PARK HILLS, Ky. -- Elliot Feltner was clinging to life in the Intensive Care Unit at Miami Valley Hospital the first time Brendon Vando saw him after the crash.
Elliot nearly died twice Aug. 20, 2016, in the moments after an impaired driver going more than 100 miles an hour smashed into the back of his car as he drove north on Interstate 75.
“He just had every tube possible coming out of everywhere possible,” Vando said. “He was non-responsive to pretty much anything.”
That’s what makes his condition now -- less than 14 months later -- so remarkable.
Elliot can get around the first floor of his parents’ home on his own. He can lift himself from his wheelchair into a car. And his brain was not injured, making him essentially the same Elliot he was before the day that changed his life forever.
“He’s still kind of in the same spirits he always was in,” said Vando, who has been friends with Elliot since before they attended Turkey Foot Middle School together. “Maybe a little more positive outlook at some stuff. Honestly I don’t see too big a difference.”
There is a difference, of course.
Before the crash, Elliot was a graduate of the University of Cincinnati pursuing his dreams of becoming a filmmaker. He had been prom king and captain of the varsity soccer team at Dixie Heights High School. He loved inline skating and would spend hours practicing a trick until he got it just right.
Now he’s a 23-year-old who has to use a wheelchair to get around. The spinal cord injury he sustained in the crash damaged his arms and hands, too.
“I still think I’m tackling issues. Every day is like a fight,” Elliot said. “But just with the help of friends, family, everyone, it’s coming together. It’s good.”
He and his parents talked with WCPO about the family’s new normal and how Elliot is working to toward his future.
‘It was horrific’
Elliot has fought to regain a lot of what looked like might be lost forever, and even his parents are sometimes amazed by how far he has come. He has had multiple, difficult surgeries -- including a nine-hour neck surgery, emergency brain surgery and a throat surgery to widen his airway.
“I actually found my journal from a year ago on Labor Day,” said Stefanie Feltner, Elliott’s mom.
Elliot was still in ICU at Miami Valley Hospital at that point. He had been taken off oxygen but was struggling and had to have a breathing tube reinserted. He had a brain bleed that day and needed a CT scan.
“It was horrific to read just what happened to him on one day,” she said.
“The things they did to him,” added Craig Feltner, Elliott’s father. “We would watch. It was just amazing what he was able to withstand.”
The Feltners learned as much as they could about spinal cord injuries, which are described by where on the spinal cord they occur. The higher the injury occurs, the more function a person typically loses.
Elliot has a C7 injury, which means he could eventually live independently and even drive an adapted vehicle. But every spinal cord injury is different, and every patient’s recovery happens on his or her own time.
The Feltners’ biggest concern after it was clear that Elliot would survive was the condition of his brain, his father said. Once doctors determined that Elliot’s cognitive abilities were intact, his parents felt confident that he would keep getting better.
Still, the early days were difficult.
Elliot couldn’t talk or eat for the first three months after he was hit. He had to have tracheal surgery in January of this year to widen his airway so he could breathe more easily. There were complications after the surgery that left Elliot unable to eat until recently because his epiglottis wasn’t working properly.
“There was an extended period of time in which the doctors were unable to give any degree of certainty if or when Elliot would be able to eat,” Craig Feltner said.
But after lots of time and lots of therapy, he can eat normally again.
Opening more doors
Elliot spent much of his early recovery time at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado, where he received intensive physical and occupational therapy.
Craig Hospital specializes in neuro-rehabilitation and research of patients with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. Elliot and his mom were there from Sept. 21, 2016 through March 6, 2017.
Since he has been home, Elliot has been getting occupational and physical therapy as part of the Neuro Recovery Network at the Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville.
He has made so much progress that he goes to Frazier on his own several times a week, Stefanie Feltner said. A van picks up Elliot, and he rides on his own to his therapy appointments.
“He can get away from Mom a little bit, get away from the house,” she said. “It gives him just a chance to go and get out.”
The next big step for Elliot’s treatment comes later this month when he and his mom head to the Jacobs Medical Center at the University of California -- San Diego. He will undergo an extensive physical exam between Oct. 17 and Oct. 19 and baseline testing to determine whether he can be part of a clinical trial that would implant stem cells into his body to try to reverse some of his paralysis.
“I think what a lot of people don’t understand about my injury is that it affected all four limbs,” Elliot said. “The main focus on the stem cells is to get my hands back because that can open up so many doors for me, more than I have now.”
As his mother put it: “Independence lies in the ability to pull a little piece of plastic on a lunch snack.”
None of the Feltners have “false illusions” about what the treatment could do, Craig Feltner said.
“It’s not a miracle cure,” he said. “Spinal cords are still the great unknown. It’s not a broken leg. They don’t know how to fix them yet. But they’re getting there.”
Along the way, Elliot and his parents are learning what they need to help him gain the independence he wants and are working to change peoples’ perceptions.
“There are a lot of people out there who have incurred injuries like this. The governor of Texas, he’s in a wheelchair,” Craig Feltner said. “We don’t want you to see the wheelchair first. That’s just part of it.”
Stefanie Feltner stressed that she doesn’t like the term “wheelchair-bound.”
“You’re not bound to a wheelchair,” she said. “It’s a form of mobility.”
‘Things move slow’
The Feltners and their extended family and friends are doing all they can to give Elliot every opportunity to recover.
That has meant holding fundraisers for Elliot, whose lifetime cost of care is expected to be about $3 million.
“We burned through our insurance back when we were at Craig,” Stefanie Feltner said. “With spinal cord injuries, it’s a lifelong expense.”
As she thinks ahead about Elliot’s life, she wants him to have independence, to be able to move out of his parents’ Park Hills home and go to work in film production like he had planned.
Craig Feltner hopes Elliot can be active again and one day can have a family.
“A full life, travel, no restrictions,” he said.
Elliot’s first big focus for himself is independence.
“I’d probably put that before career goals,” he said. “Independent living is what they hit hard at the hospitals and through therapy.”
Elliot’s injury has affected his whole family in different ways. His younger brother, Wynn, had just started his sophomore year at Murray State University when Elliot nearly died. Wynn didn’t have a car on campus and had to get a ride back home to see his brother. He ended up taking a semester off school so he could help his family. He re-enrolled at the University of Kentucky this fall to be closer to home.
The Feltners’ youngest child, Georgia, who is 10, has had to get used to her mom being away for months at a time for Elliot’s visits to out-of-town hospitals. She recently hosted her first big sleepover, though, which her mom rated a success.
Of course nobody has been impacted more than Elliot. He has had to change the way he looks at life and measures his progress.
When he was working right after graduation, he said, he used to compare himself to his friends in the industry.
“Now I’ve learned things move slow,” he said. “I shouldn’t try to compare myself.”
He doesn’t dwell on what he doesn’t have, and doesn’t have bad dreams that keep him up at night. In fact, his dreams are kind of nice.
“When I’m dreaming, I’m not in a wheelchair,” he said. “In my head, I still feel like I get to that point of being free again and not being restrained to a chair.”
Still, the wheelchair doesn’t define Elliot, and he hopes that the friends he hasn’t seen since before the crash will understand that, just like his friend Brendon Vando does.
“They know me as a certain person, and now suddenly I’m just sitting down all the time. I think that’s the only difference,” Elliot said with a smile. “Same me.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.