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Hanover teen inspires in battling near-fatal brain infection

HANOVER, Pa. (AP) – July 31 was a special occasion for the scholars in South Western High School’s class of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had derailed their closing semester and delayed their commencement ceremony by greater than two months. On that Friday night, they have been lastly in a position to have a good time all they’d achieved.

Among these dressed in lengthy black robes with matching black mortar boards was Sam Zimmerman. He and some dozen of his classmates processed down from the highschool and into the Mustang Corral, strolling by the identical signal that greets soccer gamers on Friday nights:



The pandemic had created many new challenges. A sudden transition to distant studying. The cancellation of spring sports activities. A palpable degree of uncertainty, particularly for seniors.

But even at simply 18 years outdated, Sam was no stranger to adversity.

At a look, he seems no totally different than the typical teenager. You may not discover that certainly one of his eyebrows doesn’t appear to maneuver or see the faint indentations that run down the suitable facet of his brow.

And you actually wouldn’t know that eight years in the past he battled in opposition to a uncommon brain infection that docs mentioned ought to have kil-led him.

Sam’s title was the final one to be referred to as out that late July day.

As he acquired as much as obtain his diploma, along with his household cheering him on from the stands, he was overcome with emotion.

For Sam, graduating highschool was a milestone, upon a mountain of many milestones, he is aware of he was by no means promised.

The medical thriller

It all began with a excessive fever and an intense pounding in his head.

It was April 2012. Sam was 9 years outdated and in the fourth grade at William Penn Elementary in Bethel Park, the western Pennsylvania city the place he grew up. He had just lately developed a brand new ardour in his life – enjoying ice hockey. The solely factor he actually loved about faculty was gymnasium class, solely as a result of that’s when he acquired to play flooring hockey.

One day that April he was feeling so ailing that his grandparents picked him up from faculty and took him to the physician. He was recognized with strep throat and informed to go residence, eat loads of ice cream and relaxation up.

But his conditioned solely worsened in the next days.

His temperature wouldn’t keep down and all the pieces he ate and drank stored coming again up. His household took him to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, the place docs concluded that he should be affected by appendicitis and eliminated his appendix.

He was discharged quickly after however wasn’t recovering in addition to anticipated. Less than per week later he awakened and instantly knew one thing was improper: the whole left facet of his physique was para-lyzed. His mother and father referred to as 911, and he was rushed by ambulance again to Children’s.

Sam remembers mendacity in his hospital mattress and searching up at his mother and father, who have been each crying and hugging one another. At simply 9 years outdated, he was confused at what was occurring and the way no person knew what was occurring along with his physique.

The docs positioned Sam into an MRI machine, which confirmed he had suffered a stro-ke. While nonetheless in the machine, he began to have a seizure. He was rushed into the working room the place he underwent a four-hour-long craniectomy, a process in which a part of his cranium was eliminated to alleviate strain and to wash out an space of his brain that had grow to be contaminated.

Jeff and Lindsay Zimmerman have been informed there was a excessive chance their son wouldn’t even make it by means of the operation.

“They kept coming out more than once telling us, ‘You need to prepare his final arrangements. He is not going to make it,’” Lindsay mentioned.

The first 48 hours after the operation have been very touch-and-go. His mother and father have been informed that he wasn’t out of the woods but and that if he have been to outlive, he may by no means stroll or speak once more. He will surely by no means play ice hockey ever once more for the remainder of his life.

“‘Don’t get your hopes up just because he’s awake and he’s moving or he might be talking a little bit,’” Lindsay recalled them saying.

“‘Do not get your hopes up because this can go downhill at any time.’”

Sam was in restoration in the ICU for greater than two weeks. For the primary few days his eyes wouldn’t open due to the swelling. He shocked everybody when he regained a few of his speech and mobility. One day he was ready to enter the lavatory and eventually noticed the aftermath of what had occurred to him.

“I see my reflection in the mirror, and I have no hair. I’m missing part of my skull. And my eyes are swollen. And I was screaming and crying, ‘I’m a monster. I’m ugly,’” Sam recalled.

Hospital employees got here dashing into his room on the sound of his cries, pondering he wanted pressing medical consideration.

“(But) it was just me seeing my reflection for the very first time.”

Igniting the hearth

Sam had been battling a pressure of strep referred to as streptococcus milleri, which had developed from a sinus infection. Instead of touring down by means of his throat, the bacterial infection did the reverse and shot upward, ultimately reaching his brain. The infection brought on him to endure a stro-ke, which is what ultimately led to the seizure he skilled contained in the MRI.

