Alumni Association group boosts 'miracle' recovery following accident

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Father and son had just left a therapy appointment, one of many that Kyle Gilbert had completed in the previous year.

There will be even fewer moving forward — about one a week — a sign that Kyle’s recovery is not only on track but also ahead of schedule. Though for now, there is still work for Kyle to do.

And he’s making considerable progress.

This latest appointment, for example, focused on his left wrist, something doctors thought would require a follow-up procedure three months before.  

Now, the muscle is growing back and Kyle has been cleared from surgery, which the family calls a victory. Kyle returned home not knowing if he’d need additional surgeries — on his wrist or elsewhere — and thankfully, his mother Grace notes, he hasn’t.

“My wife and I decided that we were going to see this through,” Darren (Kyle’s father) said by phone, sitting next to Kyle after the therapy appointment. “The goal when we made this decision was to take it day-by-day, and we’re with him 24–7.”

Last year, one of many injuries that Kyle sustained was ulnar nerve damage above the elbow, which controls the movement and feeling in your fingers; over the last year or so, the damage has been repairing itself. Kyle experienced some initial numbness last year, though that’s nearly all gone, with Grace saying she’s shocked and happy with how her son continually proves everyone wrong.

A different set of standards used to apply to Kyle, a standout pitcher who helped lead the Penn State Baseball Club (PSBC) team to a World Series title in 2013 — he was named MVP of the squad while occupying the No. 1 spot in the pitching rotation, and graduated the same year. 

He excelled in both baseball and wrestling while attending high school in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, and quickly drew attention after arriving at Penn State. He made the PSBC D2 team as a freshman, made the PSBC D1 team as a sophomore, and remained a rotation starter for his final three seasons, winning the team’s Best Pitcher Award from 2011 to 2013. He also received second-team (2011) and first-team honors (2012, 2013) for the All-North American Region awards.

One particular example of Kyle’s grit is a regional tournament in which Kyle pitched 14 innings over two games in one day.

“He was lights out,” said Kris Park, a 2010 Penn State graduate and president of the Alumni Association’s Baseball Club Alumni Interest Group (AIG). “He carried us that day.”

While playing for the club team, Kyle earned a degree in chemical engineering and secured a job right out of school. That’s what drew him to Penn State, his father said, the ability to study that major while also continuing his athletic pursuits.

When he visited, “every student had Penn State gear on, and they had the No. 1 engineering program in the country,” Kyle said. And Grace added that Penn State is the only school that Kyle applied to — that’s how determined he was to become a Nittany Lion

He received several promotions after graduation, traveling the country while completing a technical associate program within the company. Then he received an engineering job offer in Houston early last spring, and he was set to visit and look for an apartment.

However, a snowboarding trip to Utah the week before changed everything.

Kyle fell 100-plus feet on his last run after mistakenly taking the wrong chute, absorbing major damage to his skull and basically everywhere else on his body. There were broken bones, nerve damage, and a host of fractures: eight spinal, two pelvic, one hip, and 20 in his left wrist.

Also, Kyle suffered a traumatic head injury. His skull was pressing into his brain, which was later relieved when doctors lifted the skull during surgery. Grace said the ultimate reason for her son’s recovery is his brain’s ability to heal and relearn basic actions that most people take for granted, such as walking and speaking clearly.  

But first, his life had to be saved.

A ski lift operator — who was on a break of all things — saw Kyle falling on the hill and then his body stopping. He immediately knew something was wrong, with Kyle falling in a way that he couldn’t control. The operator gave Kyle CPR and called in the accident to ski patrol, and Kyle was life-flighted to McKay-Dee Hospital in Utah for life-saving surgery.

After 12 days in the ICU at Utah, he boarded a flight to Harrisburg for additional surgeries and procedures at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. He stayed at the ICU in Hershey for another five days, before being transferred to Select Specialty Hospital in Harrisburg; he landed there because he was somewhat in limbo. He was stable enough to exit the ICU, though not recovered enough for a traditional rehab.

Back in Utah, Grace said her son remained in a haze, though he remembers hearing doctors say that he would never walk, talk, or feed himself again as his status remained fragile during the initial days following his fall.

