Jackie Lithgow: A story of hope and determination

December 23, 2014

By Ivey DeJesus

It's another sign of progress: Jackie Lithgow has the go-ahead to eat Doritos.

After nine months and two days in the hospital – six surgeries and repeated brushes with death – Jackie has the approval from his speech therapist to eat one of his favorite crunchy snacks.

His therapist was convinced on Friday that he could handle what is for most people a basic function: Lift food to the mouth, insert, chew and swallow, keeping all the muscles in the mouth and throat properly engaged so that not a crumb veers off track and winds down the windpipe into the lungs, asphyxiating him in the process.

For the better part of nine months, Jackie was incapable of performing this simple task.

What seemed the typical life of a 19-year-old at the cusp of adulthood – college, beyond that a job, family, children – was possibly forever altered in the early hours of Feb. 23, when Jackie, playing the peacemaker during a fight at Bloomsburg University, was blindsided by a punch to the head.

Jackie hit the pavement hard, his skull shattering from the impact on the pavement, the blood that seeped from his head forewarning that the injuries would be profound, potentially lethal, transformative.

He laid in a coma for weeks, his body waging a battle against swelling and bleeding of the brain, dangerously high intracranial pressure, a blood clot, a bolt in the head. At times, there seemed no end to the medical hurdles. Jackie fought off MRSA, meningitis, dangerously high blood pressure and half a dozen trips to the emergency operating room.

jackie lithgow.jpg

His brain withstood days without portions of the skull, its sole function to protect the most fragile part of human anatomy. His skull has been pieced back together like a jigsaw puzzle, an acrylic patch forever helping to encase his brain.

Jackie Lithgow has embarked on the next phase of recovery. With an indomitable spirit, he has begun comprehensive rehabilitation at Penn State Hershey Rehabilitation Hospital, traveling three times a week from his Boiling Springs home with mom and dad to push his body, mind and determination progressively beyond the edge. He coaxes the injured parts of his brain to fire up – by infinitesimal degrees day by day – in the hopes of regaining command over the nerve-muscle connection that underpins human movement.

The challenge is formidable: Jackie has command of his right hand, arm, leg and foot. His brain, however, continues to neglect the left side of his body.

His left fist is clenched so tightly that sometimes, when his fingers are pried open, his palm bears their imprint. His shoulder, biceps – all the muscles of the left side of the body, are rigid, the complex master control of the body unyielding to flexibility. The muscles that rise above the left pectoral, deltoid and collarbone are so stiff, they tilt Jackie's head sideways. He leans to the right, sometimes precariously close to the edge of falling.

"Straighten your head," says his father, Jim, during physical therapy, one hand on Jackie's arm, the other on his back. His voice is devoid of sentimentality. A veteran 30-year educator and basketball coach, Jim Lithgow knows from here on out, Jackie's recovery hinges on hard work and the refusal to surrender.

'Things got out of hand'

Jim and Lisa Lithgow got the phone call every parent dreads: the one that comes in the middle of the night, the jarring ringtone warning that whoever is at the other end cannot possibly bear good news.

Jackie was being taken to the hospital by ambulance. He was injured in a fight. That's all they knew shortly after 1 a.m. on Feb. 23 when they set off for Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.

#grayscale'); -webkit-filter: grayscale(100%); background-image: url(http://www.pennlive.com/static/common/img/sprites/meta-sprite-ext.png); background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255); background-position: -390px 0px; background-repeat: no-repeat;">"He just plugs away. He's a tough kid. He's an amazing kid. Never complained at all." - Jim Lithgow

Jackie, a 2013 Boiling Springs High School graduate, was a freshman at Bloomsburg, the exact place where Jim and Lisa met a short lifetime ago. He was set to pledge to Zeta Psi, Jim's fraternity, and that night had been invited to a party hosted by a member of Zeta Psi.

The facts of what happened next can be gleaned from court proceedings or Jackie's injuries.

Jackie LithgowJackie Lithgow, left, playing for Boiling Springs, battles Northern's Evan Werner for a loose ball during a game on Dec. 23, 2011. CHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-News

Angel S. Cruz, 21, then a Kutztown University fullback, crashed the party with friend Justin Wieder, 20. Cruz, Wieder and several other Kutztown football players were asked to leave the private party, which was held off campus at a North Iron Street apartment. None had been invited to the gathering. A fight broke out. Witnesses reported a commotion, a brawl. Some of the students in attendance testified in court of being punched and injured by Wieder.

