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2016 ATR Honoree – James McGinnis

Smart, dynamic, outgoing, kind-hearted, strong, full of promise. These are all words that could be used to describe James McGinnis, a senior at Olathe East High School at the time of his injury. A well-rounded, faith-devoted, straight-A student, James played everything from football to basketball to track to the cello. On September 12, 2014, under the Friday night lights of the Olathe District Athletic Complex (ODAC), James’ team was playing Olathe South, its biggest rival. In the third quarter of the game, James made an ordinary tackle that appeared harmless at the moment. However, the tackle caused a shearing effect, which is tearing of the brain’s nerve fibers as it shifts and rotates inside the skull. James was able to complete one more play and then collapsed at the six-yard line. The team trainer and coaches ran over to help James, but James lay limp and unconscious. As the gravity of the situation grew apparent, the stadium fell silent and the players kneeled in prayer. An ambulance arrived and whisked James to a local hospital where his injury was quickly assessed. A CAT scan showed “Acute Subdural Hematoma” with a mid-line shift, which means damage and bleeding around the lining of the brain. Doctors hurried James into surgery to remove a piece of his skull (bone flap), which helped relieve pressure and allowed his brain to swell. James only had a 7% chance of survival prior to the surgery. By surgery being performed within four hours of the injury, his odds of survival doubled to 14%–although still dismal.
After surgery, James was placed in a medically-induced coma for five days.

During this time, a flood of high-school students and friends invaded the hospital each day and stayed until all hours praying and showing their support for James’ family. James’ parents, Patrick and Susan McGinnis, never left James’ side. Until James awoke, they waited patiently at his bedside with no light, sound or movement allowed in the room as any stimulation could harm recovery. As parents and caregivers, Patrick and Susan experienced shock, disbelief and fear. With adrenaline on overload, Patrick and Susan barely ate or slept during the initial days of the accident. They leaned heavily on friends and were extremely thankful to a supportive community that coordinated meals, organized a fundraiser and supported their business during this time. Patrick and Susan remained positive, hopeful and celebrated any signs of progress. They focused on moving forward and educating themselves about brain injury and what to expect in the days to come. Patrick and Susan soon learned and accepted the fact that no two brain injuries are alike. Therefore, survival odds and potential outcomes could not fully be predicted, even by the best doctors.

The first miraculous moment to happen in James’ recovery was about a week after his injury. James was still in the process of awakening from his coma and could not open his eyes yet. His parents were leaning close telling James they were proud of him and loved him. At this moment, his parents noticed his right hand move slowly and attempt to form the hand sign for “I love you.” (This was a sign James used often since 2nd grade.) His parents immediately knew what James was trying to communicate, but the doctors were not convinced. The doctors thought the hand gesture was just a reflex. A few days later (day 10 from the incident, to be exact), James could clearly make the “I love you” sign with his hand and doctors agreed the gesture was purposeful. In the days to follow, James achieved other small but vital milestones such as wincing in reaction to pain, forming a tear from his right eye, recognizing music (the song “Toes” by ZBB motivated James to try getting out of bed!) and giving the “thumbs up” sign. These little achievements gave big hope to family and doctors.

On the 18th day from the accident, James was transported from a local hospital to a Rehabilitation Hospital in Nebraska. Susan McGinnis recalls being alarmed by the aggressive approach of the nurses and therapist. On day one, they began evaluations and demanded that James be up and out of bed. This terrified Susan after so many days of fragile treatment of James. Additionally, she was not accustomed to others being in control of James. However, Susan quickly changed her feelings of reluctance and was very thankful for the support and relief provided by the hosptial staff. As James began his daily therapy, the McGinnises were still facing hardships—not only dire concern for their son, but they were nervous about rising medical costs and the possibility of insurance not lasting long enough. At this time, Susan was staying in Nebraska with James in housing across the street from the hospital, and Pat was commuting back and forth from Olathe on weekends. The progress felt painfully slow to Susan who was there with James each day. Pat’s perspective was helpful as he was away for longer periods and could see clear advancements in James from week to week. (On a side note, James was at level four on the Rancho Scale at the start of rehab. The Rancho Scale is a common tool used to evaluate and follow the ten levels of progress after a brain injury. The ultimate goal, of course, is to reach level ten.)

James entered rehabilitation with a tough and curious state of mind—seeking explanation from therapists about each approach and wanting to change the approach if it wasn’t working. At the same time, James’ playful side began to reemerge as rehab progressed, mixing in plenty of fun and laughter (and even a few pranks!) during his daily work. Before long, James was feeling at home at the hospital and beloved by everyone on staff. Altogether, James was in Nebraska for 189 days, which included both inpatient and outpatient rehab. During this time, he achieved many milestones starting with simple tasks such as sitting up on his own and swallowing ice chips to greater tasks such as standing on his own and walking with assistance. Also during his time in rehab, James underwent surgery to return the bone flap to his skull (which had been “stored” in his stomach), another important step in recovery.

On Day 207 after the incident, James finally returned to his home in Olathe, Kansas. The decision to leave the facility in Nebraska was nerve-racking for James and his family, but James was determined to complete his senior year and graduate alongside his friends. James was greeted with open arms by his entire community. He received special recognition during “senior night” at the Olathe East varsity basketball game, bringing the crowd to its feet when James surprised everyone by walking several steps on his own. Right after this moment, James got everyone in the gymnasium to hold up the “I love you” hand sign, including the opponents’ team and fans from Olathe South. One important goal for James, worth noting, was being able to walk 30 yards on his own—the distance between the place of his collapse on the football field to the sideline of the football field. In fact, his father had been growing out his beard and refused to cut his beard until James could complete the 30 yards. On day 328, James did it—he finally got his chance to walk off the football field.

The one-year anniversary of James’ injury in September 2015 marked an anxious time for James and his family, conjuring up difficult memories. To turn this date into a positive mark and reflect on the love and support James has experienced, James and his family had the “I love you” hand sign tattooed on their bodies. This included his mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, a few friends and even his 84-year old grandmother. The image is now a permanent reminder that even in the darkest times, love triumphs above all things. Despite the hardship James still faces, he approaches each day with courage, faith and determination. He continues to show growth and advancements in recovery. Smart, dynamic, outgoing, kind hearted, strong, full of promise. These are all words that can STILL be used to describe James McGinnis.


Ralph Yarl

The Memorial Day Run honors individuals affected by brain injury who exemplify the same courage and determination that Amy Thompson demonstrated.

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Brain Injury Association of Kansas and Greater Kansas City (BIAKS) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for those affected by brain injury.

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The first Memorial Day run was held in 1988 honoring Amy Thompson, a young woman whose courage, forgiveness and will to live gave hope to all affected by brain injury.

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Promote your business or organization and support those affected by a brain injury. Contact bjacobson@biaks.org  or click the link below.

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