BEATING THE ODDS 2016
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Black battles back from near-death illness
THURMONT, Md. — Mornings are still tough for Wyatt Black. Many days, he said his first thought is to stay in bed and not face the physical challenges he’s had the last seven months.
But quickly his attitude changes, assisted by some verbal nudging from no-nonsense parents, Chris and Kiona, and he takes the day head on.
“I want to be back to my old self. The old Wyatt, the one everyone knew,” said the 15-year-old sophomore at Catoctin High School. “That’s the life I enjoyed so much.”
That old life was playing football, working on the family’s Catoctin Mountain Orchard and participating in FFA without worry of not being able to do certain jobs. It was his life before bacterial meningitis took over his body for three unbearable weeks, devastating his family and pulling together the community around them from near and far.
In late February, what started as symptoms of a sinus infection quickly escalated to him slurring his speech and losing consciousness. Initially doctors suspected hydrocephalus or water on the brain, but after getting flown to Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, doctors there diagnosed him with meningitis, so severe they weren’t sure Wyatt would survive the next 48 hours. But Wyatt fought through the illness and coma and after a 14-day stay in a pediatric intensive care unit, he was moved to a rehabilitation center for the long road of recovery.
As he fought, a groundswell of support formed around him and the family. Days after Wyatt was flown to Hershey, classmates organized a fundraiser to “Take a Swing Against Meningitis” selling whacks at a old van with a sledge hammer.
“They raised almost $7,000 with little to no notice,” Chris said, rattling off several other fundraisers friend organized on their own. “From there it just blossomed. We were bombarded with cards, from people who we’ll never get to say ‘Thank you’ to,” Chris said. That was one of the hardest things for Kiona and I because we were always on the other side of things, asking, ‘What can we do?’”
A Social media campaign to “start a Wiot” against the illness flourished online as the family posted daily updates on Facebook.
“The support that way, not even monetary, just the ‘we’re thinking about you’ was tremendous,” Chris said. “It was those little messages that would help you get through the day.”
With Chris a third-generation farmer and Kiona third-generation firefighter, their support network stretched far and wide.
“The fruit growing family is like the farming family is like the firefighter family,” Chris said. “There might be miles that separate you but when a tragedy or something like this happens, you’re looking out for each other.”
It even generated a phone call from Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. (Kiona is a devout Duke fan.)
“We had about a 16-minute pep talk. We did get some words in but to hear him and the inspirational words that he was saying, after we said goodbye you wanted to clap your hands and yell, ‘Break!’” Chris said. “It was from the heart. Just the words were amazing.”
In rehab, Wyatt progressed well, surprising his neurosurgeon who called his patient a miracle.
“The look of astoundment on his face that I was walking even with a walker, just the tone of his voice when he talked to me, he was dumbfounded,” Wyatt recalled.
Wyatt returned home from the hospital on June 3. He started back at school in August, opting for a full day schedule and is active again in the school’s FFA chapter. In the fall, his class voted him Sophomore Prince for homecoming.
“It meant a lot,” Wyatt said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t forgotten.”
He said his energy level often winds down by the end of the day but he knows he’s improving, taking less and less time to walk from class to class. His therapy continues to work at regaining the muscle memory robbed by the meningitis.
“The biggest obstacle right now is the brain is wide awake and he’s trapped. His body has limited what he can do,” Chris said. “To put it in simpler terms there’s bridges that are still out, that are just not passable fully. Sometimes they are sometimes they’re not.”
A full recovery could take a few more years doctors have told the Blacks, but it’s a very real and attainable goal and it’s where Wyatt has his sights set. He wants badly to get back on the football field, if not next year, certainly for his senior season.
“I’m not going to stop, I don’t plan to stop ever to be honest with you, but I long so much for my old life it’s almost excruciating. It is excruciating because right now I’m not mentally trapped I’m physically trapped,” Wyatt said. “I have to tell myself, ‘Wyatt, you’re going to be like this for awhile, not forever, just a while.”
Chris said seeing his son improve was in a way a form of therapy for him, refocusing life’s priorities.
“One thing that kept us going was watching him get better on a daily basis,” Chis said. “Going through the ordeal with him and seeing the state that he was in, it really wakes you up to what matters most. Family, that’s what matters. It’s being able to sit around and watch Jeopardy or play dominoes. It’s just the simple things in life.”