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West Ottawa teen leaving hospital after 100 days of recovery following crash

16-year-old Sam Smalldon has been at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital since September, recovering from a brain injury.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A West Michigan athlete is getting ready to go home after 100 days at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. It's been more than three months since the 16-year-old West Ottawa student was in a car crash that left him in critical condition. 

It's clear from Sam Smalldon's last inpatient physical therapy session Thursday afternoon that he is in much better shape, moving and joking around, and he's dedicated to continuing that progress. 

"The fact that we got here is just a miracle in and of itself," says his mother Jill Smalldon. 

He's been in recovery after suffering multiple skull fractures, two brain bleeds, as well as broken bones and bruises due to the crash this past September.

"At first we weren't even sure he was going to survive. He had open brain surgery the night of his accident," Smalldon says. 

She has been at his side during physical therapy. It took Sam more than a month before he could walk and talk again.

"He wasn't even talking and wasn't mobile. He was bed bound 24 hours a day," Smalldon says. "There is so much more control over all of that now, he is walking almost fully on his own. And speech wise, his verbalizations, now we've hit the other end of the spectrum, and it's constant. Which, of course, we're happy for."

His speech and language therapist, Riley Frens, was there for his first words since the accident. He said "Hi, mom."

"We're all in tears. And Sam's just happy that everyone's so happy," she says. "He doesn't get like, what a huge moment that was for him in his recovery. And within a week he was speaking with a higher volume, you could understand what he was saying. And he was saying a variety of words and phrases. So it was a really fast trajectory with that."

Frens says he still has some difficulty with his short-term memory, along with speaking and swallowing. Sam has a diffuse axonal brain injury, which affects the neurons and how they communicate.

"The neurons are covered by myelin. And that helps make it slick and communicate fast and efficiently. With a shearing injury like Sam has, a lot of times that myelin will break down and make it so they can't communicate as well," she says. "Unfortunately, neurons can't regrow, you can't regain that myelin, but what you can do is strengthen all of the remaining neurons that you have in the myelin that's still in place. So the goal with any brain injury, but especially with a young brain injury like Sam, and someone who's dedicated, is figuring out how to remap your brain and use what you have."

She says she is confident and hopeful that one day, he can drive and finish school.

"I know he will have some difficulties throughout life, considering the severity of his injury. But he also is so hard-working and dedicated, and he has the best family support."

"It's unbelievable, this place has been such a gift," Smalldon says. 

Sam gets to go home Friday, and then he'll continue physical, occupational and speech therapy twice a week. For now, he'll start with some schooling at home until he's ready to return in-person. 

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