"Things got out of hand," Cruz would testify in court.

Cruz stood 5-foot-8, 190 pounds. As a shooting guard for the Boiling Springs Bubblers his senior year of high school, Jackie stood 5-9 and weighed 130 pounds. Jackie's head hit the pavement hard from the blow of Cruz's punch.

The back of Jackie's head bore the brunt of the fall on the pavement; the left side the signs of the lethal punch.

Jim Lithgow is convinced the court testimony failed to fully capture the scope of his son's injuries – or the attack.

The neurosurgeon told him Jackie had sustained a tremendous amount of injuries to the brain.

"We don't know what happened when he was down there," Jim says. "Every part of his brain was injured."

Time was on Jackie's side that night; the minutes were crucial. Police were close by; they responded within minutes. One of the officers was a Life Lion medic who immediately called for a medivac.

Jim says that when he has time, he needs to find the people who helped his son that night and thank them for doing their job.

"He was minutes away," Jim says. "He wouldn't have made it."

"We are blessed that way," he says. "We feel blessed about everything. It easily could have been the other way around."

Non-stop care

Jim and Lisa Lithgow say they haven't done anything any other parent in their situation would have done.

They never left Jackie's side. For the nine months and two days that their son was either in the hospital or rehab, Jim and Lisa stayed with Jackie, taking turns pulling the night shifts, at first watching him in a coma and then as he gained some consciousness, ensuring their son in random reflexes did not tug at the ribbon of stitches on his head. For months, he couldn't hold his head upright and had to be hoisted on a lift to be moved to and from his hospital bed.

"They are amazing, those two," says Jim's mom, Pat Large, who comes up from Philadelphia for days at a stretch now that Jackie is home to help out. She cooks, accompanies them to therapy and looks after Jackie as Jim and Lisa begin to venture out of the home for the first time in nearly a year. "Through this whole thing, they worked very hard to get their son back. They don't complain. They work with him day in and day out."

Large, a nurse, retired after Jackie was injured to help her family. She will give her son and daughter-in-law advice, if they ask, but she doesn't want to play nurse. "I just want to be the Nana," she says.

The Lithgows returned home on Nov. 25, just in time for Thanksgiving. Jackie couldn't wait to get home to Jovie, the family's golden retriever. She visited him several times while he was at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.

Life has been so hectic, the Lithgows have yet to unpack their bags from their months away from home.

Lisa has not returned to work for the Hershey Company, where she specialized in retail development.

Jim is thinking of returning to work as a special education teacher at Boiling Springs, but is confident neither he nor Jackie – nor Lisa for that matter – are ready for him to be away. "It's a two-person job," he says.

Jim will have to return sooner than later in order to safeguard the family's insurance coverage. Already, their insurance covers Jackie's physical therapy but only 12 outpatient rehab visits a year. The speech and occupational therapies are considered outpatient.

"We'll figure it out," says Lisa, whose petite frame belies a gargantuan maternal instinct. Jim calls her a mama bear, who would bubble wrap Jackie and his older sister, Lindsay, if she could.

"I keep praying and thinking positive thoughts," Lisa says. "And patience. I keep telling myself, 'Stick to your three Ps and we are going to get through it."

The Lithgows have made some adjustments to their home – installing a stair lift and an outdoor ramp – but decided against reconfiguring their home.

"The kid was on a hospital bed for nine months and two days," Lisa says. "He was coming home and there was no way I was going to have him in a hospital bed."

They have used the money donated on behalf of Jackie to pay for some of their out-of-pocket costs, including, now, some of the therapy.

Jim and Lisa have been overwhelmed with support from, family, friends, co-workers and their community. Her parents, Claude and Louise Swartzbaugh, who live in Hershey, have been their side, along with Large, lending help and emotional support.

The Lithgows have received hundreds of letters and cards, many of them from strangers. All summer, neighbors mowed the lawn, collected the mail; a friend took care of Jovie. Lisa's co-workers donated leave time to her.

The Lithgows tear up when they talk about the support and care they've received from others.

"That got us through the hard part," Lisa says. "There were tough days."

