Ian Strong: a story of hope

Category:  News
Wednesday, December 21st, 2016 at 1:20 AM

He was up 8-0 in an off-season wrestling tournament. On top, and just about to turn his opponent, the referee brought the wrestlers back up to their feet. He threw a headlock, but it slipped and he had too much momentum going forward, his forehead hitting the mat. His opponent came forward, on top of his back, his weight landing on his neck. He remembers hearing a snap.

Cathedral Prep junior, Ian Malesiewski, originally thought he had broken his arm since it was not moving. He told himself to get up, that the tournament was over for him.

“It felt like my neck was hot, like a broken bone,” he recalls. “It kind of felt like my body was pulsing. It was weird, it felt like my body was laying three feet to the right of me. I had no sense of where my body was, which was kind of scary.”

Minutes passed. Now laying on a stretcher, neck brace on, Ian recalls thinking to himself; I’m just going to put my thumb up to let everyone know I’m okay, but he couldn’t move his arm or thumb to do so.

“That’s when I really knew things were wrong, when I couldn’t move my thumb.”

***

A couple hours away in North East, Ian’s mother, Halli Reid, the aquatics director at Mercyhurst North East, was preparing to take her other son, Adam, to a football combine at Pitt the following day.

A text from her ex-husband, who was at the tournament with Ian, came through on her phone.

“My sister was watching it on her computer and my ex-husband was there with Ian and I got a text that said ‘Hurt’ and Sara pulled up and said ‘We’ve got to go’ and I left.”

Unaware of what exactly was wrong with her son, Halli, and those accompanying her, made the roughly two-and-a-half-hour drive from North East to Akron, Ohio. A phone call from Ian’s dad on the way to the hospital began to indicate the severity of Ian’s condition.

“I think he’s really hurt,” his dad said.

“What do you mean?” Halli asked.

“I think his neck is hurt, bad.”

By the time Halli was an hour away from the hospital another update had arrived from Ian’s father, the update on the other end news no parent ever wishes to receive.

“I think he’s paralyzed.”

***

Ian arrived at the hospital at 11:00 in the morning and did not have surgery until 9:00 that night. Although he does not remember much from that day, Ian does remember the MRI he received at the hospital, revealing a painful truth; he had broken his neck. It was after Halli arrived at the hospital that her head began to wrap around the severity of the situation.

“They showed us the X-ray and then by the time the neurosurgeon came and met with us, I was physically ill,” Halli recalls. “I remember asking ‘Will he ever be able to walk?’ and she said ‘Walk? He'll be lucky if he can push a motorized wheelchair.’ I had five minutes to sign a release and he had a 50 percent chance of getting through the surgery.”

Ian’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Tsulee Chen, one of the top neurosurgeons in the country, happened to be at Akron Children’s Hospital the day Ian was brought in. On his way into surgery, Dr. Chen stopped Ian and asked if he had any questions for her.

“I got work to do. Let’s do this.”

“Will I ever walk again?” he asked.

“Probably not,” she answered. “How do you feel about that?”

“I got work to do. Let’s do this,” he answered, determined.

“I think I’m going to like you,” Dr. Chen answered.

“I think I’m going to like you too,” Ian replied.

Halli does not remember the doctors saying her son had only a 50 percent chance of getting through the surgery. She took everything one moment at a time.

“I guess I compartmentalized,” she said. “Like, ok, we got him through surgery, but his lungs were collapsing and I wasn’t even thinking long term damage at that time, I couldn’t even go there. We just had to get him through surviving at that point.”

***

Having been to three different hospitals over the course of his medical treatment, Ian ended up at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh for about seventeen weeks before returning home. While in Pittsburgh, he made friends with a fellow athlete, a little older than himself, who, like Ian, was trying to focus on the positive and use his situation as a way to inspire the people around him. Ian’s new friend, and source of inspiration through his battle, was none other than University of Pittsburgh running back, James Conner, who, publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December of 2015.

“He’s a bright spot in the day,” Ian acknowledges. “It seems like he always comes at a time where I’m down and he always has a way to cheer us up. He’s kind of instilled a mindset in me that, if you believe, anything can happen.”

Kneeling next to his bed and sharing in stories of the impact James has had on Ian through his journey, Halli acknowledges one important message James has instilled in Ian; there is more to life than sports.

“He’s really taken that on, too,” Ian says. “He’s a very faithful guy, so am I, and I feel like we’re almost working as a team, fighting our own battles. I was real down with sports to start with, and he showed me there’s more than four quarters in life.”

Back on the field, and playing in his four quarters after battling cancer, James has a piece of Ian with him in every game he plays.

“He wears my bracelet in every game,” Ian says proudly, referring to the ‘Ian Strong’ and the ‘Be a Dog’ bracelet worn on James’ wrist.

***

Ian had experienced in a short amount of time something many will never have to go through. Many kids his age spend the duration of their school days waiting for the clock to strike a certain time, or the school bell to ring, signaling the moment they finally get to leave the classroom. However, the young man in the hospital, coming out of a medically induced coma, which he was put in to allow his body time to heal, had a much different wish.

