Michael Doherty was just 17 when he lost the ability to walk, but the former St. Paul's studenthasn't lost his determination to regain the mobility taken from him when he suffered a spinal cord injury during a 2016 football game at the Covington school.
Now a junior at LSU, Doherty is quick to say that he's gained something in the years since his injurythe realization that nothing should be taken for granted and a deep gratitude for those who've helped him, including doctors, nurses and therapists, as well as family and friends.
During a recent visit to Lakeview Regional Medical Center, the 21-year-old said thank you in person to some of the staff members who cared for him when he arrived at the Covington areahospital's emergency department on that fateful November night, a stay that stretched to 17 days.
Michael Doherty, center, heads to his truck after visiting with the medical team at Lakeview Regional Medical Center near Covington that helped him during surgery and recovery following a spinal injury he suffered while playing high school football in November 2016. Doherty uses a wheelchair to get around but he and his doctors hope he'll be able to walk again in the future. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
"He could hardly raise his arms," said Holly Leonhard, then a critical care nurse and now a nurse practitioner, as she marveled at her former patient's progress.
This time, Doherty arrived at the hospital on his own steam, driving a modified truck that uses hand controls and a platform that slides out so he can maneuver his wheelchair without assistance.
Many people on his team of caregivers 27 in all had not seen him since he left the hospital four years ago. But they hadn't forgotten his determination to recover, something that they say was evident from the outset.
Sharon Resmondo, who was a night nurse then, choked up a bit as she recalled those days.
"The beginning was very hard," she said. "But he rallied every day."
"I have children his age," critical care nurse Melanie Norris added. "It was his resolve: he was going to get through it. Your heart went out to him. He hasn't proven us wrong yet."
Hospital staffers remember lighter moments, too, particularly the unending stream of visitors, mostly his classmates, and their gentle bending of the rules to allow them to be there for their friend. His hospital room was rearranged to bring in a big-screen TV, and some friends even slept over.
Nurse Practitioner Sharon Resmondo, center, holds up her phone so that other medical staff who couldn't see Michael Doherty in person could visit with him in a video chat on Wednesday, December 9, 2020 at Lakeview Regional Medical Center near Covington. Doherty wanted to thank the medical staff that helped him during surgery and in his recovery following a spinal injury suffered during a high school football game in November 2016. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Dr. Marco Hidalgo, medical director of the hospital's trauma program, said there was a train of people bringing food just for the visitors.
"I kept asking, 'Don't these kids have to go to school?' There was never a day when there were not at least a dozen," Hidalgo said. "He had more visitors in a day than the whole hospital has now."
Because of COVID-19, he pointed out, such attention isn't possible.
Doherty, at the time a junior defensive back, was injured in what appeared to be a routine play in a November 2016 playoff game against Archbishop Shaw. But after the play, Doherty couldn't pick himself up.
Michael Doherty, center, is surrounded by some of the medical team that helped him during surgery and recovery at Lakeview Regional Medical Center near Covington back in November 2016 following a spinal injury he suffered at a high school football game. On Wednesday, December 9, 2020, Doherty drove to the hospital using a modified truck to thank the staff. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Dr. Justin Owen, a neurosurgeon, got the phone call from the football field that night about an injured player who couldn't feel his legs. While those on the scene were focused on his thoracic spine, Owen said he was much more concerned about his neck, and that is where his spinal cord was compressed, at the C5-6 vertebrae. Doctors were also worried about a possible clot in one of the arteries that supplies blood to the brain.
Owen and the others operated on Doherty deep into the next morning and the plan was to transfer him to New Orleans afterward. But Owen said the south shore hospital "got cold feet." So Lakeview reevaluated him and kept a very close eye on him, he said.
His caregivers agree that the presence of so many people was a key to Doherty's recovery, which wouldn't have been possible if he had been moved. "The fact that he was closer meant that family and friends could be there," Hidalgo said.
Doherty left Lakeview Regional to go the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he worked hard at rehabilitation, returning to St. Paul's in March of 2017 to finish his junior year. He has returned to the Shepherd Center since, and also works on his own.
He has some feeling in his legs and has regained enough arm movement to handle a cellphone, cups and the all-important hand controls for his truck.
"It gives me a lot of independence," he said. "I had to rely on other people for rides."
Michael Doherty visits with the medical team that helped him during surgery and recovery at Lakeview Regional Medical Center near Covington on Wednesday, December 9, 2020. In November 2016, Doherty suffered a spinal injury during a high school football game. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
As for school, he jokingly told Owen, "It's fun, but the school part sucks." He's looking forward to life after college, when he hopes to have a career in sports administration.
His love of football hasn't diminished, and his on-campus job is working in the player personnel office for the LSU football program, which handles recruitment.
"It was a great year last year, then 2020 came," Doherty said with a smile.
But his biggest goal remains to walk again. Owen and Hidalgo believe he will.
"You're going to walk again, I know it's going to happen," Hidalgo told Doherty. The reason, he said, is Doherty's spirit. "I really would not tell that to a lot of patients."
The steering wheel on the modified truck that Michael Doherty drives. Doherty recently visited with the team at Lakeview Regional Medical Center near Covington that helped him during surgery and recovery following a spinal injury he suffered while playing high school football in November 2016. Doherty uses a wheelchair to get around but he and his doctors hope he'll be able to walk again in the future. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Owen pointed to advances in research, including stem cell therapy and robotics, and Doherty's youth. Statistically, those most likely to succeed are often athletes, he said, because they understand the demands that must be met to do something like winning a two-minute race.
For Doherty, the race is more of a marathon, but one he intends to win.
He found himself in a reflective mood after watching a football game at his alma mater before Thanksgiving, prompting him to make a rare post on social media. "Four years ago, I played my last football game and my life was forever changed," he wrote. "I miss playing football, and I wish I could play one more game."
But he also stressed the positives in his life. "I want to thank every doctor, nurse and therapist that has helped me along the way," he wrote. "I appreciate everything you had done for me. This journey will not stop until I reach my final goal of walking again."
"I wouldn't be where I am today without them."
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