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High school lacrosse star battles locked-in syndrome after stroke

I met his mother just days before it happened. We’d seen each other around church and school, but with children in different grades, our paths had never directly crossed. That day, however, we were introduced and sat at the same table during a luncheon, eating risotto as she talked about her oldest son, John Michael Night, a senior at my son’s school.

There was talk of the commitment John Michael had just made to play lacrosse at Mercer University, his girlfriend and his truck — a world that seems to be both rushing at my sixth-grade son and at the same time worlds away. I listened, thinking about the years ahead between now and when my son will (hopefully) head to college — years fraught with so many adolescent landmines — and I imagined how good it had to feel sitting where she was sitting, knowing she did it. Knowing she raised a good kid who is on a clear path to a bright future. I imagined it as the time a parent finally gets to exhale… at least a little.

It was less than a week later, on Dec.14, that John Michael had a severe brain stem stroke. He reportedly wasn’t feeling well at school and texted his mom “HELP. I don’t know what’s going on” as his head throbbed and things began to appear blurry. He was rushed to the hospital, where they eventually learned it was a stroke. Since then, he’s been suffering from locked-in syndrome, a resulting condition in which he is fully mentally cognizant, but the only part of his body he can move is his eyes. He cannot eat; he cannot speak. It’s often described as being buried alive. The only way the 17-year-old is able to communicate is through what’s called a sight board, which allows him to focus his eyes on various words to express his thoughts and wishes.

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Why it happened, no one is sure. One doctor told the Orlando Sentinel it was perhaps the result of some kind of injury. No one may ever know. While he’s doing intensive therapy now at a hospital in Atlanta, research seems to paint a picture that requires nothing short of a miracle for a full recovery.

So that’s what people here in our Winter Park, Florida, community and around the world are hoping for, praying for, attempting to will in the universe for this beloved young man — a miracle.

Rosaries are said; fundraisers are organized. Friends have written songs for him, classmates have made videos of support, and he was visited by members of the Mercer lacrosse team. The hashtag #JMStrong has spread online, and pictures are flooding his Facebook support page, showing teams and groups across the country holding up two fingers on one hand and four on the other to represent his lacrosse number — 24. Brian Johnson, lead singer for legendary band AC/DC, made a video for him, and even Pope Francis sent a letter of support, promising prayers for John Michael.

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And that’s the light amidst so much darkness, the abundance of faith and hope so many have shown. Because in a world filled with senseless tragedies like this and so many others that make us want to curl up and wail, these are truly the only tools we have, the only meaningful gifts we have to offer — to ourselves and to others. They’re the only answers I have when my son tearfully asks why things like this happen: faith in something — God, a higher power, goodness in the universe or whatever — which allows us to get up and face another day, knowing that things like this are possible, and hope, which allows us to still seek beauty even when we see such pain.

I continue to imagine myself sitting where John Michael’s mother is, now in a very different place. I’m certain every mother who has heard John Michael’s story imagines herself there as well. One has to fight to not crumple under the injustice of it all and the fear that it could be any one of our children. And it could be one of our children, which is why his story is touching so many.

Mothers have nightmares about countless diseases, accidents and other tragedies befalling our children, beginning when they’re in the womb. Some of us have faced them; some of us have lost children to them; but the vast majority of us wait, knowing our child could be next. For most it’s not a paralyzing realization, but rather a constant background hum that rises and falls as we move from milestone to milestone. John Michael’s story brings it screaming to the forefront.

So while this outpouring of support for John Michael is amazing, it’s not surprising. Because not only is he by all accounts an amazing kid, he’s just like most of our kids. That’s why so many — both those who know and love John Michael and those who have never met him — feel moved to reach out, to offer prayers and hope for his recovery, to donate money for his treatment. We’re all willing to do anything to help in a situation that makes us all feel helpless on so many levels.

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Is it all powerful enough to garner the outcome everyone so badly wants — to see John Michael emerge from locked-in syndrome and head back out on that lacrosse field? To see him walk and talk and lead a full life? We don’t know.

But we pray so. We hope so.

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