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Spinal cord injuries sideline, don’t stop high school senior

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — From his wheelchair in the family library at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California, LaQuan Phillips related his struggle to a poem by his favorite author, Langston Hughes.

The poem, “A Dream Deferred,” begins with a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

It’s the same question the 17-year-old Phillips, a Green Valley High School senior football player, has pondered for the past eight weeks.

Phillips, who had been a starting weak side linebacker for the Gators, dreamt of playing against Basic High School as a senior in tonight’s annual Henderson Bowl.

But Phillips lost that chance on Sept. 5, when a collision in a game against Centennial left him with multiple spinal cord injuries that have led to partial paralysis.

Phillips watched Green Valley practice Wednesday and plans on attending tonight’s game.

“What happened to that dream you didn’t get?” Phillips asked. “Did it crumble, or is it still there? Pretty much, my dream was to rush back and play against Basic. It was deferred.”

Phillips successfully underwent surgery on Sept. 7 at Sunrise Hospital to alleviate swelling on his vertebrae.

But he remains with a bruised spinal cord that has bled, said Craig McDonald, medical director of Shriners’ spinal cord injury program.

The injury’s seriousness is compounded because Phillips was born with a rare “general narrowing” of the spinal column, McDonald said.

When Phillips was struck in the upper back by an opposing player’s helmet, compression occurred throughout his neck at the same time it was flexing.

The discs between his C3 and C4 bones protruded backward into his spinal cord, which then began to bleed, McDonald said.

Though he has regained at least partial movement in all of his limbs, Phillips must be helped in and out of a wheelchair and could still be weeks away from safely trying to take steps, McDonald said.

Since moving Sept. 16 to Shriners, where he receives donation-paid treatment, Phillips has reluctantly “accepted” that he will never play high school football again.

However, he unwaveringly asserts he will walk again and hopes to somehow participate in college athletics.

Though Shriners’ medical personnel remain uncertain if it is possible for Phillips to fully recover, so far he has exceeded expectations.

Phillips has even been well enough to go along with fellow patients to a Sacramento Kings preseason game, a movie and a mall.

“The kids I hang out with here are so amazed with what I’m doing,” Phillips said. “And I’m like, ‘You guys don’t understand. These doctors don’t determine what you do. They can just tell you what they expect.’ ”

McDonald and Phillips’ occupational therapy assistant, LaTanya Burnett, agreed it could take 12 to 18 months for Phillips to know exactly how much he will ever recover.

“He’s definitely sustained some damage to the nerve elements within the spinal cord,” McDonald said. “Some of that damage may well be permanent, but he’s likely to get substantial recovery.”

Some substantial recovery already has taken place within the halls of the seven-story Shriners facility.

About 9 a.m. on Oct. 22, Phillips began his day with what Burnett called the “therapy task” of feeding himself breakfast.

Using his right elbow like a hand, Phillips finished a plate of eggs with little assistance.

For the first time, “he didn’t have half the plate in his lap,” Burnett said.

Phillips then sat up in bed and put on a shirt with “Gators” emblazoned on the front, biting on the collar for leverage as Burnett pulled it around his torso.

By 9:45 a.m., Phillips had made his way to the therapy room.

In an exercise designed to increase sitting balance, selective motor control and activation of paralyzed muscle groups, two therapists threw a beach ball toward Phillips’ head, which he then deflected like a header in soccer.

“From football to fútbol,” Phillips joked.

About 10:15 a.m., Phillips moved to the outdoor playground area, where he was able for the first time to scoop a ball from the ground using only his left hand.

In the family library a half-hour later, Phillips’ mind wandered to his teammates, whom he avidly follows online and over the phone.

“How about Nolan, our kicker?” he asked with a grin, referring to Gators kicker Nolan Kohorst, who has hit four 50-yard field goals this season.

Phillips beamed while discussing Green Valley’s 6-2 start.

“They’ve been in a deep fight without me, and they’ve been fighting for me,” he said. “It’s like an army; you don’t leave a man behind. And even though I’m not with them, they’re not leaving me behind.”

At 11:40 a.m., Phillips sat down to lunch in the “teen room,” where he and three patients between the ages of 15 and 20 discussed everything from career goals to stem cell research to whose wheelchair was the fastest.

School started for Phillips at 1 p.m. Reading from an American government textbook, he chatted about the Constitution with teacher Barbara Brooks.

Later, Phillips used a “typing stick” attached to his left hand to operate a computer.

Phillips already has passed the proficiency exams necessary to graduate, and expects to walk with his senior class in June. He plans on going to college to pursue a career in physical therapy or sports medicine.

“Coming here, seeing what they do for teenagers like us, that just made me love it more,” Phillips said.

At 2:30 p.m., Phillips began the most grueling part of his day — a second round of therapy in which he pushed a manual wheelchair down a hallway and back, and underwent electroshock treatment.

After making it from one end of the hallway to the other in 5 minutes, 40 seconds, Phillips’ right leg began to spasm before Burnett gently set it back in place.

Later, Phillips received electroshock treatment on his right arm while flexing.

The therapy is often too hard to watch for Phillips’ aunt and legal guardian, Delphine Lakes, who has raised Phillips since 2000 when his mother, LaJuana, died of breast cancer at age 37.

“To actually hold a pen in his hand and write his name is very difficult right now,” Lakes said. “Those are the times when I want to step in, and we battle.

“He’ll say, ‘I can do it, auntie. Move, auntie.’ And I have to understand that he’s not attacking me. It’s him trying to be able to hold his own.”

Phillips’ release date from Shriners is tentatively set for Nov. 14, but he probably will receive an extension, Lakes said.

Gifts and keepsakes from well-wishers are sprinkled throughout Phillips’ room.

Among the treasured items: a quilt made by Melinda Rather, the mother of Green Valley linebacker Brett Rather, with a depiction of Phillips’ No. 3 jersey; a poster-sized card signed by the senior class at Shadow Hills Baptist Church, comprised of students from Arbor View, Centennial, Cheyenne, Cimarron-Memorial, Palo Verde and The Meadows; and a collage of photos on the front page of Green Valley’s campus newspaper, The InvestiGator.

Even Carolina Panthers linebacker Adam Seward, who is a former UNLV and Bonanza star, has reached out to see how he can help, Phillips said.

“We’ve always been glad to say that we came from Las Vegas, but this brought it a little closer to home,” Lakes said.

Phillips said it is still “shocking” to have people call him an inspiration.

“I was talking with my aunt and I said, ‘You know, I might have stopped somebody from committing suicide,’ ” he said. “Just somebody saying, ‘Man, that kid’s going through a lot, but he’s happy about it. He’s got a beautiful outlook.’

“I’ve always felt if I could talk to somebody ready to commit suicide, I’d try my hardest to stop them. So thinking that maybe I did it through what I’m doing, it makes me feel great. It makes me feel like I’m achieving a little bit over who I am, and that’s a great feeling.”

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