Broken neck can’t keep Louisiana girl down

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 11, 2009

NEW LLANO, La. (AP) — Seven months ago, a nurse told Jan Veintidos he would never move or walk again. The 17-year-old junior at Pickering High School wants to return to show her she was wrong.

The nurse wasn’t being cold or cruel — just realistic, he said, considering the injuries to his neck and three vertebrae.

He recounts his emergency trip to LSU Hospital in Shreveport after he tried to block an East Beaurgard High School linebacker on Oct. 10.

Email newsletter signup

‘‘I couldn’t talk and I had to mouth everything,’’ Vientidos said. ‘‘I remember mouthing the question, ’Will I ever be able to move or walk again?’ and she answered, ’No, you won’t.’’’

His injury was only one grade below the maximum — the grade that left actor Christopher Reeves paralyzed from the neck down from 1995 until his death in 2004.

But Vientidos is walking, talking, and going to classes again at Pickering, where he was a wingback for the football team and a college prospect as a 400-meter runner for the track team.

He continues therapy at the Louisiana Rehabilitation Center in Leesville. He recently began to be able to use his hands as he talks. He says he often has little or no feeling under his neck.

But that’s light years from six months ago.

He remembers teammate Paul Marcantel, the Red Devils’ other starting running back and the son of Pickering coach James Marcantel, walking up to him and sticking his hand out. Veintidos said, ‘‘Paul, I think I can’t breathe and can’t move.’’’

He was rushed to East Beauregard Medical Center, then Fort Polk and, finally, LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport. He underwent surgery Oct. 11 in Shreveport to fuse two vertebrae and remove part of his spinal cord to reduce the swelling in his neck.

‘‘There was a critical period when he was on the respirator,’’ coach Marcantel said. ‘‘It was touch and go.’’

He began improving immediately after his mother, Zelma, and LSU Hospital got him moved to Children’s Hospital in New Orleans.

‘‘When he first came here, he couldn’t sit up by himself,’’ said 51-year-old physical therapist Lori Boyter, whom Veintidos called his ‘‘godmother.’’

‘‘He had just come off the ventilator, so he was pretty weak, but he was so determined and so courageous,’’ Boyter said. ‘‘It is extremely difficult to walk after such an injury.

‘‘Initially, it took five of us to walk him 50 feet in 45 minutes. By the time he left, he could walk 500 feet, and I was just beside him. That’s a gigantic change.’’

Veintidos said he ‘‘broke down’’ one night in Children’s Hospital after trying vainly for an hour to push a button on his television remote to change the channel. ‘‘I kept thinking, ’Why? Why?’’’

For the most part, though, he was an extraordinary patient, going above and beyond the time required for both physical and occupational therapy sessions, making friends with everyone and giving nicknames to nearly everyone.

‘‘He had every reason to be frustrated and upset,’’ said Boyter, ‘‘but he went out of his way to encourage the other kids here. He was an inspiration to the staff, the patients and the patients’ families. He had a steady determination to get back on his feet, and he did it against the odds.’’

Veintidos said he couldn’t have done it without the help of those at the hospital.

‘‘I had some of the best doctors and some of the best nurses in the world,’’ he said.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Saints coach Sean Payton, who lavished him with memorabilia, and former LSU coach Nick Saban all visited him there.

The day Veintidos left Children’s Hospital was bittersweet for some.

‘‘He had a million moms here, and everybody was so happy he could go home, but sad because we’d miss him so,’’ Boyter said.

Veintidos had vowed that he wouldn’t leave in a wheelchair — he’d roll on the floor or he’d walk out. Ultimately, he agreed to be wheeled to the lobby, but not out of it.

‘‘There were some nurses around and Jeff, my rec therapist, was beside me,’’ Veintidos recalled. ‘‘I had to rock myself, 1, 2, 3, and I stood up.’’