A fall to grace

Accident paralyzes Cd'A man's legs, but spiritually, he's alive and kicking

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Mike Vredenburg works with Jake Allstot, a physical therapist assistant, in using legs braces and supports to gain mobility Monday at St. Luke's Rehabilitation Center in Spokane.

He didn't know where he was. He didn't know what had happened. All he knew was that he couldn't feel his legs.

"I was scared out of my mind," said Mike Vredenburg.

Moments before he was standing in the middle of a world where everything seemed so still, the deep wilderness in winter.

He absorbed every detail of every moment.

But now he lay across a berm between a cat track and a hill, his body folded over the snow.

He'd flown 30-35 feet off a jump that collapsed on takeoff, and landed directly on his head, knocking him out and slamming his back against the snow.

When he came to his senses, when he looked down at his limp legs, he knew he was paralyzed.

He and his friends were snowboarding and snowmobiling in the remote wilderness near Oroville, Wash., a small town close to the border of Canada, where they were staying at a friend's cabin for the weekend.

Daniel Vredenburg, Mike's brother, and good friend Daniel Howard were there when Mike crashed.

It was around 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 29.

His brother ran a mile and half back to the cabin, through the deep snow, to call for help. He knew the only way his brother could be reached was by snowmobile.

Howard comforted Mike in the meantime. He did everything a good friend would do in that moment. Soon a circle of friends from the cabin formed around Mike.

"He's freezing. He's shaking," said friend Ashley Howard. "We all prayed for him. All of us just started singing spontaneously together and the peace of the Lord was so tangible there. You could feel it. There were angels.

"I have never experienced anything more supernatural in my life and it was the moment of strength we all needed," Howard added.

"My hands, which were cold, became so hot, so I placed them on Mike and prayed and sang."

In that moment, surrounded by the faces of those who loved him, Mike's mindset changed.

"I felt God come and say, 'I have you, everything is going to be OK.' All that fear left and a peace came; I knew God had me," Vredenburg said. "It hasn't left since that moment."

Two and half hours later, paramedics arrived on snowmobiles. They carried him out using a sled and took him to the nearest hospital, North Valley Hospital in Tonasket, Wash.

It was 5 p.m., three and half hours after the accident.

There, the medical staff realized Mike needed surgery and they planned an immediate transfer to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.

They were told weather conditions would prohibit any flights to Spokane, forcing them to drive six or seven hours with Mike in critical condition.

His friends prayed for the 20-minute needed break in the weather to fly to Spokane.

"All of a sudden five seconds later the doctor was like, 'Well, we got a window,'" said Howard. "It cleared up just a small path for just that little timeframe they needed to fly him to Spokane."

He was admitted to Sacred Heart where he was operated on the following day.

The blow of the impact fractured Vredenburg's spine at the waist level, shoving fragments of bone into the central canal through which the spinal cord sends messages from the brain to the lower body. The bone fragments then pinched the spinal nerves, resulting in paralysis of the legs.

His surgery served a two-part purpose: It removed the bone fragments from the spinal cord and fused the vertebrae together, using hardware to stabilize the spine and prevent further injury to the spinal cord.

"Right after surgery the doctor made it a point to tell me that I'd never walk again," said Vredenburg.

Mike doesn't buy it.

"I totally believe that God's going to heal me, but in his time. Whether it's tomorrow or in 25 years, I will walk again," he said.

His friends in Coeur d'Alene didn't know how to react initially.

"When we found out, we were just shaking. It's shocking. It's horrific," said Mike's close friend, Ania Majdali, 27. "But Mike, not for one second, has displayed any sort of hopelessness or fear or lack of trust in God. It's been the opposite. It forces people to be full of faith, full of hope, fully trusting and Mike's leading the charge. He's just pulling us along."

Vredenburg, 25, was born and raised in Coeur d'Alene. He was a dynamic soccer player for Coeur d'Alene High School and received a soccer scholarship to North Idaho College. Before his accident, he was serving tables at Applebee's in Coeur d'Alene and coaching sports at the Kroc Center.

When he wasn't serving hungry patrons, he was serving other people. Mike and his brother led a Bible study every Wednesday night, as well as a discipleship house in Hayden where they reside with six other Christian men. Pursuing a life of how Jesus lived is a first priority for them. Mike is an active member of New Life Community Church and the Altar Church of Coeur d'Alene.

Rehabilitation Dr. Vivian Moise of St. Luke's Rehabilitation Institute has overseen Mike's recovery since he transferred to the center from Sacred Heart on Jan. 3.

"Michael progressed further than average and faster than average," she said. "He's done what most of our patients with a similar type of spinal cord injury accomplish in 2 to 3 months, in one month."

