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Paralyzed on 9/11, Keaston White makes best from new course in life

ATLANTA -- Above, the flags flew at half staff. Below, the local parks' marquees' attention stayed closer to home.

There were lines at recruiting stations and blood banks across the country, but in kitchens in the southeastern part of Suwanee, the ovens were baking a local brand of patriotism.

"We had food for two months," Shirley White remembers. "When I tell you that the school community really supported him, they really did. They were coming left and right."

Perhaps the support stemmed from personal catharsis, a way to act in a time when people felt helpless in a world rocked to a smoldering foundation. Or maybe helping one's neighbor is an involuntary reflex, a knee-jerk triggered by people's innate desire to comfort no matter the circumstance swirling about them. Regardless of motivation, those signs of support, the casseroles left on the doorstep, the hospital visits, the armband worn by teammates, flowers and phone calls still hearten every member of the White family a decade later.

Keaston White walked into Collins Hill High School on Sept. 11, 2001, just weeks into his high school life. The freshman with athletic and acting aspirations learned of the terrorist attacks once he arrived. Other than that, his memory of that Tuesday comes in fuzzy.

"I don't even remember the day (at school)," Keaston said.

Collins Hill did not cancel its after-school activities, so Keaston went to football practice, preparing for the team's Week 3 game against Norcross. He had spent the offseason working out with his father and with the team and had filled out his 14-year-old frame to its peak. A good student, Keaston picked up new positions quickly and the coaches moved him to cornerback for the first time during practice. He made a few tackles.

"I did a good job," he said. "I was doing pretty well at that until this one hit. The guy was coming around the corner, my head went down and it was like I blacked out for a minute. I was awake and I could hear stuff, but I couldn't see anything for, I don't know, maybe 30 seconds, a minute."

The moments before that hit were the last in which Keaston used his legs in the past 10 years. The hit fractured his fifth vertebrae. The diagnosis was an incomplete C5 quadriplegic. He has spots of feeling throughout his body and moderate use of his arms and hands but must use an electric wheelchair and requires full-time, in-home care.

Strong from the start

Keaston White's world changed with that final hit. He lay on the ground, disoriented not knowing where his arms or legs were. The training staff removed his face mask from his helmet and called an ambulance which took him immediately to Scottish Rite.

Keaston just wanted to talk to his mother, Shirley.

"I was mostly worried about my mom and I wanted to talk to her," he said. "I wanted to make sure that she could hear me so she knew I was OK because I knew she would be so worried."

A nurse, Shirley, was headed to work when she got the call. His father, Brady, had just returned from work and finished a workout.

When they reached the hospital, the doctor told them the prognosis.

"I can't even describe it," Shirley said. "I knew it wasn't time to tell him. The first thing that came to mind when I saw him, I said, 'The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.' He looked at me and I said it again and I said, 'You will be OK.'"

Shirley acted of two minds, nurse and mom. She hid her own feelings to support her son and his father.

"It was kind of an out-of-body experience," Brady said. "You hear the term and phrase. I can't describe that. I was very, very numb."

Tears streamed down Brady's face while he listened.

Keaston rode to the hospital with Collins Hill athletic trainer Lara Sikes. Still the trainer at Collins Hill, Sikes understood the situation sooner than anyone. While they waited at the hospital she tested markers of feelings along his hands. When he told her the feeling in his hands felt more like they had been asleep, she knew.

"Right then is when alarms went off," Sikes said. "This kid is not looking for attention. This is bad. This is really bad."

Sikes, who questioned her career after watching the accident, stood next to his parents when the doctors told them. The memory of Keaston's father's tears still wretches her gut. The next moment amazes her. Keaston asked a nurse to bring her to his room.

"I just watched his father sobbing and Keaston looked at me and said, 'Coach, I just want to thank you so much for helping me and riding with me in the ambulance.' I was blown away by how he handled the situation. He was being calm. Instead of falling apart, he was the strong one and that is not the usual scenario."

Neither good nor bad, just different

Keaston and his parents spent the next three months in the hospital. He eventually transferred to the Shepherd Center, where his recovery continued.

The moment when a doctor tells his patient, "You'll never walk again," is a dramatic construction. It never happens and for good reason.

"That is not our thinking," Keaston said. "We don't think that way and the doctors that I had didn't think that way either. From the moment I was in Shepherd it was, 'OK, what is the next step to be able to get you to walk?'

"You don't know. You just don't know. But as soon as you close that door permanently it kills all hope, it kills all motivation. It kills everything, and anything that you could have been will never be."

The next step approach dovetailed with the White family's intrinsic optimism. Keaston's older sister, Brandi Hoyos, watched her family's strength pull them all through the early struggles and continue to keep everyone positive.