Despite the grim prognosis, the family had another thought, one even more determined and rooted somewhat in defiance.  

“You don’t know our son,” Grace remembers telling them, speaking of her boy that she described as strong-willed and hard-headed growing up as a toddler. He’d argue with you before he could speak in full sentences, Grace remembers, so if anyone could defy the slim odds that the doctors were giving, she figured it was her son.

Kyle has come a long way since the day of the accident on March 21, 2016 — physically, mentally and emotionally — miraculously proving his parents right.

Most importantly, he’s alive.

When Kyle’s parents received a call last year notifying them of the accident, they flew out the next day to see their son. More specifically, they were told to take the first available flight and get to Utah as soon as possible. The family frantically tried to pack and take care of some housekeeping items, all while booking a flight. They heard the news late in the afternoon, too late to find available seats that day.

“It was the longest evening,” Grace said.

She and Darren flew out the following morning, with the trip taking more than seven hours after a layover. All the while they thought, Darren said, that doctors were keeping their son breathing just long enough so they could say goodbye.

Doctors routinely use the Glasgow Coma Scale to evaluate admitted patients. Three criteria (eye opening, verbal response, motor response) are ranked on a sliding scale of 1–4, 1-5, and 1–6 respectively, with 1 being the worst. Kyle rated an overall 3, a mere 1 in each criteria.

“He was in extreme critical condition when we flew there,” Darren said.

Kyle’s quality of life was a substantial concern, and the few days following the accident were crucial. He also survived that next test, which was significant, Darren said, because he was still in immediate danger.

Still, there seemed to be a sense, Grace said, that doctors felt they had already done everything they could do, and this was it for Kyle.

Doctors still thought Kyle wouldn’t ever be able to feed himself or talk. And if he could talk, it wouldn’t be in sentences. And forget about walking — that was the vibe in the hospital room.

But as Darren said, he and Grace decided they were going to see this through, and at times, it’s understandably difficult for them to talk about Kyle’s status without becoming emotional.

That’s because Kyle is capable of everything he was told he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. He walks, he talks, and he feeds himself. He also drove recently. He and his family have conversations, Darren said, in addition to playing poker.

Kyle Gilbert_recovery photo

 A year following a near-fatal accident, Kyle is recovering and beating expectations. He's able to walk, talk, feed himself, and also plays poker, in addition to recently driving. “He’s smart as a whip and everything else is still there," his father, Darren, said. 

Image: Gilbert family

He still spends time with friends and still possesses all of his engineering skills, with Grace calling him a mathematical wizard. His family routinely gave him addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems during his stay at Penn State Hershey Rehab, and Grace added that Kyle retained all of his memory.

While he continues progressing, Kyle’s recovery to-do list includes meeting with a specialist in Philadelphia to help with his voice — Darren said that Kyle’s speech and his balance will be areas of focus moving forward, though quickly adding, “He’s smart as a whip and everything else is still there.”

“I, along with most of his doctors, tend to be very amazed with how far he’s come — where he was six months ago to where is now,” Darren continued. “It gives us a lot of hope to where he’ll be six months from now."

Kyle’s various hospital rooms always had visitors, as family and friends routinely stopped by, ensuring Kyle was never alone. Former club players also visited and relayed updates to other lettermen.

Kyle’s parents never left his bedside. They would take turns sitting with him day and night, and if they couldn’t at any point, friends and family stepped in to help. “We never wanted him to wake up and be alone,” Grace said.

Grace remembers eight former teammates stopping by the first time they saw him after the accident, and she choked up while recalling that memory.

“That was extremely awesome,” she said, noting that the group surpassed hospital limits for guests, though everyone was allowed to stay. Kyle wasn’t overly awake at the time, though he was aware enough to know what was happening, and it meant a lot to him that the guys all stopped by as soon as he returned to Pennsylvania.  

The Baseball Club AIG had operated informally for a few years until some players who graduated in the early 2000s helped get the organization officially chartered by the Alumni Association in 2012.