A couple of days after his surgical procedure he began to obtain bodily remedy. One of the workout routines he needed to do concerned pulling colourful beads out of a ball of putty. Another targeted on touching his thumbs to his index and center fingers, 5 instances on every hand. He nonetheless was relearning stroll on his personal and continuously needed to be moved across the hospital in a wheelchair.

Early one morning a resident physician got here into his room and awakened his mom. The physician informed Lindsay that Sam’s prognosis was grim. She was informed that he may nonetheless die. That his rehabilitation may crumble. That he would by no means be cleared to play a contact sport once more.

Sam was mendacity in his mattress, pretending to be asleep, however he heard all the pieces.

“Hearing those words, that’s what ignited the fire inside,” Sam mentioned.

“That’s when I knew that I’m facing life or dea-th. I either can go, or I can fight. And I chose the fight. I never gave up the hope.”

More than something, Sam simply needed the possibility to play hockey once more, to have the ability to hit the ice with all his buddies.

So he started to place in the trouble.

He confirmed a lot enchancment that his therapist allowed him to periodically go all the way down to a gymnasium space and play flooring hockey. At the tip of his two weeks in the ICU, he was even scoring targets.

He remained hospitalized for a number of extra weeks and needed to have a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter, or PICC line, inserted into his arm. The PICC supplied a means for medication and fluids to enter his physique and Sam vividly remembers it as being a really painful process that he was totally awake for.

Around a month after being rushed into Children’s, Sam was discharged from the hospital. He had been given a closely padded white helmet that protected his cranium – it nearly appeared slightly like the identical helmet he wore on the ice.

Lindsay mentioned that he was continuously ridiculed by individuals in public for his look. While out at a restaurant one night, a bunch of individuals sitting close by began laughing at Sam.

“We’ve actually had to go over and confront adults and ask them, ‘Would you appreciate it if I did this to your child?’”, Lindsay mentioned.

Sam underwent a cranioplasty in July of that 12 months to restore the lacking a part of his cranium. He and his household then launched into a a lot delayed journey to Walt Disney World two months later. During the journey, a part of his incision cut up open and he needed to be rushed to an pressing care in Orlando. He was instantly placed on antibiotics earlier than making the lengthy trek again to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.

They quickly came upon that Sam had developed a staph infection.

He now needed to undergo the entire course of a second time. The prosthetic in his cranium was eliminated and a brand new one was inserted. He obtained one other painful PICC line in his arm. The hospital go to was shorter this time round, nevertheless it was one other disagreeable reminder of his precarious restoration.


On September 9, 2013, Sam lastly acquired the excellent news he was so determined to listen to: greater than 16 months after present process brain surgical procedure, he obtained the all-clear to return to enjoying hockey.

Lindsay was nervous about him returning to the ice however knew simply how vital it was to her son. Other hockey mother and father would continuously ask her how she may even breathe throughout Sam’s video games.

“I said, ‘Because this is what he wants. And he’s here to do it. And that’s all I can ask for,’” Lindsay recalled telling them.

“‘He’s here. He’s able to do it. He’s able to walk and talk and he’s independent. So I’m okay with this.’”

Sam went on to play for the Shaha Panthers in Bethel Park. When he and his household moved to Penn Township in 2018, he was in a position to proceed his profession with the York Devils and most just lately, the Central Penn Panthers.

‘She was there for a reason’

There have been many individuals in Sam’s life who’ve left an impression on him. There’s his hockey coach again in Pittsburgh, who made him a staff captain and lovingly nicknamed him ‘The Animal.’ There’s his former coworker at Utz, who out of the blue at some point informed him he had a better function and would go on to encourage others.

And then there’s Paula.

Sam nonetheless remembers the day nicely, almost a decade later. It was a wet Saturday night in late June 2012. He had been recovering at residence for a few month, however had been quickly introduced again into the hospital as a result of a complication along with his seizure remedy. He was doing nicely sufficient that he was allowed to flee the 4 corners of his room so he and his mom went on a stroll by means of his corridor to look out the home windows. It was a pleasant break from gazing machines all day.

A girl, who appeared to work in the upkeep division, was cleansing close by. She took discover of the 2 of them and struck up a dialog. She requested Sam how he was doing and what he had been going by means of. He informed her all the pieces, from the start of his journey up till when docs mentioned he would by no means play hockey once more.

