By Betsy Veysman
14 pounds may not seem too heavy. 50 feet may not seem too far. The Paddocks would disagree.
When the winter holiday break ended in January, eighth grader Aaron Paddock returned to Warsaw Middle School with his classmates.
“I was pretty excited to go back,” he said. “But it was a pretty normal day.”
After the events of the past five months, to the outsider it seems far from normal. In fact, according to Aaron’s father Brad, one of the doctors at Buffalo Children’s Hospital said she “had never truly witnessed a miracle firsthand” before.
The story began at the end of August. Members of the Paddock family were cutting down trees in their yard when a branch weighing about 14 pounds fell over 50 feet and hit Aaron in the head, crushing his skull.
After rushing him to the local hospital, he was quickly airlifted to Buffalo where the outlook appeared grim.
“There was a lot of brain swelling,” Brad Paddock said. “We just kept getting more and more bad news over those first few days. First, they weren’t sure if he would even live. But if he did, the doctors told us he may never walk again or ever speak again. He was paralyzed on his left side and they thought that might be permanent too.”
The original plan outlined by the doctors was for Aaron to be in the hospital through November. They removed part of his skull and inserted it into his stomach so it would regenerate. At the end of the three months, the plan was to place the skull back into his head and then have him live in a full time rehabilitation facility in Rochester for 60 days to try to help him regain function.
The Paddock family, made up of Brad and his wife Jeanie as well their children Jessica (26), Nikki (24), Paul (23), Luke (22), Ian (21), Joey (18), Burke (16) and Ellen (12), decided that if Aaron was going to call the hospital home for months, he wouldn’t ever be alone.
“My mom and I stayed in the hospital pretty much the whole time,” Ian said. “We took shifts. I did the nights, my mom did the mornings and everyone else came in at other parts of the day. There was always someone holding his hand and encouraging him, 24 hours a day.”
For Ian, a scholarship wrestler at Ohio State University, the decision to stay by his brother’s side was an easy one. The former four-time New York state champion had already decided to redshirt this season as a junior but was planning to go back to Columbus. However, after the accident, he called Buckeyes head coach Tom Ryan, who immediately suggested that he stay in New York to help Aaron with his recovery.
Despite the original prognosis, Ian recalled some of the hospital milestones that suggested that Aaron was going to overcome the accident.
“The first day of real excitement came about two weeks in,” Ian said. “They had just taken the tube out of his throat and they were trying to wake him up out of the coma. I remember Paul and I were trying to get [Aaron] to follow instructions like ‘move your thumb, move your fingers.’ Pretty soon he did it. He wasn’t moving for two weeks then there he was, following commands. It was so encouraging. He was way ahead of where they thought he would be.”
And then there was the first time Aaron spoke.
“After he was out of the coma, I asked one of the nurses when he would be able to talk again,” Brad Paddock said. “She told me I had to be more patient, it would take at least a month. Ian was in his face that day, talking to him and telling him he could do it. [Ian] just wouldn’t let him off the hook. Eight hours later, he looked at Ian and said, ‘Your breath smells.’ It was just unbelievable.”
“We both starting laughing,” Ian added. “It wasn’t the first thing I wanted to hear him say, but it was great for him to be able to talk again.”
34 days after entering the hospital, the day before his 15th birthday, Aaron Paddock was released from the hospital to his home in Warsaw.
“They thought it would take three months for the skull to be ready, but it went much faster,” Brad Paddock said. “The swelling in his head had gone down and the doctors were able to put it back successfully. They said the recovery process was accelerated beyond what they had seen before. Since he was already walking and talking, they decided he could skip the rehab facility altogether and just come back home.”
Aaron was supposed to slowly continue his rehabilitation when he returned. But according to Ian, the first thing Aaron did when he entered the house was sprint up the steps as fast as he could. Right behind him was Ian, which became a common theme.
Every day in the Paddock household for Ian, Jeanie and Aaron was busy, with both therapy and schoolwork.
“There were a few hours of homework each day,” Ian said. “He had his physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) for a few weeks. We did some light lifts and strength training. We did other workouts too.”
“Ian went to every therapy session with Aaron and then doubled it and tripled it once they got back home,” Brad added. “We all worked to stimulate him non-stop, whether it was bean bag toss, darts, Connect Four or checkers. Ian stayed by his side the whole time and showed him love and support while pushing him hard. Both he and Aaron used a wrestler’s mentality.”
“I don’t think I would have had the strength to fight through everything without the wrestling mentality,” Aaron agreed.
The Paddock family is full of accomplished grapplers. Paul, a two-time state champion, competed at Edinboro. Ian was an NCAA qualifier in both his true freshman and sophomore campaigns at Ohio State. Burke was a 171-pound state runner up as a freshman last year and is nationally ranked.
Aaron, however, had the best seventh grade performance of any of the brothers, going 50-5 according to the NWCA Scorebook and taking sixth at 103 pounds at the state tournament in Albany in 2011.
He has been cleared to participate in some team sports and plans to run track this spring and possibly play soccer in the fall. Of course, there’s another squad he would like to join as well.
“I’m running two miles everyday and working out also,” Aaron said. “Wrestling is my favorite sport, though, and I really hope I can wrestle again by next year.”
Brad Paddock said that next month they are going to Washington D.C. to get a brain scan and see one of the top doctors in the country for brain injuries.
“We know it’s his desire to get back to wrestling,” he said. “But we can’t let him do it without knowing for sure that it’s not a greater risk for him than anyone else. He was determined to start wrestling this January but we knew that wasn’t going to happen. We will make sure we aren’t taking big risks. The best doctors in the country will tell us what they think.”
In the meantime, Ian feels he has gained a new appreciation for the sport he and his family love. He is coming off a neck injury and is not yet able to fully train and practice. However, he is working toward rejoining the Buckeyes lineup for the 2012-13 campaign at 133 or 141 pounds.
“[Aaron] might not be able to do something he truly loves ever again,” Ian said. “It puts it in perspective for me. I have to give all I have for me and for him. There are no excuses. If I don’t feel good in practice or workouts, I think of him and how he doesn’t have the chance to wrestle and make myself go harder.”
Ian Paddock’s talent has never been in question. He handed Cornell’s two-time national champion Kyle Dake his last high school loss, 9-4, in the 2008 130 pound state championship match when both were juniors. According to Ian, he then beat Dake again a few months later in a freestyle event in Las Vegas. The difference in college as freshmen, Paddock said, was mental.
“In high school, I never expected to be beaten. When I came into college, I accepted that some kids could beat me. I should have had the mindset that I had the ability to be the best and I would have had a better outcome. It seems that Kyle Dake believed that no one could beat him from the very beginning. That’s one of the reasons for his success.”
Success is something Aaron Paddock has certainly achieved over the past five months. Despite missing 17 weeks of school, he completely caught up and is doing well academically. He is beating his father in darts and other family members in other games. He is, in his own words, “back to my old self.”
While he will not have his hand raised on the mats this season, he will be receiving another honor. Buffalo Children’s Hospital informed the Paddocks last week that Aaron has been named its Inspirational Patient of the Year.
For an update on the Paddock family from October 2012, see here.