Archive for Wednesday, September 30, 1992

KU RUNNER FACES LONG PATHWAY TO RECOVERY

September 30, 1992

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— Minutes after he was struck by a car early this month, Jeremy McClain was standing. Hours later, doctors were trying to save his lower left leg. Days later, he was a coin flip away from dying.

But the roller coaster ride that McClain has been on for about the last month seems to have evened out after screaming through intense pain and making a free fall toward death.

The ride started Sept. 2, when McClain was struck by a car at 23rd and Louisiana streets. The car, driven by a man who was trying to beat a yellow light, knocked McClain out of his shoes, through the air and into a stopped car. McClain said he hit the stopped car so hard that the driver thought the car had been struck by another vehicle.

McClain, 19, was a Kansas University cross country runner at the time. He was running about 70 miles a week, having conditioned his lungs over the summer by training in the thin mountain air in Boulder, Colo.

DURING AN interview Tuesday at his parents' home in Overland Park, it was clear that although the ride's most terrifying dips and twists are over, McClain still faces a long and uncertain road to recovery.

"The doctors said it would take my lungs six months to heal," he said. "They don't know whether there's going to be any scarring or not. It (recovery) may be 100 percent, it may be 50 percent nobody knows for sure.

"It's just kind of a waiting game."

That's a game McClain's family has been playing for most of the past four weeks. Shortly after he was taken to the KU Medical Center, Kansas City, Kan., the family waited to see whether doctors would have to amputate his left foot or his crushed lower left leg.

On Sept. 5, the family began waiting to see whether McClain would survive a complication known as Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, in which fat escaping from broken bones pools in the lungs.

MCCLAIN WAS placed under total sedation and hooked to life-support machines while pure oxygen was pumped into his lungs.

"My mom said I was hooked up to nine different machines at one time," he said.

He said his heart rate was over 120 beats a minute double its normal resting rate for more than two weeks.

He said his parents, Gene a former KU track standout and Linda, stayed with him throughout the ordeal.

"I feel sorry for them, because they were conscious for the whole three and a half weeks," McClain said. "Consciously, I was only there about a week."

Although he doesn't remember it, he said, the support he received from his parents and their friends helped him through. He said doctors told him that his heart rate increased whenever he heard his mother's voice and when his minister visited.

LATER, he said, he learned that the ARDS survival rate is 50 percent. Had his cardiovascular system not been in such good shape, the coin toss may have gone the other way.

"When I got out of ICU, they told me I had the lungs of an 80-year-old," he said.

McClain was sent home from KUMC on Friday. His current struggles are with boredom and the oxygen tank he must use every time he gets up.

In two or three weeks, he said, he would undergo surgery to replace the temporary rod in his lower left leg. After that, he said, he would know more about his chances of running again.

If McClain is dispirited about the accident, it's tough to detect. He said he had no plans to sue Christian Watson, the driver of the car that struck him.

"He visited me twice and has written me letters," he said. "Besides that, I'm sure his insurance company is not liking life right now. My bills are way up there."

He smiles when describing details that make a reporter and two visitors from his fraternity cringe. Take this one, which comes in response to a question about his condition right after the accident.

"This leg was pretty much just jelly," he said, looking at his left leg. "There wasn't much substance underneath the knee."

MCCLAIN described the pain as "excruciating." In addition, two of his front teeth were knocked out and he suffered a long gash on his right knee.

On Thursday, McClain will go to a dentist. After the second leg operation, he'll begin to undergo intense physical therapy. And in the coming weeks, doctors will re-examine his lungs.

McClain said that although the wild ride still has some uncertain turns, he has one clear destination.

"I'll be back next semester," he said. "I will be back."

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