By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL-COKATO, MN After a football injury nearly took the life of Dassel-Cokato High School junior Luke Nelson, he is back home on the road to recovery.
Not only did the initial injury nearly take Luke’s life, but as he was recovering, a serious infection nearly cost him his life a second time.
Luke suffered the severe head injury in a game against Orono Sept. 6, which caused bleeding in the brain that resulted in major surgery where the DC Charger linebacker had half his skull removed.
“What’s important is this is rare to have this extent of an injury and it’s not because of a cheap hit,” said Luke’s mom, Sara. “It just happened. We don’t know the reason, but I have told Luke, and have written (on CaringBridge), that I truly believe there is a plan for him.”
Doctors have reviewed footage of the game, and do not see one incident that they think definitely caused the injury, Sara noted.
There is an instance of Luke’s helmet hitting the thigh of another player, and it may have been one hit or a series of hits that caused the injury.
Luke cannot remember what happened during the game to cause the injury, he said, nor how he felt just prior to collapsing on the field. However, he advises players to tell someone when their head hurts.
“There are too many things that can happen,” he said, acknowledging how difficult it can be for players to leave a game, especially a close one.
Although Luke will never be able to play contact sports again, including his favorite, baseball, he will still try to stay involved in whatever way he can, he said.
“Luke is a tough kid. I am extremely proud of him and how he’s handled this,” said Luke’s dad, Greg. “He didn’t deserve this, but that’s how it is.”
Greg has always been an advocate of extracurricular sports, and that has not changed, he said.
While he admits to pushing his kids and telling them to play through the pain, he said the head is a different story than an arm or leg muscle.
“This concussion thing nobody really understands it,” he said, noting that 25 years ago, players were not sitting out because of a concussion. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have, but they didn’t,” he added.
Although it has no connection to the brain injury he suffered, Luke had a concussion in ninth grade during football.
His older brother, Isaac, has also suffered a concussion in baseball that affected his first year of college.
“I will forever be a sports fan obviously how my kids participate in it may change a little,” Greg said.
Sara noted Luke still enjoys keeping up with football, and he’s always been a student of the game. He has been at each football game he can, cheering his team on from the sidelines.
Luke has not yet returned to school, and it is unclear when that will take place. In the meantime, Sara, a teacher at DC, will also stay home to take care of him.
“In order for him to be successful, it’s not about going back quickly, but when he’s ready,” Sara said. “I’ll go back when he is ready.”
Since the injury took place, support from the community, the Wright County Conference, and throughout the state has been steadily flowing to the Nelson family.
“We are genuinely grateful for the support and prayers,” Sara said. “It’s been a very, very humbling experience; a life-changing experience, that’s for sure, but the support of the community has been amazing.”
She noted how the students at DC immediately organized a campaign to sell #Swolestrong bracelets. “They took over like a freight train. That, to me, speaks volumes of the students at DC,” she said.
SwoleLuke is a nickname Luke received from a friend after he started working out and “swoling” up. It has also become his Twitter handle.
Swolestrong posters were also made and displayed at all athletic events and in the commons of the high school.
Sara also commented about other schools and their support. For instance, students in Delano were buying bracelets and football players were wearing Luke’s number, 43, on their cleats and wrist wraps.
Cards have been sent to Luke from college athletic departments, and people from all over have been sending their support on messages through CaringBridge.
The teams for every away game during the season have supported Luke, raffling footballs, having fans sign cards, collecting donations for the family, and painting the number 43 on the sidelines.
While in the hospital, Luke received a special visit from Litchfield native and Vikings tight end John Carlson and his wife, who brought him a signed jersey of Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway.
Carlson noted he gave him a Greenway jersey because both he and Luke are linebackers. Luke is also invited to attend a Vikings game and a Saturday morning walk-through practice.
“[Carlson] was very gracious, both he and his wife. He’s a very down-to-earth guy,” Sara said.
The injury and its aftermath
“I saw Luke start wandering around, disoriented,” Sara said, noting that head coach Ryan Weinandt also saw what was happening.
Weinandt was able to run out on the field and stop the play, asking Luke some key questions before he lost consciousness.
“I saw them roll Luke onto his side, and I knew something was up he was probably vomiting,” Sara continued. “Then I saw his leg twitch and straighten; that’s when Greg and I ran down to the field.”
Activities Director Perry Thinesen allowed the Nelsons to go onto the field, where their son lay seizing and unresponsive.
Greg rode in the ambulance with Luke to Litchfield. “To be honest, it was harder to think about after,” he said about riding in the ambulance with a son who was struggling to survive. “You kind of go into auto-pilot to do what you have to do.”
Sara drove to the hospital, leaving the football field before the ambulance. “It was lights and sirens the whole way. I pulled over in Dassel to allow the ambulance to go by that was a hard moment,” she said emotionally.
