WILLAMINA, Ore. (AP) - It’s been six months since the crash that altered Owen Baker’s life.
Baker, a junior at Willamina High School, was paralyzed from the waist down after a single-car crash.
He was a passenger in the back seat of a Jeep Wrangler late in the afternoon of Oct. 22, headed to Nestucca for a fishing expedition with two friends. Only Baker, who was wearing a seat belt, suffered serious injuries after the vehicle rolled over and plunged down what he described as “a 35-foot embankment” in slippery conditions.
Baker spent two weeks in the trauma unit at OHSU Hospital in Portland where he underwent surgery, followed by nearly two months of physical therapy at Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanue. He returned home a few days before Christmas.
There have been dark days during his recovery, but thoughts of ‘why me?’ are typically replaced by “thinking about good stuff,” said Baker, 16, who has participated in football, wrestling, basketball and track and field at Willamina.
The positive thoughts centered around what didn’t happen: his spinal cord was not severed. He has regained some feeling in both legs, and because it’s an incomplete spinal injury there’s hope that one day he’ll walk again.
“I can move my left leg a little bit,” Baker said. “I can feel about to my ankle. My right leg is a little behind, but I can still feel some stuff.
“I totally see it coming back, slowly but surely.”
Being in a wheelchair has been a life-changing experience for Baker, but it does not define him.
In fact, there are some advantages. Since returning to school in January, Baker joked, he’s able to get to classes “a little faster” now that he’s on wheels.
Baker has returned to the track as a para-athlete, utilizing a racing chair to compete in the 100-meter dash, 400 and 1,500. He’s learned to throw the shot put from his wheelchair with some coaching from junior shot putter Andrew Kennedy, who also was a passenger in the crash.
“He throws as far as I did when I first started and that’s sitting down,” said Kennedy, shaking his head and smiling as he marveled about the accomplishment.
Baker and Kennedy have been friends since second grade and the accident has strengthened their bond.
Kennedy admires the way Baker handled himself in the moments after the accident and throughout his recovery.
“Just the way he’s taken it is just amazing,” Kennedy said. “Even during the accident he was still calm, kept his composure. I know if I were him I’d be crying like a little baby. It really is inspirational.”
Baker downplays the inspirational talk and says nonchalantly, “I’m just doing what I’m doing.
“It’s inspirational to me that other people think I’m an inspiration,” he said.
Baker credits his girlfriend, junior Hannah Hughes, for providing moral support.
Hughes, a multi-event standout on the Willamina track team, said Baker’s interactions with visitors during his hospital stay spoke volumes about his character.
“He’s the kind of person that at his lowest point in the hospital, he was trying to make everyone else happy and feel welcome,” Hughes said. “He’s pretty awesome.”
REUNITING WITH KACEY MCCALLISTER
During his first few days in the hospital, Baker received a visit from Kacey McCallister, who lost both of his legs at the age of 6 after darting in front of a truck.
A double amputee, McCallister went on to become a three-sport high school athlete at McNary, competing in cross country, wheelchair basketball and wrestling, and placed second in the state in wrestling at 103 pounds his senior year.
He lives in Monmouth with his wife and their five children, and is a motivational speaker and co-director of World Wheelchair Sports based in Eugene.
McCallister, 31, was Baker’s eighth-grade biology teacher in middle school.
“Hey, your athletics aren’t done with this accident,” McCallister told Baker in his early visits to the hospital. “Regardless if you get your legs back or not, it’s not gonna stop here. Wheelchair racing is a very real possibility and you’re gonna do great whatever you do.”
When track season arrived this spring McCallister set Baker up with a racing chair. While learning to compete in a different way has been challenging for Baker, he continues to make strides and plans to compete at the state meet May 17-19 at Hayward Field in Eugene as a para-athlete in the 100, 400, 1,500 and shot put.
After missing over two months of school following the accident, Baker was happy to return to classes and regain a sense of normalcy.
He’s become a better student since the accident, and according to his mother, Mandy Jahn, is more outgoing.
“He was a little more shy before and I think this has helped draw him out a little bit,” Jahn said. “It’s altering his personality, but in a really good way for him to come out of his shell. He’s really used it in a positive way.”
Baker feels gratitude to the people who have been instrumental in his recovery.
He did laps around the track at Willamina High School for 45 minutes as a fundraiser for Doernbecher’s Children’s Hospital.
He has designated that some of the money be used to purchase toys for children during their hospital stays.
“I feel good about doing it,” Baker said.
He hopes to give back in other ways as well.
Baker has met with representatives from the Make-A-Wish Foundation and if his wish is granted, Willamina will have a new running track and FieldTurf for the football field.
“The people that came and talked to us said most kids want a trip or to go meet somebody famous,” Jahn said. “They hadn’t actually experienced this kind of a wish yet, so they were looking into it.”
Baker, who participated in the Class 3A state wrestling meet as a sophomore at 182 pounds, is more serious about track since the accident. He was part of the track team last year, but acknowledges that his commitment wasn’t what it could have been.
Willamina track coach Gary Giddens said Baker continues to build strength and endurance as he learns the intricacies of competing in a race chair.
“As time has gone on I think he’s realized that he’s just as much an athlete as everyone else in terms of (having) the same goals,” Giddens said. “Everybody pretty much treats him like everybody else. He’s a part of the team.”
And he’s part of the entire high school experience at Willamina.
Baker and Hannah Hughes recently attended the school prom together at the McMinnville Ballroom.
“We weren’t able to dance with each other, but we made the best of it and had a great time,” Hughes said with smile.
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com
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