Kyle is a member of the group, as is every former ballplayer, and the AIG features 172 players from 1996 to2016. Kyle regularly attended the AIG’s alumni weekend, in addition to tailgates and holiday regional dinners.

That’s typical of AIG members, as Park said the baseball lettermen always had a close-knit bond, and the team’s annual alumni weekend typically drew a good crowd. “A ton of guys would come back,” he said, referencing the events that included an alumni game and banquet.

The AIG helped streamline communications, and that’s how most players heard about Kyle’s accident. Teammate and catcher Wyatt Thompson (2013 Penn State graduate) sent a Facebook message to the group, which Park said resulted in an outpouring of support.

At first, former teammates wanted to know where Kyle was and when they could see him, and the seemingly nonstop visits followed shortly after he arrived in Harrisburg from Utah. 

Then, the AIG created a fundraiser to benefit Kyle and his recovery. The group’s fundraising period typically runs from March to May, so “it was a no-brainer from an organizational perspective,” Park said.

The AIG contributed half of the money raised to Kyle, with Park saying many players gave a gift, even if they didn’t know Kyle directly.

The reason for that, Park said, was because guys wanted to support a fellow Penn State Baseball Club ballplayer. In total, the AIG has raised more than $30,000 for the current club team since 2011, and the organization saw record-level numbers for donors and donations in a single year, with Park attributing that to the proceeds going to Kyle’s medical expenses.  

“A lot of these guys still have a really good connection,” Darren said, adding that he still often thinks about his son leading the Nittany Lions to a World Series title.

The money had a significant impact, with Grace saying it helped with her taking time off work and for gas; the family routinely made the approximate 90-minute round-trip from their home to Hershey for Kyle’s rehab assignments, making the drive every day while Kyle was in the ICU and then three or four times a week afterward.

Grace noted she’d have taken off work to be home with Kyle anyway, as he was at-risk for falling, though the extra money added a sense of comfort while the family helped Kyle recover.

“It made things a lot easier and the boys’ concern and eagerness to help us was extremely touching and much appreciated,” Grace said.

Baseball occupied such a large part of her son’s college experience, as Kyle lived in the baseball house for two years, creating a camaraderie that lasted well after graduation.

That’s one reason why it was tough to see Kyle confined to a hospital bed, with Park saying, “We always saw him as super-energetic and super-competitive.”

And that competitiveness shines through, as Kyle recently went snowboarding for the first time since his accident, returning to Utah and even seeing the doctors and nurses who treated him.

Additionally, he wanted to apply for a season snowboarding pass, though it seems his family was able to talk him into waiting just a little bit longer for that next step.  

Though in some ways, he was still there, Darren said. In his mind, he could imagine himself snowboarding, much like he did four or five times a week after college, or when he started on the local slopes in high school. Or even in Utah, where he traveled with a friend before he temporarily became sidetracked before entering the next phase of his professional career.  

Kyle Gilbert_work photo

Kyle received several promotions after graduation, traveling the country while completing a technical associate program within the company. Now, he plans to enroll at Penn State Harrisburg to earn his MBA and also possibly work with ThinkFirst, a safety-focused organization.  

Image: Gilbert family

That word “temporarily” is key, since Kyle still has plans to move forward. He’s looking at enrolling in Penn State Harrisburg to earn his MBA, and also hoping to work with ThinkFirst, a safety-focused organization. Grace said that speaking at high schools is one option, and Kyle indicates he’s ready to get involved, saying if it were up to him, he’d have returned to work six months ago.  

Kyle recently returned to University Park to attend alumni weekend for the club team in late April, when the team celebrated its 20th anniversary. He reconnected with former teammates, heard how everyone is doing, and also met the current players.

Most of all, he was one of the guys, and perhaps last year’s accident didn't feel like it happened so recently, considering how much improvement he’s made in the short time since.

“He’s kind of a miracle,” Darren said of his son.

“We believed right from the start, that’s been our word. Once he moved his fingers the first day (after the accident) and seemed to recognize who we were, we believed he would be back.”

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Alumni Association's monthly e-newsletter for enrolled members. Visit the Alumni Association's website for options on joining. 

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Last Updated May 15, 2017