HS gridder’s miracle recovery is cause for celebration

Sean McNamee is surrounded by hospital staff that worked tirelessly to aid his recovery from a head injury.

Daniel Baker

Sean McNamee lifted his shirt to show the scar running across his abdomen. Call it a dry run for when he returns to school and they have show-and-tell.

Not many other kids can bring a decompressive craniectomy to class.

"It’s a little bit startling," Steve Yerrid said.

He’s McNamee’s lawyer, the guy who triggers cold sweats at Hillsborough County (Fla) Public Schools headquarters.

Somebody will eventually have to answer a few questions.

They know how a football player cracked his skull while running a pass route before practice. But how did he slip off and drive home as his brain swelled? An hour later, surgeons were telling McNamee’s parents their son might not survive surgery.

That inquisition will come in time. Thursday was all about something else.

"Thank you," McNamee said, looking out at the room full of doctors and nurses. "I am very lucky to be here."

Everybody either grinned or nodded or sniffed away a tear.

"Everybody is just jumping for joy," Dr. Yoav Ritter said. "This is why we get into medicine. This is something we’ll remember the rest of our lives."

They met six weeks ago, Oct. 9 to be precise. Ritter was the neurosurgeon, looking down at a patient and wondering whether it was already too late. McNamee was a 16-year-old whose biggest worry that morning was how his team was going to beat Freedom High that Friday night.

He was a linebacker for Wharton High, and he’d scored his first touchdown, an 83-yard fumble return, two weeks earlier. That particular afternoon McNamee went out early and was playing catch with his helmet off.

He was chasing down a pass and got tangled up with a defender near the sideline. He tumbled and hit his head on the corner of a paint machine that lines the field.

McNamee got up and grabbed his head in pain. A couple of teammates helped him into the football office. McNamee told the coach and trainer he thought he was OK.

After observing him and asking a few questions, the trainer called McNamee’s mother. He filled Joy McNamee in on what had happened and told her she needed to come pick up he son.

Sean grew increasingly confused. The family says he couldn’t remember the combination to his locker. Yet, he somehow managed to leave the training room, find his car in the parking lot and drive four miles to his house.

The only person there was his 10-year-old sister. Sean tried to call his mother’s cell phone but couldn’t dial the number. He started mumbling nonsense and couldn’t hold the ice pack to his head.

McNamee’s father got home, saw what was happening and put his son his car. That would be faster than calling an ambulance. They pulled into Florida Hospital at Tampa, and Sean was wheeled into the emergency room.

A CT scan showed Sean had a fractured skull. His head was filling with blood and the pressure inside his skull was building.

Sean made it through surgery and was put in a medically induced coma. The portion of skull doctors removed was surgically implanted in his abdomen, where the bone could be kept sterile and nourished. Nobody knew if he’d ever need to have it reattached.

"Things didn’t look real good," Todd McNamee, Sean’s father, said.

The family asked for prayers. The Twitter hashtags #SeanStrong and #PrayforSean started piling up. Nine days after the accident, Sean woke up.

He started breathing without a ventilator, and the nurses began to cry. He could only communicate by squeezing someone’s hand, and his parents didn’t know if he understood what they were telling him.

Then the fog began to clear. Sean would wink at nurses. He slowly worked up enough strength to stand, then take a few steps. On Halloween, he walked right out of the hospital.

"Sean is a miracle kid," Dr. James Orlowski said. "There are no two ways about it."

He returned Thursday to express his gratitude. Sean took off his beige helmet before speaking. The left side of his head is concaved from the missing skull piece. It will be reattached as the brain swelling goes down.

His message was simple, yet he still needed a script. The words came out slowly and deliberately.

"I have made great progress," he said, "but I know I have a long way to go."

The nurses and doctors were thinking about how far he’s come. They posed for pictures and hugged and kissed their favorite patient on his cheek.

Yerrid stood back and smiled. He knows how to work a potential jury.

Who wouldn’t be moved when they see a craniectomy scar? Who wouldn’t want to know how a kid with a severe head injury managed to wander from school and drive home?

As compelling as those questions are, nobody at the hospital was asking them Thursday. A week early, they were enjoying the best Thanksgiving anyone could have prayed for.