(Photo by Shamus Fatzinger/Fairfax Times)
His fingers twitched before wrapping around the handles of a wheelchair that was about to be left behind, at least for the time being. With a wary physical therapist by his side, Nick Balenger felt the hospital hallway open up as he slowly rose out of his chair and stared at his toughest challenge yet. A walk to the end of the hall seemed a daunting task for a boy who could manage little more than wiggle a few fingers four weeks earlier.
Tuesday’s 50-foot trek marked the latest accomplishment of a high school senior bent on defying the limitations of paralysis on the road leading back to a normal life. Even with a platform walker at his aid, a walk of any length was barely believable for someone so closely removed from the July 25 accident that changed everything.
On that day, Balenger — a standout pitcher for Lake Braddock Secondary School’s state champion baseball team — went for a swim at Makena Beach alongside his father during the family’s much-anticipated Hawaiian vacation. Balenger somersaulted into a wave and slammed against the underlying sandbar, leaving him immobilized before his dad pulled him out of the water.
The Balenger family spent the next two-and-a-half weeks in and out of the Maui Memorial Medical Center’s intensive care unit, where Nick celebrated his 17th birthday surrounded by doctors treating him for a spinal cord injury that left him partially paralyzed. A brutal three-leg flight back to the East Coast on Aug. 13 set the stage for weeks of acute rehabilitation at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest Washington, D.C.
The first couple weeks of rehab proved excruciating, as Balenger took turns throwing up and trying to re-teach his stubborn muscles how to move. His persistence finally began to pay off towards the end of September, when he regained control of his throwing hand and some movement in his left
hand. Suddenly Balenger started to lift himself out of his wheelchair and contemplate walking again.
“It was just like a logarithmic curve. It just went straight up,” Balenger said in his hospital room on Tuesday, lifting his arm up in the air to demonstrate the path of the curve. “The last three weeks I’ve made as much improvement as the first two months.”
Balenger’s physical therapist, Lauren Russell, has taken to setting seemingly insurmountable goals each week for Balenger, who has approached each task with the same steely resolve that made him one of Lake Braddock’s marquee pitchers last spring.
Three weeks ago, before her patient had even risen from his chair, Russell challenged him to walk 25 steps, a task that sounded ludicrous to Balenger at the time. He then lifted himself out of his chair and sat back down, a surprising feat that soon turned into a groundbreaking first 13 steps with his walker.
A few days later he managed 25 steps, and soon enough he had hit 50. Now when the hospital’s physical therapists — who barely expected the teenager to be able to push his manual chair by this point — hold group meetings, they use Balenger to show off the fruits of their labor.
“It’s just about having the mentality of going for another set or another rep,” Balenger said. “If they tell me to do 10 sets, I do 12. I just try to go above what they think I can do.”
When he’s not grinding through hours of physical and occupational therapy, Balenger is typically doing homework. His past completion of Honors and Advanced Placement courses left him needing only two classes to graduate during his senior year, but Balenger has been taking three online classes in the hospital: geo-systems, government and English.
Even with his depleted energy levels keeping him from enjoying much down time, Balenger has managed to get out of the hospital here and there during the past few weeks. The most notable instance came last Friday, when he was honored at
halftime of Lake Braddock’s homecoming football game against Robinson. His first return to school grounds coincided with the baseball team’s scheduled halftime ceremony that would see players and coaches receive their state championship rings.
When Balenger’s name was announced last, a packed student section erupted into frenzied cheers and waved countless “Nick Nation” signs before chanting his name in unison.
“I was on cloud nine when I stood up to get that ring,” Balenger said. “That was one of the best nights of my life.”
Teammates hoisted Balenger out of his chair as he triumphantly pumped his fist into the air before lowering himself back into his seat. Any suggestion that his teammates lifted him up, though, gets a quick objection from Balenger.
“Hey, I stood up,” he said. “They were just helping me balance.”
Balenger’s emergence thrilled everyone on hand, including the baseball team’s head coach, Jody Rutherford.
“This is really the first time that a lot of his teammates have actually seen him, so it’s just a great moment for him to be able to do that,” Rutherford said. “He’s a mentally tough kid. He only has a certain control over it, but the control that he had, he gave 110 percent and obviously it’s paid off. Hopefully it continues to get better and better from here.”
Those teammates don’t comprise the only baseball squad that has been sticking by Balenger’s side. The Washington Nationals’ Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen paid him a visit in the hospital and wore Nick Nation wristbands during one of their games. Balenger frequently keeps in touch with Desmond through Twitter.
The Balenger family has so far racked up about $350,000 in medical expenses; their trying flight from Hawaii to Dulles International Airport — which only came about after haggling with an insurance company — alone totaled about $68,000.
Thankfully, fundraising support has so far come from all directions. Parents and community members have rallied behind the embattled family, perhaps all too aware that such a freak accident could have just as easily occurred to one of their own children. There are four people on the 15-person fundraising committee that didn’t even know the Balengers prior to their involvement.
“He’s a lot stronger than I even thought he was,” said Sylvie Balenger, Nick’s mother. “Through this injury it’s like, wow, people really rallied behind him and behind us. It’s not a surprise how resilient he is, but I’m impressed by how well he’s handling it. I’m really proud of him.”
With physical progress moving at the speed of his old fastball, Nick is already looking forward to cheering his teammates on from the dugout in the spring. Beyond that, his ultimate goals for his senior year are as jarring as they are simple.
“I expect to be walking across the stage to get my diploma,” Balenger said. “And then I’ll walk down the steps and go back to my seat.”