The walls of Blake Heidenreich’s hospital room are covered with personal snapshots, get-well cards and travel photos – mementos left by friends, family and classmates who make frequent visits to the tiny space.
While visiting a friend at Michigan’s Sylvan Lake on July 3, the Business senior unknowingly dove into 29 inches of water, fracturing the C3 and C4 vertebrae in his neck. After two weeks in the intensive care unit at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Heidenreich transferred to the University Hospital for rehabilitation.
Within a week of the accident, members of Heidenreich’s fraternity – Sigma Phi Epsilon – created a website to post updates on their friend’s condition and to enable people to make donations to help the family cope with medical expenses. The site, www.xanga.com/blakeheidenreich, also features messages and stories posted by visitors.
LSA junior Art Urban, who manages the website, said nearly $600 has been donated in Heidenreich’s name through the site’s Paypal account.
As an additional fundraising campaign, members of Sig Ep recently ordered maize-and-blue-colored wristbands, imprinted with “Blakestrong,” to sell at a $5 minimum. The funds will go to the family.
Once fall semester is underway, Urban said Sig Ep plans to hold a benefit involving the campus community in Heidenreich’s honor.
Other houses within the University’s Greek community – such as Delta Gamma and Alpha Chi Omega sororities – have shown their support for the campaign, despite being away from campus.
In addition to regular hospital visits, Business junior and DG president Sarah Herrmann said she regularly e-mails members of her sorority with updates on Heidenreich’s condition.
“The main goal right now is to be a support for Blake and to keep his spirits up,” Herrmann said.
Heidenreich and his family are currently engaged in a battle with their insurance provider over the terms of his rehabilitation. Because the insurance company does not consider the University Hospital a “preferred provider,” the family is not sure whether Heidenreich will be able to remain in Ann Arbor.
“I definitely want to stay here,” Heidenreich said. “I told them if they tried to send me, I’d more or less try to make them send me back. I’d make it so they don’t want me.”
The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research named the University Health System’s Model Spinal Cord Injury Care System a Model Spinal Cord Injury Center, an honor awarded to only 16 institutions in the United States.
At the time of his injury, Heidenreich was considered a tetraplegic – experiencing paralysis from the neck down – but did not suffer damage to his brain function or memory. Initial evaluations indicated Heidenreich could permanently require a ventilator in order to breathe.
For spinal cord injuries such as Heidenreich’s, the majority of recovery occurs within two years. The most intense improvements typically appear during the first six months, however, as swelling of the body’s nerves decreases.
Although he remains partially paralyzed, Heidenreich has regained sensation and minimal function in various muscles throughout his body in the weeks since the accident, including those in his left thumb.
But because it is nearly impossible to determine how Heidenreich’s recovery will progress, Heidenreich and his family do not know if he will be able to walk again.
At the University Hospital, Heidenreich undergoes physical and occupational therapy twice a day, as well as psychological, recreational and speech therapy several times a week.
“Some mornings you just wake up and new things work,” Heidenreich said. “Whatever does come back, (the therapists) work with you to strengthen them. It’s like going to the gym, but it’s a very unrewarding workout.”
Heidenreich said that dealing with his injury is a daily battle, filled with uplifting moments – visits from loved ones and physical improvements – as well as anger, frustration and disbelief.
“You just hope you wake up from a bad dream,” Heidenreich said.
But Heidenreich, who said he comes up with sensationalized and generally false stories concerning his accident to see the reactions he can invoke in hospital employees, refuses to let the effects of his injury dampen his sense of humor or his drive to walk again.
“I’m not beating my grandma to the wheelchair,” Heidenreich said.