Lobdell: A thousand little miracles

Miracle stories told during the Christmas season usually come packaged neatly with tidy endings that produce tears of happiness and smiles all around.

This one is different.

Though it's being told on Christmas Eve, this story set in Newport Beach is about a slow-motion miracle that's been unfolding daily in nearly indiscernible increments over the past six years. And the ending may still be decades away.

Maybe because of those characteristics and the undaunted courage of the story's real-life characters, this tale is as inspirational as any — Christmas or otherwise — you'll ever hear.

As a young boy, Cade Feitler could have been accurately described as wild, in the best sense of the word. The Dover Shores kid with a quick smile and posse of friends was a high-energy skateboarder, snowboarder, surfer, basketball player and junior lifeguard. The term "all boy" comes to mind.

The day after he turned 13 in early 2005, Cade's mother, Lisa, drove him and his big sister, 16-year-old McKenzie, to get something to eat after school. At the intersection of Newport Boulevard and Industrial Way, a driver going to a doctor's appointment ran a red light and broadsided the family's car.

Lisa and McKenzie escaped with minor injuries. But Cade, with a fractured skull and severe brain injury, hovered near death.

He remained in a coma for several weeks, and when he slowly emerged, the prognosis grew grim. Doctors and therapists informed the Feitlers that Cade's brain was so badly damaged that he would likely never get off a ventilator, talk, walk or come home.

But this was when the slow-motion miracle began, the sum total of a thousand little acts performed by each of the Feitlers; their doctors, nurses and therapists; and friends and strangers.

Immediately after the accident, community members rallied around the Feitler family. Some raised money through dodge ball tournaments or selling hot chocolate on Balboa Island during the Christmas Boat Parade. Neighbors dropped off home-cooked meals each night on the doorstep.

One insurance executive volunteered to pick up the stacks of medical bills each week, organize and submit them. A friend put up holiday lights on the Feitler house and brought them a Christmas tree when he saw the family didn't have time or energy for the tradition.

"The amount of generosity and support we received from our community was incredible," Lisa recalled. "We will forever be thankful for that."

Cade's dad, Joel, continued to put in enough hours at work to keep his business going. The rest of the time, he and Lisa made sure that Cade was never left alone in the hospital, acting as his advocate while loving him up. Joel and Lisa took turns every night sleeping in Cade's hospital room for more than a year.

Meanwhile, the Feitlers tried to make sure McKenzie had as normal of a high school life as possible. They got home from the hospital early each morning in time to make McKenzie breakfast and drive her to school. And they made sure they attended every one of her basketball games.

Even so, "I've been pretty much on my own since I was 16," said McKenzie, a bright, and impossibly mature 22-year-old who will graduate from Azusa Pacific University this spring.

The fact was Lisa and Joel spent their waking hours trying to provide Cade with the best chance to recover.

This meant battling insurance companies; conferring with and sometimes overruling doctors, nurses and therapists; developing a way to communicate with Cade — one blink for "yes," two blinks for "no"; becoming self-educated experts on pediatric brain injuries; taking detailed notes of the results of different procedures; pulling Cade from facilities when he wasn't getting the best care; successfully lobbying an adult rehab facility in the Inland Empire to take a 14-year-old because it was the best place for Cade; and filing a lawsuit against the driver and his company to make sure Cade had enough money for his care.

Though brain injuries are the leading cause of death and disability among children, the Feitlers found Orange County lacking in facilities that cater to the long-term rehabilitation of children with brain trauma.

So they decided Cade's best chance was a do-it-themselves rehab at home. With the help of contractor friends who donated their work, Joel and Lisa widened their front door, converted their master bedroom and dining room into therapy centers for Cade, and had a shower stall built to accommodate him. They hired therapists and nurses to help with their son's care for 16 hours a day.

Fifteen months after the accident, Cade finally went home.

"It was all up to us," said Joel in his firm yet gentle demeanor.

