Told he would not swim again, athlete makes miracle comeback

October 20, 1991|By Mike Zizzo | Mike Zizzo,Orlando Sentinel

MELBOURNE, Fla. -- In the early morning hours of Jan. 13, Melbourne High School senior Ed Harrison thought he was having a surreal nightmare.

Surely, the alarm clock would go off and he would awake in the friendly confines of his bed. Instead, he found himself bleeding -- and in severe pain in what remained of his 1990 blue Chevrolet Cavalier.

"When I opened my eyes, I saw the firemen with the Jaws of Life and one said, 'He's alive,' " said Harrison, who had been in the passenger seat as his sister Lisa drove to work that morning. "They thought I was dead."

Harrison was alive, but his competitive swimming and running appeared to be over. He had broken the fifth vertebra in his back. Doctors originally told him he would be fortunate to be able to walk again.

Thanks to technology and a strong desire, Harrison is more than walking again. He is swimming, running and enjoying one of the most compelling comebacks by a high school athlete in Central Florida in recent years. He has become one of Brevard County's premier swimmers. He culminated his success story by breaking a school record in the 100 breast stroke that stood for 19 years.

"I'm freaking, because he is whipping my butt and everybody else's," said Jim Sheridan, Harrison's teammate and best friend. "You can imagine how good he would be if he didn't break his back, but if he didn't he probably would not have been as driven. It sparked him to work hard."

Harrison's chilling tale began that January day at 6:30 a.m. when his sister apparently fell asleep at the wheel on Eau Gallie Boulevard. The car veered off the road about a quarter-mile from Eau Gallie High School and caromed off a guardrail and bridge embankment at approximately 75 mph.

Harrison, who was in the passenger seat, found himself in the back seat with the engine resting on his feet. Soon he would find out at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne that he had broken a vertebra and both ankles. His sister sustained a broken nose.

"They [doctors] told me I would be in bed a minimum of six months after they put the plates in my back and fused them," Harrison said. "They said I would never play any sports again and maybe be in a wheelchair."

Not being able to play sports again was something that the sports-minded teen-ager could not bear. He urged his family to get a second opinion, and they found a savior in Dr. Donald Vliegenthart, a Melbourne orthopedic and spine specialist.

Vliegenthart is one of the few approved surgeons using a new procedure for people such as Harrison who have had vertebra crushed. According to Vliegenthart's assistant, Lee Kirkpatrick, it involves inserting stainless steel plates and screws above and below the injured area. Then a device, developed by Vliegenthart with the reverse action of a pair of pliers, is used to restore the vertebra to its normal position. The operation usually takes four hours.

"The procedure is now the accepted standard for compressed vertebra fractures," Kirkpatrick said. "Usually the rehabilitation is quick because the normal function [of the vertebra] is restored."

The operation, which was performed three days after the accident, proved successful. Harrison was eager for rehabilitation to begin because it irritated him to be temporarily disabled for the first time.

"The van would pull up in a handicapped spot, and I would say, 'No,' and when they wanted to put me in the wheelchair I said, 'No,' " Harrison said. "It was hard for me because I played sports my whole life and I didn't want to be disabled."

TTC "You can make a key chain from what was left from that car," Harrison said. "It was mush."

Exactly two months after the accident, Harrison had discarded the wheelchair and was back in the pool. As part of the rehabilitation, he would swim the breast stroke -- ironically one of his best events -- with buoys secured to his legs.

He spent the next several months going through long, grueling hours of therapy involving swimming and weightlifting. He constantly was driven by the reminder of the doctors' original diagnosis and Sheridan's daily inspiration.

"When they told me I may not be able to walk and definitely not run or swim, I didn't like them telling me I couldn't do something," Harrison said. "I wanted to show them that I could."

While the doctors were telling him, "No," Sheridan was telling him, "Yes."

"I remember one time when I went to first see him, his mom had to help him walk to the bathroom," Sheridan said. "I was saying to myself, 'How he is ever going to do this?' but he worked real hard. I just told him all the time to never give up and that we needed him back."

Harrison came back with a vengeance.

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