MINNEAPOLIS — Jack Jablonski rolled up to his usual spot in front of the microphone on a recent Wednesday evening and waited for his cue: “It is Hockey Night Minnesota with Jack Jablonski on Sports Radio 105 The Ticket,” the announcer’s voice boomed, launching the weekly drive-time show.
Jablonski had never envisioned sitting inside a radio studio, broadcasting his hockey knowledge over airwaves instead of showing his prowess on the ice. He’d always felt a little uneasy speaking in public. But after a paralyzing accident in the rink 2½ years ago, Jablonski, now 18, has pushed himself to do a lot of things he’d never imagined.
Life, Jablonski has learned, is all about adapting.
Jablonski finds himself at the cusp of a new life once again. With last Friday’s graduation ceremony, he left the secure embrace of the Benilde-St. Margaret’s high school community that helped carry him through the trauma. He will trade his local celebrity status to become one of 40,000 students at the University of Southern California. A whole new set of obstacles. A whole new challenge to adapt.
His mom, in particular, is worried. Here, her son is surrounded by people who know his story, give him opportunities and greet him with enthusiasm, Leslie Jablonski said. There, she worries, “he’s going be just another guy in a chair.”
Jack understands the magnitude of it all.
“I’ve obviously been very fortunate, and I’m so thankful,” he said. “I understand the consequences of leaving here and going there. … It’ll be tough, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
GRIEF AND GRATITUDE
From the moment he was wheeled into the hospital after suffering a hit from behind on Dec. 30, 2011, Jablonski remained mostly upbeat. While he lay in a hospital bed, his neck stiff in a brace, his classmates started fundraising and support campaigns through social media. Friends packed his room. A swirl of media covered his story. Professional athletes visited and sent him autographed jerseys.
Jablonski spoke kindly to them all, making jokes and smiling even after doctors gave him a grim prognosis: permanent paralysis from the chest down.
Quietly, friends worried: When the attention died down and he settled back into normal routines from a wheelchair, would he crash emotionally?
“Everyone has their ups and downs,” he said recently, sitting in his Minneapolis home. “It’s more up and down for me, a little bit more severe when it comes to the ups and the downs.”
The hardest emotional adjustment, he said, has been watching friends reach milestones that he couldn’t: passing driver’s license tests, competing on the ice. He watched some leave to pursue their hockey dreams in juniors programs in other states.
Those same friends carried him through it by continuing to include him in their lives. They drove his accessible van to local restaurants. They gathered in his accessible basement to watch sports.
Through them and his family, Jablonski said, he’s learned to focus on the good.
The outside attention never completely died down, either. Jack developed relationships with some professional athletes. He was invited to Wild games as a guest of the team. His school voted him homecoming king. He took an ESPN personality, Michelle Beadle, to prom.
On bad days, Jablonski tells himself to remember how lucky he is compared to so many others with injuries. He forces himself to think about what he can still do.
“There’s always someone out there that’s worse off than you are,” he said. “It definitely makes you realize how fortunate you are.”
Four days a week, Jablonski works out at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley. As part of a program called ABLE, specialists suspend him in a harness and help him move his legs in a walking motion. They help him row bike-like pedals with his arms.
They talk sports and joke around. He teases them back.
“Gray-on-gray: Fashion faux pas!” he playfully scolded one man wearing slightly different shades of shorts and T-shirt.
“It’s loose and we’re having fun,” Jablonski said later. “But we all know why I’m there.”
He is still paralyzed from the chest down, able to move his arms through his shoulders. Through the therapy, he has gained more control of his 6-foot 1-inch frame — 3 inches taller than when he was injured. He has learned to balance and move his core. He has experienced moments of feeling and ability to move a foot or a toe, he said.
The exercises help him maintain muscle tone so he’s ready for a medical breakthrough someday.
The Jablonskis have turned a fund set up for Jack into a foundation, raising nearly $100,000 to help others get the same therapy that Jack is getting, and for spinal cord research.
So far, $30,000 has gone to a clinical study at the University of Louisville. There, researchers applied epidural electrical stimulation to four men with complete spinal cord injuries, giving them some ability to move their hips, knees, ankles and toes, and to stand. They made gains in bowel, bladder and sexual function.
Jack has put his name on the list to be part of the study. His family is holding out hope that someday study leaders will call. But Jack has lots of other goals in the meantime. “Obviously to be on your feet is number one, but I understand that there’s plenty of things I’ve got to do to be able to be in that position,” he said. “If I never end up succeeding that goal, life still isn’t a failure.”
A dozen guests shuffled into Jablonski’s house on a recent evening. Jack’s parents, Mike and Leslie Jablonski, joke that they might as well have a revolving front door. Since Jack’s accident, the house has been bustling with friends offering support.
For Jack to leave it all behind and head off to college on his own will be scary, they say.
The California climate is part of the reason he’s going so far. With his injury, his body doesn’t regulate extreme temperature the way able bodies do, they explained. Minnesota winters are extra difficult.
The school, in the heart of Los Angeles, has welcomed many students with paralysis; Jack has applied for a scholarship that other disabled athletes there have received. He’s scheduled to begin classes in the spring semester, January of 2015.
One of Jack’s parents will likely stay in Los Angeles for a while, until he gets settled into a routine. “The letting go part is scary,” Leslie Jablonski said. “It’s overwhelming. … There’s just so much of the unknown.”
In high school, Jack had a buddy in each class help him take notes and pack up his books. He took tests verbally.
He doesn’t have any close friends in California. They will need to find new doctors, new caretakers, new medical equipment, new methods for doing homework.
When he lies in his bed feeling angry about what he’s lost, she won’t be there to grieve with him.
Mike said he believes his son is ready to move on.
“I think the best thing for Jack is to gain his independence,” he said. “Things are only going to get better and better … we’ll make sure that he has every opportunity to be successful.”
Jack said he knows it will be up to him to be his own advocate — to figure out how to get help without his parents there to do it for him.
“I’m very nervous. … I know that it’s going to be tough with the transition,” Jack said. “You’ve got to live life to the fullest no matter what situation you’re in.”