Michigan teen wasn't suppose to survive radical surgery, but he did

HOWELL, MICH. - When Jake Bontekoe took his son to the hospital after the boy and his brother collided on their motorcycles in a cornfield, it was precautionary. 

Or so he thought. Bontekoe had no idea 12-year-old Max was bleeding internally, or that the only hope to save his life would be a radical procedure where surgeons removed his liver, repaired the damage and reattached the organ.  

The surgery had never been done successfully before – not in a trauma situation. 

Bontekoe also didn't know his son’s heart would stop both during and after surgery, or that they'd both spend the next six months in the hospital as Max, in a medically induced coma for the first eight weeks, encountered one dangerous complication after another. 

Today, the zipper-like scar running from neck to navel is the only indication his life nearly ended a few days before he was to begin seventh grade. 

In June, Max graduated on time with the Hartland High School Class of 2017.

‘He’s hurt really bad’

In late August 2011, Jake and Betsy Bontekoe were preparing to host a “summer’s last hurrah” cookout with friends at their Deerfield Township home. 

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Max and his brother Harrison, then 14, asked if they could go riding with Jack near the cornfield, about a quarter-mile from the house, before the rest of the guests arrived. 

An avid motorcyclist himself, Jake Bontekoe had allowed his sons to buy the bikes with money they’d earned raising 4-H pigs and working on the family’s 1,000 acre dairy farm, with one caveat: the motorcycles had to remain untouched until the end of the school year.

“I was encouraging my boys to have straight As in school, so I…put the bikes in the office in my house. They couldn’t touch them until...they brought home report cards for that year with all As.”

It was an intense school year, but ultimately the boys succeeded.

They had been riding the motorcycles all summer, and, like always, strapped on helmets before heading out. 

Bontekoe turned on the grill and was slapping hamburger into patties when he realized he could no longer hear the motorcycles.  

A few moments later, Jack called from the cornfield. The brothers had crashed into one another. Max was hurt. 

Bontekoe jumped in his truck and drove to the site, where he found Max’s Honda CRV 150 bent and tangled with his brother’s bike. 

“Harrison is dazed, he’s just walking around in a circle,” Bontekoe said. “Max is standing there holding his stomach. Jack keeps saying ‘Max is hurt. He’s hurt really bad.’”

Max doesn’t remember much after the crash, but he does remember how it happened: he and Jack went to find his brother, who’d split from the group during the ride.

“He just kind of disappeared,” Max said. “When we were going around the corner of the field, we couldn’t see over the corn, and here comes Harry coming the other way. We hit head on.”

He remembers terrible pain in his shoulder and abdomen, a tire mark across his chest, and climbing into his dad’s truck to go to the hospital. 

And he remembers briefly waking up in the helicopter.

‘Something’s not right’ 

On the way to St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital in Howell, Bontekoe was concerned, but not overly worried.  After he and the boys’ mother divorced, and before he and Betsy married, he'd spent the larger part of the last dozen years as a single father. Bumps and bruises for the boys were part of the process. 

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© 2017 LIvingston Daily


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