All throughout, they chose to celebrate the small victories. The first time one of Jackie's doctors walked into the room and asked him how he was doing, and Jackie replied: "Fine, thank you. How are you?," Jim and Lisa were ecstatic.

"Every morning you get up you have a choice," Lisa says. "You can be an Eeyore or a Tigger. Who do you want to be?"

Their son has amazed them.

lithgow.jpgJackie Lithgow gets to meet his favorite player Wayne Simmonds during a visit to the Philadelphia Flyers training facility. Zack Hill/Flyers via NJ.com

Many a nights in hospital he flirted with death, at times amazing even doctors who could do little but wait and see if the resiliency of his young body delivered him from the crisis at hand.

"Jackie is a walking miracle without question," Lisa says.

Jackie is doing three days of therapy – from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jim and Lisa hope it can be increased to five days a week.

It's grueling work. The therapists put him through exercises that work on his balance, coordination and strength. Jim and Lisa help out, encouraging him as he, with the help of a therapist, rises from a seated position. It takes him minutes to take a few steps, using a walker for stability, Jim nudging his left foot to execute the cadence of walking and transferring the weight of his body from one foot to the other.

An occupational therapy session consists of inserting nine pegs into holes. It takes Jackie 45 minutes to complete the task. A lunch break is followed by speech therapy.

By the end of the day, Jackie is spent. He needs a nap when he gets home.

"He just plugs away. He's a tough kid," Jim says. "He's an amazing kid. Never complained at all."

Jim and Lisa know this much: There is no textbook traumatic brain injury prognosis. It's not a broken bone that eventually heals. Each case is different. Jackie has youth on his side. But the injuries were devastating.

"We remain focused on the day," Lisa says. "When we look too far into the future, it doesn't make any sense. There are too many variables."

Jackie, who as a freshmen got his first pair of glasses to correct a slight distance weakness, now wears thick glasses. His left eye, like everything on that side of the body, is particularly weak.

His weight, which fell below 100 pounds, is back close to his normal range. He has begun to speak more and his long-term memory appears to be intact. He has more difficulty with his short-term memory. Jackie has a great sense of humor.

"The brain just needs some time to heal," Lisa says. "He's been through a lot."

In the past few months, Jackie's progress has been impressive. He is managing to do a session on a recumbent stepper and has graduated from pureed foods to gummy bears and chips. Jim is convinced his tipping point was his November outing to Voorhees, N.J., to meet the Philadelphia Flyers. Jackie wore the No. 17 jersey - that of his favorite player Wayne Simmonds.

A special Christmas awaits

Lisa attended the sentencing hearing from Angel Cruz. She was unable to look at him. Neither she nor Jim have given much thought to the man who changed their son's life.

"We didn't have time," Jim says. "All our energy was on Jackie. I'm not going to lie to you and say there weren't times you looked at the window and ask why. But you can't spend too much time on that. You can't go back. You have to go forward."

On Dec. 5, Columbia County Judge Gary E. Norton sentenced Cruz, of Robesonia, to 22 months to 42 months in state prison on charges of flight to avoid apprehension, simple assault, disorderly conduct and harassment.

Columbia County District Attorney Thomas did not pursue a more serious charge of aggravated assault due to what is known as the "one-punch rule" in Pennsylvania law. Under the rule, one punch, in most circumstances, is not enough for an aggravated assault charge, and in Jackie's case, the impact from hitting the pavement caused the traumatic injuries.

Cruz told the court he was remorseful for his actions, and he wishes he could take them back.

"No one should feel sorry for me," Cruz said. "What I lost is nothing like what Jackie lost."

Cruz had already accrued 292 days of credit toward his sentence, and owes at least $23,000 in restitution, with possibly more to be added later, for the family's out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Justin Wieder, 20, of Quakertown, is charged with aggravated assault and related charges; he is awaiting trial. No other Kutztown football players involved in the melee that night have been charged.

Jim and Lisa say they never took things for granted, but this is, indeed, a very special Christmas. Jackie has an XBox One on his list – which, Lisa quipped, costs more than their entire gift budget. Santa will probably deliver.

Jim and Lisa say they recognize that there are parents in worse situations, parents whose children will never leave the hospital.

"At least we have him," Lisa says . . . "to hold him, love him and work with him."

If you would like contribute to the fund to help offset Jackie Lithgow's medical expenses, please click through to a HelpHOPELive fund set up in Jackie's name.