The girl, named Paula, listened intently after which shared her personal story. Years in the past, she mentioned, her son had been badly stab-bed. He survived however was informed he would by no means play soccer once more – however, she mentioned, he had proved everybody improper and was now in school enjoying the game he beloved.

Paula informed Sam to not let different individuals inform him what he can and might’t do. She informed him that if you recognize you are able to do it for your self, and also you consider, you are able to do it. She then requested the pair if she may pray with them, which they accepted.

Before turning to depart, she gave them her enterprise card, in case they needed to maintain in contact, and informed them they might get extra info from the hospital. Later that night time, Sam and Lindsay stopped by the nurses’ station and confirmed them the cardboard. Nobody on the hospital knew who Paula was. They had by no means heard of her.

Sam got here strolling away from the encounter satisfied that Paula was an angel despatched from heaven.

“She’s never ever left either one of our thoughts,” Lindsay mentioned.

“Paula is out there somewhere in Pittsburgh, and we don’t know where she is. But she made an impression on our lives that she’ll never ever know.”

‘I’m nonetheless right here’

This summer time, the Hanover Exchange Club named Sam their 2020 Tommy Laudani A.C.E. Award recipient. The award, which stands for “Accepting the Challenge of Excellence” was named after Laudani, a 2018 Delone Catholic grad who battled for greater than two years in opposition to a uncommon and aggressive type of can-cer referred to as desmoplastic small spherical cell tumor.

Tommy died from the illness a number of months after graduating from Delone.

The honor isn’t misplaced on Sam.

Both boys battled in opposition to childhood sicknesses, combating for the possibility to pursue their passions. For Tommy, that meant working to make a profitable return to the cross nation course. Sam acknowledged the hanging similarities in what they each had endured – and what they each had achieved.

“He was a fighter, he was a warrior,” Sam mentioned after studying about his story.

“I wish I could have met him in person.”

Along with a plaque commemorating the award, Sam obtained a scholarship for greater than $2,600 to place towards his schooling.

Out of all of the ache that has entered into the Zimmerman’s lives, positives will be seen in all places.

“It was almost like it was meant to happen in order to make me open my eyes like this and think different from others and different perspectives,” Sam mentioned.

“Not many people (in my situation) can walk or talk or anything like that. That’s why you got to be appreciative with what you have and who you are.”

That appreciation extends to his mother and father, relations and pals, who’ve supported him from the start.

Lindsay mentioned it’s additionally made her a extra affected person and grateful particular person.

“It takes a lot to get me mad because as long as I’m not getting a phone call telling me that I need to make final arrangements, it’s a good day.”

“I was going to have to leave him back in Pittsburgh if he didn’t make it because we had to move out (to Hanover) two years ago. I don’t have to go and visit him every year on his birthday and wonder what could have been, because I get to see what is.”

A plan for the longer term

Sam hung up his skates and retired from his hockey profession earlier this 12 months. But as one chapter in his life was coming to a detailed, one other was simply starting.

About a 12 months in the past, his older sister, Autumn, despatched him a 40 minute-long video of an inspirational speaker. He watched it straight by means of after which performed it again two extra instances.

He knew he discovered a brand new calling in his life – to share the hope of his life story with as many individuals as he may.

He began writing and sharing constructive and inspirational messages on his Instagram (@the.animal.motivation) and Snapchat (sam_zim20) accounts. He has been making use of to each talking alternative he finds and had been accepted to talk at a TED occasion this previous spring earlier than it was canceled. He’s additionally presently in the method of writing a guide, which can element his life experiences whereas incorporating his constructive messages all through.

In late August, Sam reached one other milestone in his life when he began his first semester at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. He’s finding out mechatronics and has already been in a position to share his story with certainly one of his new classmates, who he realized has additionally undergone their very own medical battles.

One of the important thing messages he emphasizes is to not deal with others in a different way.

“I have a dent in my head for the rest of my life, but it doesn’t make me different from who I am as a person,” Sam mentioned.

“Other people may have other medical issues, but it still doesn’t make them different from you or me.”

One day hopes to have the ability to return to his alma mater and converse to college students, however his greatest objective is to have the ability to share his inspirational messages with hundreds of thousands.

“Wake up every morning being happy – your heart is beating, your brain is functioning, you’re able to be there, and you’re around the people you love. You have this beautiful gift of life.”




Information from: The Evening Sun,

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