Most medical experts told the Feitlers that they probably wouldn't see much of an improvement in Cade once his injury was more than 18 months old. The Feitlers didn't buy it. They believe the 18-month ceiling was more a result of intensive therapy stopping because of insurance money running out, families breaking up and fatigue.

For instance, Cade still can't hold a toothbrush, but several times a day, one of the Feitlers or his therapists wrap his hand around the handle of his toothbrush and try to get his brain to relearn the back and forth motions on his teeth.

"This takes hard work and discipline every day," said Lisa, a petite brunette who acts as the family's general. "There are no shortcuts, but we're seeing changes. I know people look at us and think we're crazy, but Cade's getting better."

It helps that Lisa and Joel have kept their 30-year marriage together, something 85% of couples in their situation haven't been able to do. And Cade received a substantial out-of-court settlement from the accident, allowing the Feitlers to properly care for him.

"The day of the settlement was the saddest day of my life," said Lisa, emphasizing they need court approval to authorize any money spent on Cade. "It finally sank in how much help he'll likely need for the rest of his life."

Lisa says a brain injury is like having a file cabinet turned upside down and emptied out, with all the files and their contents spilling onto the floor. The papers need to be put back in the right files, and the files put back in the right order. And when the contents are missing, the data needs to be reconstructed.

It's been nearly a half-dozen years since Cade's accident, and the micro-miracles keep piling up. The contents of the file cabinet are being put back in place, one paper at a time.

When Cade came home, the doctors had him taking 21 drugs. He now takes two.

He can say a few words, but even more promising, he recently talked in his sleep. He shows flashes of humor, blinking an emphatic "yes" the other day when he was asked if his sister, home from college for the holidays, was driving him crazy. He studies each day at a computer, sitting in a wheelchair and correctly answering simple problems that helps his brain to heal.

"That's what make me know that my boy is in there," Lisa said. "It's the way he answers those questions."

Each morning, Cade — who's undergone dozens of operations — travels under much of his own power around the block with the help of a walker and his therapist.

He's also started to ride horses at the Back Bay Therapeutic Riding Center, taking all of just two lessons to sit up tall in the saddle and have his horse trot.

The Feitler family includes Cade in basically everything, from trips to the grocery store to camping outings in Santa Barbara and vacations in Baja, Mexico, and Hawaii. They recently returned from Disneyland, where Cade rode the Toy Story 3, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and Autopia attractions.

The Feitlers' life has settled down to as close to normal as it will be for some time, though their daily routine would seem impossible for most of us (for instance, they get up two or three times each night to tend to Cade).

And, because it's simply in their optimistic nature, they want to help other children in Orange County with traumatic brain injuries so their road to recovery will be smoother than Cade's.

With the modest amount of money left over from the community's original outburst of donations, the Feitlers have recently started Cade's Fund for Pediatric Brain Injury. Their plan is to continue to build the fund and make donations to pediatric rehabilitation facilities and research centers in Southern California.

The Feitlers dream of a day when Orange County will have a state-of-the-art traumatic brain injury center for children. They also have another goal: to get Cade healed so the remainder of his settlement money could go to help fund such a facility. A donation to the fund can be made through the Orange County Community Foundation website at http://www.oc-cf.org. It would a nice holiday present and year-end tax deduction. If you'd like to contact Lisa and Joel Feitler, their e-mail is nbglass@pacbell.net.

No one can say for sure what Cade's future holds, though he's thoroughly beaten the predictions of his original doctors, who have since been replaced with physicians who put no limitations on his recovery.

Even during the Christmas season, I'm not a big believer in out-of-the-blue miracles. But I do believe in the grit and optimism of Cade, McKenzie, Lisa and Joel Feitler, courageous people bonded together to make a miracle slowly happen through the daily grind of hard work — even as the length of the task threatens to stretch for decades.

"It's about hitting it hard every day," Lisa said.

Added Joel: "It's slow, like watching the grass grow. But one day, we believe Cade will be all the way back."

WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, and a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

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