“As soon as he came out of it, one of his first wishes was he wanted to graduate with his class at Cathedral Prep,” says Chris Hagerty, director of strategic initiatives at Cathedral Prep. “Not just to graduate, but to actually graduate with his class. He wanted to stay on time. So, obviously, we were going to need to make quite a few accommodations to try to make that happen.”

The accommodations came in the form of “Ian’s Room,” a classroom designed specifically for Ian, containing all of the resources and technology he requires in order to achieve his goal of graduating with his class in 2018. Arrangements were made for a desk that could accommodate Ian’s wheelchair, as well as a big screen TV to display the day’s assignments and a laptop with voice recognition and other features so that Ian can complete his classes.

In addition to a special classroom, a schedule was arranged for the teachers at Prep to leave their homerooms at a certain time in the day and make their way down to Ian’s room to teach him the day’s lessons, while a student from each class helps him take notes on his iPad. Hagerty marvels at the impact Ian has had on his friends and the Cathedral Prep and Villa Maria communities.

“When you walk by that room, and it’s lunchtime, and you see sixteen and seventeen-year-old boys feeding their friend because he can’t feed himself, and they’re doing it like they’ve done it for their whole life, without any type of embarrassment, that’s what’s amazing about the catharsis of this whole deal. You see these kids doing that,” says Hagerty.

“It has been a life changing experience for a lot of people."

And while Ian and his family speak very highly of Cathedral Prep, the students and faculty at Prep and Villa have a different view of the situation.

“It has been a life changing experience for a lot of people,” Hagerty acknowledges. “I meant what I said, that, what he is teaching us as a Prep community, and most particularly his friends about his courage and his outlook, far surpasses how we’re helping him.”

***

Throughout the course of Ian’s recovery, a recovery he continues to go through every day, Ian never forgets his family and friends that supported him along the way, his doctors and specialists, and the nurses that became family when he was in the hospital. Besides the physical aspect of his recovery, Ian, his mother, and the Cathedral Prep and Villa Maria communities acknowledge another component of the healing process.

“He is very spiritual,” Halli says. “That has been very, very helpful. He also thinks there’s a bigger picture, you know, like, they picked a strong one and he thinks he can make a difference, somehow.”

A bigger picture that encompasses the prayers he has received, and continues to receive, from his family, friends, the local community, and his faith community at his Catholic high school. Since Ian’s injury in the summer, right up until a few weeks ago when he returned to school, the students of Cathedral Prep and Villa Maria Academy would gather at Catholic Mass every Thursday.

On a June evening, as Ian was being taken into surgery, fighting for his life, the senior girls of Villa Maria Academy were graduating from high school. As news of Ian’s critical condition began to spread through word of mouth and social media, Hagerty recalls a beautiful shift that happened that evening. After Villa’s graduation ceremony, which took place at 7:00 that night, the graduates of Villa Maria, still in their traditional, white graduation dresses, and along with about 250 other people, attended Mass at St. Jude’s in Erie to pray for their friend and classmate.

“I walked into church and I started to cry because I’m looking at these kids going ‘Oh my gosh, these guys are unbelievable,’” Hagerty recalls.

He does not doubt for a minute that Ian can feel the prayers and support, both through his own faith and the faith of the people around him.

“None of us know what God has planned in any of these things,” says Hagerty. “But, Ian is an instrument. He is an instrument of God’s plan and it’s done amazing things for a lot of people. There are better people because of what happened to Ian.”

***

It is through prayer, family, friends, physical therapy, and so many other things, that Ian is making great strides in his recovery, inspiring everyone in the process with his courage and positivity. They are qualities many people see in Ian, including his former wrestling coach, Mike Hahesy.

“It’s just unbelievable that he remains that positive and optimistic,” coach Hahesy commends. “I was actually with him yesterday for a little bit and he’s still the same way. He says ‘I’ll be alright. I’m getting better. I’m getting stronger.’ Everything is always real positive and that’s the way he always was as an athlete. He was an ultra-positive kid.”

An ultra-positive kid with a bright future ahead. A young man who, although at one time was an incredible athlete, has so much more to offer the world and those around him. A member of his school’s Key Club, Vice President of his junior class, and an inspiration to all those he comes in contact with on a daily basis.

Though he has a long recovery ahead, Ian continues to grow stronger every day, achieving major accomplishments, some may even call them miracles.

“I fed myself for the first time on Thanksgiving, mashed potatoes,” Ian recalls. “I can curl two pound dumb bells. I can itch my face. It’s just nice to show that I’m not just a zombie lying in bed and having everyone else do everything for me.”

Major progress from a young man, who a few months ago, had a 50 percent chance of making it through surgery. A young man who would be “lucky” if he could push a motorized wheelchair. A young man who always has been, and always will be “Ian Strong.”

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