In the ambulance, Luke was unresponsive until about Darwin, when he was finally able to squeeze Greg’s hand and Greg tried to assure him he was going to be OK.
Greg is still amazed at how he was able to keep it together in the ambulance. “Thinking about it now, it blows my mind what I went through,” Greg said. “I think the good Lord puts you in positions and takes care of you in the heat of the moment.”
Upon reaching Litchfield, Luke was immediately assessed and given a CT scan, which showed he had a subdural hematoma (bleeding) on the right side of his brain.
With a helicopter having been dispatched during the ambulance ride to the hospital, Luke was then flown to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC).
Greg’s brother, Chuck, drove him and Sara to HCMC. “It seemed to take forever to get down there,” Sara said.
By the time the Nelsons arrived, Luke was already in surgery and they were brought to the surgical waiting area.
A surgical resident explained that the surgical team would be going in to evacuate the blood from Luke’s brain, but the bleed had probably already repaired itself, which is typical.
The Nelsons were also told a portion of his skull may have to be removed during the surgery.
“Then two hours go by, then three hours go by, and we still had not heard anything,” Sara said, so the Nelsons decided to call the number they were given to ask questions.
They were told the surgery was almost complete, and a surgeon would be out with an update after they performed a CT scan on Luke.
Forty-five minutes later, the chief resident for neurosurgery came out and told the Nelsons, “We just performed a life-saving procedure on your son.”
“That just took my breath away really,” Sara said.
Luke’s bleed had not repaired itself and was still active when he went into surgery; surgeons had to remove the entire right half of Luke’s skull, rather than just a small portion.
The Nelsons were told Luke would have his skull replaced in the next few weeks to months. However, Luke did so well that it was replaced 12 days later.
Although Luke does not remember the first three to four days following the injury, his personality shined through immediately upon regaining consciousness.
“Luke is known as a man of few words and one-liners, and he had them,” Sara said.
For instance, when he asked whether the Chargers won the game, and was told they had lost, Luke’s response was, “Man, I worked my [butt] off in that game!”
After Luke’s skull was replaced, he remained in the hospital for four more days before being released the first time.
Being released from the hospital Sept. 22, Luke was able to attend a benefit at the Dairy Queen in Cokato to help with his medical costs the following day.
Upon being discharged, doctors knew Luke had an infection, which was treated with IV antibiotics in the hospital, and then with oral antibiotics at home.
After only being home a few days, Luke noticed a bump on the side of his neck with some swelling which was painful to the touch.
Visiting the local doctor, there was no immediate concern about the lump and swelling, and Sara and Luke headed up to St. Cloud for a speech therapy appointment.
By the time they got to St. Cloud, Luke was exhausted and cancelled the appointment.
Sara then received a call from the local doctor, who told her HCMC wanted Luke to come back.
“It was extremely difficult to go back; I’m glad we didn’t know that day how long we would be there,” Sara said. They would spend the next 21 days in the hospital.
Another CT scan and ultrasound showed a blood clot that completely blocked his right jugular, and IV antibiotics were started immediately.
Sara explained that blood clots and infections are always a risk factor for some of the things Luke had done after his injury, but blood clots are extremely rare in children.
Typically, blood clots are taken care of with a drug that immediately dissolves them, but Luke was recovering from a major brain bleed. It was decided to start him on a blood thinner that inhibits the formation of clots.
A few days later, another CT scan, ultrasound, and an MRI showed there was a little blood flow around the clot, and Luke received an eight-hour pass from HCMC to attend the Chargers football game against Litchfield that Friday (Oct. 4).
Two days later, he was dealing with a temperature of 105 degrees and low blood pressure, more than likely due to the improved flow around the blood clot washing the infection through his body.
Doctors thought the infection was causing Luke to becoming septic, which means the severe infection was sending his body into shock.
For the next 36 hours, Luke was again battling for his life, and was given a bolus three times to keep his blood pressure up. A bolus is a high volume of saline solution given through an IV to attempt to raise blood pressure.
Doctors were about ready to perform some procedures they thought may be needed to save Luke’s life when his numbers started improving.
By that afternoon, Luke was hungry, and asked if there was an Applebee’s nearby, again showing his personality.
Eyes wide open, Sara went out of Luke’s room to tell Greg. Greg jumped up and immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”
After telling Greg Luke’s request, Luke’s brother Isaac and a friend whipped out their phones to find the nearest Applebee’s.
Anyone following Luke’s CaringBridge site knows this was a big step, as it had been a struggle to get Luke to eat since the injury occurred.
After that, Luke’s numbers continued to improve and he was finally released from the hospital Oct. 15; he had been hospitalized a total of 37 days.
He will continue physical and speech therapy to build up his mental and physical endurance.
“A big effect of a traumatic brain injury is fatigue, both mental and physical,” Sara said.
Although he may have to learn strategies to compensate, “all-in-all, he’s very intact,” Sara added. “He really has been very, very lucky in that way.”