Since arriving at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals – Omaha Campus in December 2020, 18-year-old Steele McLaren has proven he’s a fighter, and not just on the football field, baseball diamond or wrestling mat. The three-sport athlete from Atlantic, Iowa, is used to practicing hard and winning games, but after suffering a traumatic brain injury while on a hunting trip, he faced his toughest opponent yet.
“In football, he was always the little guy, which is kind of funny because he was a nose guard, so he was on the line,” said Jess Ellis, Steele’s mom. “He went up against some big guys, so he had to work hard at those and I think that has definitely helped him in his journey. He was the underdog in this journey, and he’s winning a battle he probably shouldn’t have.”
Steele has tackled each challenge he’s faced. Despite a few setbacks and return trips to Nebraska Medicine to navigate complications, Steele hasn’t lost his drive. In fact, every obstacle has made him work harder and be that much more determined. His Madonna therapists found unique ways to incorporate the perseverance and dedication he learned in sports to push him in therapy.
“When we first got to Madonna, he couldn’t keep his eyes open, he couldn’t hold up his head, and he had very little movement, even on his right side,” Jess said. “He basically had to learn how to do everything over again, so that’s exactly what he did. If it’s a challenge, he likes it more.”
While he excelled at relearning how to talk, he was more eager to relearn how to walk.
"One day in occupational therapy, he really wanted to stand, so he told our occupational therapist loud and clear, 'Stand,'” said Rachel Stonacek, MS, a speech language pathologist and brain injury specialist.
After finding his balance using standing bars, Steele progressed to a gait trainer, using the Lokomat, a robotic treadmill, to take his first steps in physical therapy.
“The Lokomat gives us that mass repetition,” said Kirsten Demmel, a physical therapist. “It is over and over each step and helps get the brain kind of in line with what the body needs to be doing. With that repetition, we were seeing faster gains.”
Steele quickly mastered using a walker, and was able to further refine his gait, coordination and leg strength during aquatic therapy sessions. The reward for his hard work will be walking across the stage at his high school graduation in May.
“He really loved walking,” Demmel said. “He wanted to walk with anybody and everybody. He just wanted to move. You could tell he was motivated.”
Just like on the football field, Steele didn’t face this fight alone. His care team worked together and walked with him every step of his rehabilitation journey. Madonna therapists constantly relay to each other what treatments are working and what communication styles are producing the best results with each patient.
“Obviously the end goal is that we get Steele together as a whole and we need all of us building together,” Demmel said. “I’m a physical therapist, but I need that input from my teammates to really know what to do best for him."
Also cheering Steele on are thousands of supporters from across the country. The Facebook page “Praying for Steele #32 strong” has more than 35,000 members. His hometown, Atlantic, Iowa, planned a citywide celebration for his return, complete with decorated overpasses, yard signs and shirts showing support for his entire family.
“All those people give you prayers and thoughts, and I think that has kept us going through this whole journey,” Jess said.
This summer, Steele plans to participate in outpatient therapy and make time to watch his teammates take the field during baseball season and doing the only thing he may love more than sports: fishing.
“I’m so glad we got to come here for his rehab,” Jess said. “We heard Madonna was the best and I truly believe it was the best. The therapists and nurses here have definitely given Steele his life back.”