Leaning over his lap, Scott Svetal concentrates hard as he works, slowly pulling apart a ball of twist ties. His left thumb shakes slightly as his fingers untangle each tie one by one from the mass.
Svetal loathes the exercise – it’s boring, he says.
But 10 minutes later, Svetal finishes the job. His occupational therapist, Jan Pylar, asks him to pinch a device that measures how hard he can squeeze his fingers.
Earlier in the day, Svetal practiced lifting his legs quickly and then slowly lowering them. Then he worked on a memory exercise, going through a series of homemade flash cards – each a photo of a Green Valley Rehabilitation Health Center staff member – trying to recall more than a dozen names.
Svetal’s days at the center in north Eugene are composed of such mental and physical exercises. His stamina is increasing, and depending on the task, he can stay focused for 20 to 40 minutes at a time before needing a break.
At age 20, he’s the youngest one at the facility by far – the roughly 75 other residents currently at the facility range in age from 50 to 100.
Svetal, who was on a state champion chess team at Willamette High School and competed on the regional and state levels in soccer, cross country and track, is relearning how to move, walk, speak and even focus. At the University of Oregon, Svetal was a member of the chess club.
“Scott’s going to keep recovering his physical ability for at least two years,” Pylar says.
Last fall, Svetal began his sophomore year at the UO. But on Nov. 13, a Wednesday, just before 2 p.m., he was struck by a VW Beetle while skateboarding through the intersection at Harris Street and East 20th Avenue, just south of the UO campus.
The car’s driver, heading south on Harris, had no stop sign at the intersection. Svetal was riding his skateboard downhill on 20th Avenue and passed through a stop sign. The motorist was unable to stop and struck Svetal at about 35 mph.
Svetal wasn’t wearing a helmet.
He suffered major bleeding and trauma on the right and left sides of his skull. His right shoulder was dislocated and his right, upper arm was completely broken. His left shoulder was separated. He had two broken ribs and cracked his right cheekbone. He had deep lacerations on his forehead and right ear.
He was rushed to PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield. Moments after arriving, he was being prepped for brain surgery. Surgeons needed to remove large pieces of his skull on the right and left side of his head to reduce pressure on his swelling brain.
Mike and Christina Svetal arrived at the hospital while Scott was in surgery.
“They told us it was unclear if he was going to make it through that first surgery,” Mike Svetal recalls.
After waiting for 31/2 hours, they saw Scott wheeled out of surgery but still in a coma.
“It was bad,” Mike Svetal said. “He couldn’t breathe on his own. He was on life support.”
While standing next to Scott in the intensive care unit, Christina _ Scott’s stepmom _ noticed bleeding from Scott’s left ear. Doctors decided to go back into surgery.
“We had to go through the whole thing again,” Mike Svetal said.
During the second surgery, Scott’s mother, Janice English, arrived on a last-minute flight from Sacramento.
Nobody slept for days.
For the next week, doctors and nurses worked around-the-clock to keep Scott alive. Throughout those first days, Scott experienced “sympathetic storms” – a seizure-like response common to major brain injuries.
“He would get into these storms and his body would tense up and his heart rate would go crazy,” Mike Svetal said.”`There was a stretch of four days when they happened every hour, all night.”
But despite some close calls, including one major infection and two bouts of pneumonia, Scott pushed on. He slowly regained consciousness and then, on Dec. 30, was discharged from the hospital and transferred to the Green Valley rehabilitation center.
Once there, Scott began daily physical and mental therapy.
“For weeks, it was just a matter of trying to have (him) blink, or just say `yes’ or `no,”‘ said Dr. James Mitch, a speech therapist working with Scott.
In March, Scott began to speak in short sentences.
“He started to say ‘I love you,’?” Mike Svetal said.
These days, Scott is making progress as he relearns how to walk. Care providers don’t know how far he will go in his rehabilitation. On the one hand, his young age, excellent physical health and high intellect put him in a good position for maximum recovery. On the other hand, he sustained the highest level of brain trauma that the intensive care unit measures, according to his father.
Overall, his therapists are impressed with his rate of recovery.
Pylar said Scott learned to brush his teeth on his own after only about three weeks. “I was expecting it to take about two months,” she said.
But there are still challenges to come. Scott deals at times with depression. He says one of the hardest parts of rehabilitation is occasionally losing the desire to live.
Despite such moments, Scott focuses on maintaining a positive attitude. He almost always wears a smile and is quick to laugh – especially when watching favorite TV sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Family Guy.”
The walls of his room at the rehab center are plastered with photos of family and friends, as well as motivational phrases: “Hard work pays off” is written in bold letters on one sheet of paper. “TRY,” says another.
On Monday, Scott will be transferred to the Oregon Rehabilitation Center, not far from the UO campus. While it varies on a case-by-case basis, patients typically stay there for an average of two weeks. After that, he will return home, where he will continue outpatient therapy and rehabilitation.
He wants to return to college and hopes to earn a degree in business. Scott also hopes to rejoin the chess club.
Whitney Sweet, a close friend of Scott’s ever since the two met at Churchill High School in 2009, helped organize a fundraiser at Papa’s Pizza last fall that raised $3,000 to offset some of Scott’s medical bills.
More recently, Sweet has organized a “Seize the Day” 5k run/walk to be held Saturday to support Scott’s recovery and to raise helmet awareness – a cause that Scott and his father discuss frequently. Although it is not the primary focus of the free event, donations will be accepted for Scott’s medical fund.
Sweet, a high school cross-country buddy, said that when she struggled with injuries in the past, Scott encouraged her during her races.
“It was really an honor to have someone who went to state in cross-country for a couple of years cheering me on,” she said.
Now it’s her turn to cheer him on.
“Just him being here, I’m so grateful for it,” she said. “We’ll get through this.”
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