By Gloria Austin
There are the simple things in life we take for granted like birthdays.
Holden Gray celebrated his 22nd birthday March 2, and it was a very special one for him and his family.
That’s because, in the early morning hours of Sept. 14, 2010, Gray’s life would hang in the balance.
“I received a phone call that every mother or parent dreads,” said Lynn Swimm of Houlton.
A chaplin from Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs explained to Swimm that her son, Holden, had been in a serious car accident.
“He told me he was alive,” Swimm recalls. “I asked him, ‘Is he all right?’”
The chaplin asked Swimm if she was alone. Then, his next words were lost in a dense fog.
“For a few minutes, I couldn’t understand what he was telling me,” Swimm said. “His words were nothing but a jumbled mess.”
Then, the fog lifted when she heard a soft, “momma.”
“Hold, are you all right?” Swimm asked her son. “And, in a weak voice, he said, ‘No momma. My neck is broke and I can’t feel my legs. Mom, I am scared.”
With those words, Swimm broke down.
“I started screaming and crying,” she remembers. “My daughter came running just as I was about to hit the floor.”
Michaela stayed with her mother as she held the phone listening for more details.
A haunting addiction
This was the second time that Swimm almost lost her son. A few years ago, Gray accidentally overdosed. But, thanks to Officers Stephen Nason and Zeke Collins of the Houlton Police Department, he made it to the hospital in the nick of time.
This time, Gray had gone to Colorado to start fresh. Or, so he had hoped.
His mother’s nephew, Spc. Justin Michael Bither, had been deployed to Afghanistan and Gray was going to assist Justin’s wife in his absence. But, Gray’s addiction tagged along.
“We were having a little party at my house where I was living,” Gray recalls. “We … me and my buddy … went to the store to get more snacks, food and alcohol.”
While at the store, the duo also picked up a can of dust remover.
“We were on our way back,” Gray explained. “We were almost home. My buddy was driving and he had on his seatbelt of course. I usually had mine on, but I wasn’t wearing it. We started taking hits off the air duster.”
Right before the accident, Gray admitted he took one last hit from the aerosol can.
“I was holding it in as long as I could,” he said. “I could feel myself going under, like blacking out … So, I sat the can off the to side. I blew out the air. I leaned toward the window and blacked out.”
Gray has no recollection of what happened next.
“An animal ran out in front of us,” Gray said. “My buddy swerved, but when he did, he swerved too far. When he went to correct it, he accidentally overcorrected and we hit a tree doing between 45 and 50 miles per hour.”
Since Gray was unconscious, he can only guess what happened to him in the vehicle.
“I was leaning toward the window and when we hit the tree, my momentum threw my upper body forward and the air bag met me halfway, hitting just my face and snapping my neck.”
When Gray came to, he was sitting upright.
“From right underneath my jaw line all the way to my feet was like severe pins and needles,” he said. “I thought we had gotten home and that I was having a weird effect from the air duster. I had no idea we had been in an accident.”
Gray said his friend kept trying to tell him they had been in a car crash. “I was like ‘Dude, quit lying to me.’ And, please, get me out of this car.”
As his buddy raced around the corner of the car and opened the passenger’s door, he went to pull Gray from the car. He didn’t know Gray was critically injured.
“He didn’t know it was my spinal cord and not to pick me up by my arm pits,” Gray explained. “So, when he picked me up, I let out this little cry. He let go because it scared him. I fell out of the passenger’s seat and landed on top of my head, while my legs were still in the car. I laid there forever waiting.”
A nurse had been driving a car behind the duo when the crash happened and was first on the scene.
Reliving the news
Doctors worked to stabilize Gray so he could be airlifted to Denver’s St. Anthony’s Central Hospital.
After what seemed like an eternity to Swimm, the phone rang an hour later. It was Dr. Puschak. They were rushing Gray into surgery. There was nothing Swimm could do over the next hours but pray.
“Dr. Puschak called and told me Holden had come through the surgery,” Swimm said. “He explained that Holden suffered from a very severe fracture and dislocation of the C6 and C7 vertebrae, with a complete spinal cord injury rendering him a quadrapalegic. The doctor had to fuse his neck from C3 to T3 and decompress his spinal cord.”
With all that said, Swimm was then told the words she didn’t want to hear. “Your son will never walk again,” Dr. Puschak said.
“I was heartbroken,” Swimm said.
As she sat there, Swimm could only think of how far away her son was and how was she going to get to him.
“My nephew’s wife, was at the hospital with Holden,” Swimm said. “I am so very thankful for my family and friends, as well as the people I didn’t even know who donated money to us. A huge thank you to my boyfriend, who has been right by my side. He made sure Michaela and I got to Colorado.”
Upon arriving at St. Anthony’s Central Hospital, Dr. Puschak informed Swimm that her son’s injury was so severe that it was like someone had tried to remove Holden’s head.
“He shouldn’t have survived the accident,” Swimm said. “But, by the amazing grace of God, he did. And, I am so very thankful.”
Living through the tragedy
“Me and him, we are still friends,” said Gray of his buddy. “I don’t blame him. I should’ve had my seatbelt on and we shouldn’t have been doing that [hits off air duster] in the first place. We were just hanging out and having a good time.”
That good time so quickly can turn to disaster.
“I definitely would take it all back if I could,” Gray said. “People don’t understand … people take for granted their life and their bodies. Most people don’t understand how important it is just being able to move your feet. I can’t even sit myself up.”
When Gray was lying in his hospital bed after he found out he wouldn’t be able to walk again, he swore he would change.
“Before I was life flighted to Denver, I told myself, the chaplain and everyone else, I was done with drugs and everything,” Gray said. “I have been struggling with a drug addiction for five years.”
A young man’s dream
Gray has been approached by Pastor David Tuttle of Houlton to be a motivational speaker to those struggling with addiction.
“He is trying to get a Faith Detox Center in Houlton,” Gray said. “Houlton has a bad drug problem, especially with younger kids now a days. When I went to school, it wasn’t even half as bad as it is today.”
Gray plans on going back to school and getting his degree in behavorial and mental health studies and becoming a licensed drug and alcohol counselor.
“If I can prevent what happened to me for other kids,” he said. “I am going to do this 110 percent.”
Gray is now dependent upon others, but his spirit is strong.
“I still haven’t even begun to get used to this,” said Gray. “It’s been since Sept. 13. I did not believe in God at all before my accident, but doctors told me I should have died because of how it [my neck] broke. They told me I was very lucky to be alive. The only reason I am here is God gave me that second chance to help myself and others. I thank Him every day.”
Fundraiser to help
Gray returned to Houlton in December, and is still undergoing physical therapy through Madigan Home Health.
His mother will be holding a benefit supper and dance for her son in April.
“This will help us get a used van, with a wheelchair lift,” she said. “Anything that will help us, would be greatly appreciated.”
Anyone wishing to donate may do so by calling Swimm at 538-0491.