I was a young reporter, sitting in the newsroom one afternoon when we heard of a very serious crash involving a couple local high school students. I covered the story and the follow-up, but soon put it out of my mind, on to the next day’s news.
More than a decade later, I met the man a childhood friend was going to marry, and she mentioned a crash he had been in. It sounded familiar, and sure enough, he was one of the students I’d written about. I soon learned he was the kind of person who’d do just about anything to help someone out. Case in point, he helped me, well, kind of steal my now-husband’s truck while he was at work, remove the leaking radiator, replace it with a new one, and park the truck where it had been before my guy got back to it. What kind of person does something like that for someone they don’t know?
Someone who got a second chance in life, and is determined to make it count.
Recently, I was reminded that it was the 15th anniversary of that crash, and I felt led to interview my friend about the impact it had on his life. Today, I share his story with you.
Fifteen years have aged the newspaper in Chad Robson’s hands, but time has done nothing to dull the memories of the crash depicted on the front page. For Chad’s parents, Ron and Vicki Robson, the reminder still cuts sharply enough to bring forth tears.
It was January 3, 2003, and Chad was 15 years old – a sophomore at Lapeer East High School. He and a friend, Brandon Weaver, had plans to go to the mall to spend some of their Christmas money, but somewhere along the way, they decided instead to go play hockey at the Polar Palace in Lapeer.
A few days earlier, there had been an ice storm, and Chad remembers the tires on the car spinning when Brandon was backing out of the driveway. That is the last memory he had when he awoke, weeks later, physically shattered in a hospital bed. The car had slipped onto the shoulder of the road, and then the back end spun the passenger side into the path of an oncoming van. The impact was right where Chad was sitting, and it pushed him into the driver’s seat. When rescue crews arrived, they thought he’d been killed. It took nearly an hour to remove him from the vehicle, and he was taken to Hurley Medical Center in Flint.
When the Robsons were walking into the hospital, an ambulance driver uttered bone-chilling words: “Good luck.”
At first glance, they said, Chad didn’t appear severely injured. He had a scratch on his forehead, but otherwise appeared to be sleeping as he was taken past his parents into surgery. A nurse soon came to the waiting room to fill them in, and the news wasn’t good.
“She said, ‘You don’t realize he’s fighting for his life right now,’” said Ron. “I was sick. Felt like someone kicked me.”
A doctor came out and gave grim news – Chad was hemorrhaging.
“From the impact, he was bleeding internally,” Ron said. “It just blew him up.”
Chad had three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a fractured pelvis, a laceration to his spleen that resulted in its removal, and a destroyed kidney. He was in a drug-induced coma for a month, and no one knew what to expect.
The memories from this time exist as a series of vividly gruesome snapshots for the Robsons. The twisted metal that was once the car in which their son had been riding. His broken body, silent and pale in the hospital bed. Blood-saturated sheets splatting heavily as medical staff pulled them off him and let them fall to the floor. Doctors dropping worst-case scenarios on them: Your son may not make it. Your son might never walk again. Your son has a blood infection. Your son’s surgery couldn’t be completed because he flatlined on the table. It took three shocks to bring him back.
“There was a young intern at the hospital who was pretty blunt,” said Ron.
Finally, Chad was brought out of the coma, and his mother asked him if he knew who he was.
He was nowhere near out of the woods, but he was alive enough to make a joke, and for that moment, it was enough.
Chad’s hospital stay was three months long, and it was eight months before the incision running the length of his abdomen could be closed due to the swelling of his internal organs. He’d lost 50 to 60 pounds and his muscles were atrophied. Recovery was a long road, and Chad credits his hockey training for getting him to a level of strength and fitness that allowed him to recover.
The most immediate obstacle to overcome was merely survival. Once Chad was stable, he had to become strong enough to walk, and his body had to relearn that skill so many of us take for granted. He was in a wheelchair when he came home from the hospital, and he practiced in secret until he could surprise his parents.
“I walked before I should have, I can tell you that,” he said.
At first, he used a cane made from a hockey stick. His determination had him on skates that summer, and by the time hockey season started again, he was back on the ice. He never missed a game that season. Now, 15 years later, he’s got occasional back and hip pain and the scars that will always remain, but the biggest impact for Chad is that of having been granted a second chance at life.
First and foremost, the family was brought closer together as a result of the crash and its aftermath.
“I learned how strong my family is and I’m proud of it. I’m proud to be a Robson and that’s why I wear my last name on my back in a tattoo,” said Chad. “One thing that hurts the most is the time that I stole from my siblings. The time they missed being with my parents or doing things that normal kids did. My little brother had to take care of my little sister. He grew up faster because of this. I have so much respect for both of them. It hurts me to know for almost a year I took all our parents attention away from them.”
Though it was all about him for so long, Chad came away with a strong desire to think outside of himself. He overcame all those worst-case scenarios and he walked, skated, met the love of his life – wife, Stephanie – and danced with his mother at their wedding. He and Stephanie now have a beautiful daughter, and he is physically strong. In short, he has everything a man could ask for, and it leaves him wondering why he was given that second chance in life that many others don’t get.
“Honestly, you don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself that. How many times I’ve broken down looking for a sign or a reason. I think it’s one of the hardest things to deal with after an event like that. It’s harder than the physical recovery,” he said. “Maybe my story is the reason I’m still here. My story is a drip of water in a still pond. The ripple effect has touched so many more people than I think I would have without it. But I don’t just let my story do the work. I try to be an unforgettable person. I volunteer, I donate, I pay it forward. It’s become who I am. It’s second nature now.”
The Robson family is eternally grateful to everyone who helped heal Chad, including family and friends, the community, and the medical staff at Hurley. Chad and Stephanie make it a habit to donate to the Hurley Foundation and Children’s Miracle Network, and just to help out whenever they are needed. Life is a gift, second chances are rare, and, Chad said, “you can’t live life on the sidelines.”