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Family, faith and fight fuel student's recovery

By Sarah Shew
On December 7, 2012

For Hunter Heck, every day is a fight. For the last two months, his days have been filled with trips to critical care units, rigorous occupational and physical therapy schedules, and prayer.

After several serious injuries, two major surgeries and a T12/L1 spinal cord injury resulting in paraplegia, recovery is an arduous, continuous process for the junior engineering major. But according to his cousin Nick Mara, the word "can't" isn't in Heck's vocabulary.

At 12:53 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, an Oxford Police Department (OPD) SUV struck Heck while he and Mara walked across the intersection of West Spring Street and College Avenue, according to OPD Sgt. Varley. The streets were wet with the night's heavy rain, and the light the SUV passed through was green. The Ohio State Highway Patrol is conducting an investigation of the accident and the final report will be returned to OPD in the upcoming weeks.

Because the investigation is ongoing, Oxford police declined to comment on the details of the accident.

"Obviously our thoughts and prayers go to Hunter and his family," OPD chief Bob Holzworth said.

The action taken in response to this accident depends on the findings, according to Oxford police.

"The night of the accident was the worst night of my life," Mara said. "I could honestly just leave it at that and it would be enough... it haunts my mind all the time. If it was my choice I would be the one in the hospital."

For Mara, seeing the pain of someone he compares to a brother has been particularly difficult, but Heck's continued improvements give him hope.

"The first time I saw him he didn't look like he was alive..." he said. "He didn't resemble himself in the least; he looked like a science project with tubes in his skin and in his mouth and his entire body was swelled up. Every time I've seen him he's looked better and better and now he looks like himself, a bit thinner, but now I actually see Hunter instead of a body."

Heck is currently recovering at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), where he has daily therapy sessions to improve his speech, vision and mobility due to his spinal cord and brain injuries. He was able to do an interview via Facebook chat messages.

"I came to the RIC because it is the best in the world for spinal cord rehab and we pray and are hopeful I will someday recover," Heck said. "However, we have been told if I do recover from this it could take up to two years."

Faith keeps Hunter and the Heck family going, with friends and relatives posting on the Facebook group, Pray for Hunter. Hunter's mom, Hayley, posts frequent updates of his progress sprinkled with expressions of gratitude toward God and the more than 3,000 group members. Prayer and trust in God underscore each status, post and comment, with Hunter's favorite verse, Philippians 4: 13, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, listed in the group's description section. Many of the posts have more than five hundred "Likes," and numerous comments of support and prayer.

"Hunter needs prayer for strength, endurance and progress," wrote Mrs. Heck on Dec. 4. "He has trouble keeping food down and has lost so much weight... He had a great session in OT today and worked very, very hard but it takes so much out of him, he is exhausted!" After over two months filled with constant struggles, the most recent of which being serious blood infections, Mrs. Heck feels like her son is starting recovery all over again, but she writes that even though each day is a new challenge, she and her son are ready.

Mara said Heck's character allows him to be strong for these daily challenges.

"If he really wants to do something, he is going to push himself and fight on as long as it takes until he can actually do it," Mara said. "Most people would get down, most would hate the world, but Hunter is ready to take on anything and he won't slow down. I haven't once heard anything close to a complaint."

Tabby Waxler met Heck three years a go through her boyfriend Zach Fischer, who lives with Heck this year. She agreed that Heck is highly ambitious.

"He is always the one motivating everyone else," she said.

Waxler said she most admires Heck for his openness.

"He is an extremely open person and doesn't see a need to hide anything about himself, which is something I really admire about him," she said.

Both Waxler and Mara said Heck has a big personality, and is definitely a free spirit. Mara called him "incredibly athletic," saying, "he could watch a YouTube video of how to do a flip, then seconds later he would try it and most times he would succeed the first time."

Waxler called him the "wild one - he is the flirt, the extremist, the most energetic, and the most out-going" out of his four roommates. Even with this spontaneous nature, she said Heck is incredibly caring.

"If you're having a bad day, Hunter would genuinely be willing to listen to your problems, even if he doesn't necessarily care about the issues, he cares about you as a person," she said.

Waxler remembered finding out about the accident the next morning at Heck's house, after spending the night with Fischer.

"I was the first one up in the morning and noticed that Hunter's door was open and his desk light was still on," she said. "Ever since we came to college I don't think there has ever been a night that Hunter hasn't come home at some point, so the first thing I said to Zach was 'Hmm, I wonder who Hunter hooked up with last night! He didn't even come home!' Then about five minutes later Jake, one of Hunter's best friends, walked in the door and told Zach and I what happened."

Mara has visited his cousin numerous times since the accident.

"I actually got to spend the night just me and him in his hospital bed not too long ago," Mara said. "That was the first time we've had, just me and him, since the accident, we just talked about everything as well as nothing at all for the whole night and I've never been so thankful to just talk to someone."

Mrs. Heck reiterated this gratitude for Heck's survival and improving health.

"Our family is so extremely thankful we have our Hunter here with us after such a terrible ordeal," she wrote in a post. "People suffer, get sick or hurt, life doesn't make sense sometimes; but our heavenly Father assures us. He hears our cries and is right there with us."

Heck, and his family continue to lean on faith for strength and healing in the coming months. "I want students to know that even though the doctors told us that he probably should have died at three different times during that night, he can still make jokes with me and he keeps his faith and strength in God and has not once stopped fighting..." Mara said. "He might not be the biggest guy in the world as far as the world sees him, but I consider him to be one of the biggest people I know, biggest heart, biggest inspiration and biggest character," he added.

After his most recent trip to critical care, Heck said Sunday, "I'm finally starting to feel better now... Recovery has been very hard and extremely painful and will last a long time."

When asked what students can do to support him, Heck simply replied, "Just keep the prayers coming. They're greatly appreciated!"

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