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Saturday, August 13, 2022

Strong Survivor

On a cloudy Sunday morning in March 2006, 17-year-old Ben Trockman sat astride his motorcycle, scanning the hills and turns of the dirt track that stretched before him. The Harrison High School junior was poised at the starting line of a motocross race in Poole, Ky. Earlier that morning, organizers had talked of canceling the competition due to low turnout. That was fine with Ben. Something didn’t feel right that day: The track seemed poorly constructed and dangerous, and Ben — the older, stronger rider — had lagged behind his younger brother, Josh, in practice runs.

The boys’ mother, Jill, and their father, Vanderburgh Superior Court Judge Wayne Trockman, stood on the sidelines as the race began. As Ben swung his bike around a hard right turn, swooped down a hill, then prepared to jump a smaller hill, Jill saw his body fly through the air. She had watched her younger son and husband fall — breaking elbows, ankles, fingers, and shoulders — so “I really didn’t think anything of it,” she says. Wayne and a family friend hurried to check on Ben. Soon, the friend ran back to Jill and said, “Stay away.”

Ben lay motionless on the ground, fighting to breathe as panicked spectators and paramedics swarmed around him. Wayne performed CPR until a helicopter airlifted Ben to Deaconess Hospital. As his family drove 40 minutes back to Evansville, says Jill, “we didn’t know if he was still alive.”

Nine days later, Ben woke up at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta, with no idea why he couldn’t feel or move anything below his neck. After enduring a massive spinal cord injury often likened to actor Christopher Reeve’s, the outgoing, popular, sports-loving Evansville teen was paralyzed. That day, he began a journey of healing that would lead him to some of the nation’s most prominent medical facilities before he came home to be helped — and to help others as this year’s adult representative for Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center.

After Ben, now 21, woke up in Atlanta surrounded by family, pieces of the story slowly came together. At the motocross track in Kentucky, he’d fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae — the highest in the neck — and severely damaged his spinal cord. Photographs showed that a steady stream of visitors had brought flowers and cards during his initial hospitalization in Evansville.

He would spend the next three months under acute care at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital that specializes in spinal cord injury. There, Ben underwent daily physical therapy to stimulate his spinal cord and strengthen his muscles so they didn’t atrophy. He learned to operate a wheelchair using breath controls. He met with counselors and tutors who helped him catch up on schoolwork. The hardest lesson, Ben says, simply was adjusting. “I thought, ‘This is just a bad dream. I’m tougher than this,’” Ben says. “Slowly, it just sank in. I had a lot of down times in the beginning. You think, ‘Do I really want to live now? Do I want to do this forever?’ But quickly, you’re reminded of what a great life you still have.”

One reminder came when Ben returned home in June 2006 to recuperate at Solarbron Pointe while renovations were being completed to make his family’s East Side home wheelchair accessible. When the Trockmans drove onto the rehabilitation campus, the Harrison High School marching band played, and nearly 200 friends and relatives lined the streets, greeting him with applause, balloons, and posters reading, “We Missed You, Ben.” “They were just open arms,” says Ben. “I just broke down. It was really awesome to be back.”

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Just three weeks later, though, he left again for a stint at Baltimore’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. There, he endured another round of intensive therapy under the direction of Dr. John McDonald, a renowned neurologist and research scientist who cared for Superman actor Christopher Reeve after he was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident. McDonald knew many experts believed that spinal cord injury patients made the biggest gains within six months, and improvements after two years were impossible. He founded the center because he believed they were wrong.

So does Patty Balbach, a physical therapist at Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville, who began working with Ben after he returned home to finish his senior year at Harrison. (Ben graduated with his class in 2007.) Balbach earned a physical therapy degree from Indiana University in 1979, and while other young therapists pursued high-paying specialties in orthopedics and sports medicine, she joined the nonprofit Easter Seals — which serves approximately 5,000 children and adults with disabilities regardless of their ability to pay. Approximately 95 percent of clients receive financial assistance. “I knew Easter Seals was there,” says Jill. “I knew that they had the Home Run Sweeps house auction and the Fantasy of Lights, but I never had been inside until Ben got hurt. It’s amazing what they do.”

Although doctors once told Ben he never would feel or move anything below his neck, he’s made significant gains in his twice-weekly sessions with Balbach. With assistance, he’s been able to bicep curl 10 pounds and bench press 45 pounds. He has moved his feet and legs and feels sensations in his arms, legs, and chest.

With a spinal cord injury, Balbach says, no doctor can say with certainty how much ability the patient will — or won’t — regain. “If you can get some movement, then something’s getting there,” she says. “A flicker may be all we ever get, but unless we try, we never will know.”

The uncertain nature of recovery is taxing, but Jill says her son has grown stronger in response to the challenges. “You don’t know what your children have inside of them,” Jill says. “I couldn’t take it nearly as well as he has. He has the best attitude, and he always is trying to help someone else.”

Ben peppers his sentences with words such as “lucky,” “happy,” and “blessed.” He has a lively sense of humor — teaching his brother, Josh (now a 19-year-old Indiana University student), to drive a wheelchair and teasing student physical therapists at Easter Seals by shouting, “Ow! You broke my arm!” He’s a junior at the University of Southern Indiana studying radio and TV broadcasting; after meeting News 25 producers and anchors during the Easter Seals telethon, they offered him a fall internship. His career goal is to become a sports announcer, but more importantly, “I want to help as many people as I can along the way,” Ben says.

He’s doing just that as this year’s adult representative for Easter Seals. In April, he helped the rehabilitation center raise a record-setting $941,840 at its annual telethon, and he travels around the community sharing his story. Reliving his horrific accident “is OK with me,” Ben says, “because I don’t want people staring and wondering, ‘What’s wrong with that kid?’ I want people to know there are people out there who need help, who have injuries. Their lives have changed, but they still are people, too.”

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