Carl holds up a musical get well card that friends have sent to cheer him. The teen flips open the card and as the music starts, he begins to sing along. Carl belts out every word to the chorus of “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin. A pretty amazing feat for someone who recently suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
According to his family, Carl Maurice Van Winkle was a free-spirited 16-year-old who wasn’t overly spiritual. In fact, they joked, he sometimes fell asleep in church. A near-fatal car accident on March 19 in Carl’s hometown of Overland Park, Kan., would drastically alter the teen’s spirituality and outlook on life.
Carl isn’t able to recall any details from the accident. He can’t remember being a passenger in a station wagon that was hit by a Chevy Tahoe or how the impact shattered his right jaw, knocked out teeth and fractured his pelvis.
Chris Van Winkle, Carl’s father, said doctors at a Kansas City hospital didn’t expect his son to survive. But Chris was unwilling to accept that grim prognosis, “I felt deep inside that Carl was going to be a walking, talking, miracle.”
Carl, a diehard sports fan, who loves the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs, would remain in a coma for nearly a month. Along with Chris, Carl’s stepmother, Sharon, his mother, Angel, and his sister, Rachel, rallied at Carl’s bedside.
On April 15, Carl arrived at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. He was dependent on trach and feeding tubes and was minimally responsive. Lynn Dolezal, occupational therapist, recalled Carl’s serious condition: “He could barely open his eyes,” she said.
Scott Fandrich, physical therapist, said initially Carl was dependent for all his cares and transfers. Yet, Scott could see Carl’s determination and potential to regain his independence.
Carl gradually emerged from his coma-like fog and began the journey to heal his body. The TBI had severely limited movement in Carl’s appendages. His healing began with celebrations of “baby steps.” Carl progressed from holding his head up to sitting on the edge of the bed then, finally, walking on the Body Weight Support Treadmill.
Lynn recalled the day Carl first moved his right hand in therapy. “His family started to cry; they were so happy,”
said Lynn. Knowing Carl’s love of baseball, Lynn incorporated a bat into their sessions. Carl eventually gripped the bat and hit a ball. “He was literally grinning from ear to ear!” exclaimed Lynn.
Dubbed “Team Carl” by the therapists, Carl’s family cheered their loved one on. “Carl’s treadmill sessions would always end in a round of applause,” Scott remarked. His family remained optimistic and adapted Carl’s determined phrase, “Oh, well” used to express his never give up spirit.
Amy Potter, speech language therapist, started her first session with Carl by having him lift one finger for “yes” and pointing it down for “no.” Their communication progressed to head nods and then, after many sessions, Carl could verbalize a few words. He also used a white board to communicate as his thoughts began to flow.
On July 31, Carl celebrated his 17th birthday at Madonna surrounded by family, friends and his Madonna team. The day before he discharged, Carl scrawled in capital letters across his board, “INDEPENDENT!” He followed that with “I love God - feel he helped me at Madonna.”
Carl explained how God appeared in his room shortly after he arrived at Madonna, “God said he loved me, and I was going to live to be 93.”
It was a spiritual awakening for the teen. Rachel agreed her brother is different - more loving. He even danced with her at his birthday party.
Angel said seeing her son take his first steps after the accident was incredible. And watching him walk out on his last day was nothing short of amazing. “He had to relearn everything,” said Angel. “Carl is a miracle in progress, in part, because of Madonna,” she added.
On the day he discharged, Carl was anxious to reconnect with friends from Blue Valley West High School. “I want to be surrounded by my friends,” the senior stated. When asked how he remained positive, Carl said it was due to his family support and God.
Sharon and Chris agree Carl’s recovery was the result of an outpouring of caring, from his family and friends to his Madonna team.
Chris reflected that a quote by Mother Teresa, painted on one of Madonna’s hallways sums up Carl’s rehabilitation journey...“Where there is great love, there will always be great miracles.”