Dr. Moise contributes Mike's progress to his physical state prior to the accident and to his ability "to work no matter how much it hurt or how tired he was. He worked his butt off. He pushed, he fought, with motivation to the nth degree."

Her voice rises with excitement at the mention of Mike Vredenburg.

"He is in the cream of the crop, A+, ace level," she said. "Mike is tied for first place with maybe one or two other patients I've worked with over the last 26 years. He makes us love our job. It's like, yes, this is why I am doing what I do."

Mike's accident, his story, is one of great faith. And that story, he believes, is meant for others.

"Mike is doing more ministry right now laying on a bed paralyzed than most people do in their life," said Ashley Howard, who estimates that at least 200 people have visited Mike in Spokane since the accident.

When he was in ICU at Sacred Heart, they had to rotate different visitors every two minutes. His closest friends slept on the floors and chairs of the hospital's lobby for almost a week.

Sometimes the visitors encouraged him; sometimes he encouraged the visitors.

Mike doesn't hide his faith. He prays nightly for the hospital's staff and patients, for his friends and family, for his enemies.

One doctor saw a handmade card for Mike with Jesus on it, and remarked, "I don't believe in him, but he certainly believes in you."

Mike drank French press coffee with the nurses and opened up to them about his story. They, in return, confided in him about their lives and their struggles.

On other nights, Mike and his friends, sometimes 25 people, gathered in the hospital's lobby to play worship music and sing together.

"The nurses and other patients just really love it," said Vredenburg. "One of them told me, 'It changed the atmosphere of work, that it became really peaceful and spirit-filled.' Those were her words.

"You can lose hope, hope for the future and what life is going to be like. So worship is one of the ways I show the staff and patients that because of my hope for Jesus, my hope never runs out, it never goes away."

Even with extensive physical therapy, visits from family and friends, and an ever-growing social media presence, Mike finds time to be still.

"I would love people to know that no matter where you find yourself in life, no matter what happens, it doesn't change that God's good and he's for you, not against you. He wants nothing but the best for you and he has dreams and plans over your life that are bigger and greater than your own," he said.

After a month of hospitalization, Mike was discharged Jan. 29.

"Is Michael going to be a successful human being in the world, have a career, have relationships, have a family, have children, make a difference in other people's lives, have a purpose in the world, do whatever he wants to do with his life?," asked Dr. Moise. "Yes.

"Another question is will the spinal cord heal and will he walk again? I also believe the answer to that is yes."

The odds aren't good. Only 3 percent of patients with a complete injury, like Mike's, will walk again, said Moise.

"Miracles happen and those are the 3 percent you know about," she said. "Research has come so incredibly far for curing spinal cord injury that I know in my head and in my heart and not just, oh, spiritually, but intellectually from the status of research that there is no question that in Michael's lifetime, at least partial, maybe complete recovery of those injured spinal cord nerves is going to happen."

Mike spoke to Dr. Moise about how much his faith determines his future.

"Maybe he'll make a bigger difference in the world or in other people's lives," said Moise. "Or maybe he will be in the situation of totally changing a person's life or saving someone's life that he never would have known had he not been in a wheelchair."

Mike admits his life is radically different.

What used to take him five minutes to do takes 25 minutes. What he used to do effortlessly takes the most effort imaginable. What he used to acknowledge, he now cherishes.

"Before the accident I was so wrapped up in life, working, and responsibilities," said Vredenburg. "The biggest eye-opening thing as far as life after December 29th, is that it's not so much about me anymore and it's more about other people."

How to help Mike

Join Michael Vredenburg for "A Night For Mike," a silent auction fundraiser on Friday, March 22 at the Kroc Center. Tickets are limited and can be purchased by sending a check for $35 addressed to "Mikey V's Recovery Fund" to C/O A Night for Mike, P.O. Box 658, Hayden, Idaho, 83835. Donate online and listen to Mike V's video blogs at www.giveforward.com/mikeyvsrecovery.

Using leg braces and forearm crutches, Mike Vredenburg works on his upright mobility less than a month after he suffered a spinal cord injury in a snowmobile accident. "I haven't seen a patient progress as fast as him in 10 years," said Jake Allstot, a physical therapist assistant.

 

Mike Vredenburg's family and therapists have attributed his recovery to determination, focus, positive outlook and faith. "I think the sky is the limit for Mike," said his physical therapist Sarah Gross. "We're hoping to see him come back and be a part of our support group, to come and inspire young people like himself."

 

Using a beach ball during a therapy session with Allstot, right and physical therapist Sarah Gross, Mike Vredenburg focuses on keeping his balance and learning how to use a different set of muscles to perform tasks following a spinal cord injury.

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