"We are not the type of family where we like to harp on negative things," the Spanish and world language teacher said. "We did have our grieving period. But it was like, 'OK, now we've gotten our 'Why me's?' out' and it was 'What are we going to do to make the best of this situation so we can make (Keaston) stronger and what was the next step?'"

Keaston's strength led the way.

He kept up with his school work in the hospital and despite pressure to the contrary, didn't let the injury sap away a year of his schooling or his life. He graduated on time from Collins Hill, was named to the Homecoming Court, won Prom King and was forced to pick between Mr. Eagle and Most Unforgettable for his senior honor.

He earned an undergraduate degree from Emory and is now in law school at John Marshall in Atlanta. He's on track to graduate on time. He wanted to be an actor or a doctor or an athlete, but the accident forced a new course and Keaston started down it immediately.

"My dad early on said, 'It's unfair and I know and I am sorry, but you know you can't waste any time because life is rough and it's coming and it's coming fast,'" Keaston said. "That is why I stayed on track to not take time off. For right now it's hit the pavement and go."

"He is a young man with incredible drive and determination," Brady, his father, said. "He refused to let, I guess, the situation, make him. He is really intent upon him making the situation."

Still a struggle

As Keaston grows up, the challenges continue. He must manage his nurses and find rides to school or to the store. He has an apartment in Atlanta and attempts to live as independently as possible.

Often he must chose between continuing his rehab or keeping up with his law school work. He relies on MARTA for rides, sometimes waiting more than an hour for a tardy bus.

"It's harder now," Keaston said of controlling his frustrations. "At the time I didn't (get mad) because I was still trying to find myself. I just felt like at the time, I just wanted to, I really just wanted to fit in and find my place. I didn't have time to think about being angry. I have always been a little bit more optimistic than the average person."

He still works as an unofficial mentor to newly injured patients. He speaks to assemblies and his story was published in the Extraordinary Teen version of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" book series.

In his chapter, he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson. "To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

Keaston wants to share a realistic message of hope tempered by reality.

"Life does not get easier, it gets harder, but it gets better. It gets better," Keaston said. "That is the message I want people to understand."

Keaston still concerns himself with his appearance. His out going personality shines as all times. While sitting at his apartment by his pool, he waves and greets most people passing by with a smile. He could be the one in need of a friendly look, but he's the one passing them out. Instinctively.

Along with the nurses, his mother spends time helping him. She tries to coordinate his nurses' schedules to take away a stress. She picks him up when he needs rides, acting as both nurse and mother. Her role from the start.

"Keaston gives me such inspiration," Shirley said. "I still call him my baby. I'll call him my baby in a minute and he'll say, 'Mom, watch where you say that at.'

"All of my friends and peers and people I meet always say to me that you have raised a phenomenal young man."

Recovery continues

Out of all of the American pop culture's response to the terrorist attacks, one of the most embraced came from country singer Alan Jackson. His single "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," played seemingly hourly even on non-country music stations following its release. The song's title emotes the feeling most felt that day, everything stopped and everyone just stared or cried or prayed or raged. Nothing happened beyond the billowing smoke, scorching fires and heroic actions of first responders in New York and Washington, D.C., and selfless citizens onboard a plane above Pennsylvania.

But the world didn't stop. Everything else just went unnoticed. In the days following Keaston's injury, no one had time to tell the story of his accident. That game Keaston so eagerly began to prepare for, along with all the others, canceled. Everything was canceled.

But those signs with Keaston's number on them popped up anyway. Those ovens heated up as people picked up the pieces of their world closest to them.

"The nation was grieving and my community is rallying to really help me. It's amazing," Keaston said. "The response was overwhelming and amazing.

"Everything normally stopped with 9/11 and they were still all I can't make sense of it."

In the heat of this past summer, as Keaston prepared for another year of law school, he had some discomfort in his feet. In an effort to find some relief he drew a basin full of warm water, an aid to the pain he'd read about. He put his feet in the water and, for the first time in 10 years, moved his foot.

The world never stops turning.

Comments

SusanL 2 years, 7 months ago

Keaston, I'm so happy to hear of your progress after all these years and so proud to say I know you. How thrilling that you could move your foot. May you keep putting that "best foot forward." : ) Susan Larson

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CathyS 2 years, 7 months ago

Keaston-I just discovered this article about you. So happy you are doing well! I remember you from 7th grade (I was priviledged to be one of your teachers). You were an amazing person then and a true leader. It sounds like you've continued on that path. I wish you the best in life!

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GwinnettFan 2 years, 7 months ago

Not only is Keaston an inspiration, so is his mother Shirley White. While Keaston was a student at Emory University, Shirley took time away from trials of her own to check on my mother who was on campus for serious heart issues. I'll never forget Shirley's tenderness and compassion. They are truly an awe inspiring, wonderful family and deserve all the best.

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