and my face."
The next step in his recovery came Dec. 28, when an ambulance took Blake to Madonna. He had a long road ahead. On his first day of therapy, he needed two people to help him stand and move legs and arms that were bent stiff.
"He was what we would consider very low level, Dr. Adam Kafka, a physiatrist at Madonna, said. "He had just been weened off the ventilator, but still had a breathing tube."
Speech Therapist Sarah Messerli is part of the team helping Blake regain cognitive skills lost to his brain injury.
"(When we started) he wasn't able to talk. He wasn't able to eat. He couldn't remember things he did maybe 30 seconds before," she said.
Word games have helped with language and memory, while work in Madonna's specialized vision clinic keeps an eye out for any issues not just with sight itself, but between what his eyes see and what his brain is telling him, which could impact balance or cause headaches.
Blake says he has worked hard "so that I can get back to playing soccer again, and run."
Incredibly, he's almost there. Any wobbles go nearly unnoticed as he dribbles a soccer ball around Madonna's indoor playground, punctuating his success with a driving kick toward his physical therapist.
"I would say that it's exceptional, yes," Dr. Kafka said. "Being just a couple months into this, we're farther along than we would normally see, which is partly just a testament to the effort that he puts in and the whole team supporting him in his recovery."
His family agrees.
"He has shown determination. He showed me how to believe in everything and not to give up," Makaila said.
"He never once gave up - and he'll never give up. He will fight every day," Zach said.
Blake's work isn't over. He's still gaining strength, and mastering his memory. Messerli expects his return to school will boost the process.
"With anyone with a brain injury, you can recover years down the road, so he'll keep on recovering skills," she said.
But to see him laughing, eating, and running is nothing short of amazing.
"This is the best reward you can get for being a doctor," Dr. Vellaichamy said. "Hearing a child that bad to start with get almost everything back, like as they were before - that is the most gratifying reward one can ever get."
It's hard work, yes, but his dad says Blake makes him believe in miracles.
"He's the true champion. He's the fighter," Robert said. "He does have the support and everything, but if it wasn't his will and determination to get better, I don't think he'd be here right now."
Blake is doing so well, doctors say he can go home early. His release is now set for March 1. Blake knows a lot of people have been pulling for him, and to them he sends a simple message.
"I wanna say I love you guys."