Originally published in the Michigan State University State News
Sam Howell clutched the arms of his wheelchair, lips pursed, eyes wide with determination.
He was going to stand.
The 19-year-old MSU student focused on moving his strong arms, long legs and Adidas-adorned feet to function together — something he never struggled with nine months ago.
With the help of his physical therapist, Sam carefully pushed himself up and stood for five minutes. He was able to look out at his front yard from his usual 6-foot-4 inch stance instead of from his wheelchair.
Sam stood in his driveway on the cool fall afternoon as his parents sat beside him, watching as fallen leaves rustled and construction workers hammered away on their roof — continuing to remodel his home to be wheelchair accessible.
“Son, you’re standing by yourself!” said his mother Maureen as she
clapped. “Yay! Look at you!”
Sam smiled and nodded to his mom.
Relearning to stand was never part of Sam’s future. He had planned to be at MSU, studying to be a research doctor. He would have been practicing judo, playing soccer and acing his Lyman Briggs classes.
But nine months ago, the MSU freshman fell asleep while driving and woke up in a hospital bed more than two months later.
Doctors predicted he’d never make it.
But the “miracle boy,” as Sam’s family and friends call him, pulled through even when his chance for survival was estimated at less than 1 percent.
‘Our life stopped on Feb. 14’
On Valentine’s Day, Sam’s parents, Maureen and Jim, got a knock on their front door. It was the local sheriff. Sam had crashed his car.
“I could hardly talk,” said his mother, who got into the police car to head to Covenant HealthCare hospital in Saginaw. “I started calling people to pray from the back of the cop car.”
On the 16-mile ride, Maureen grew impatient. “Go faster,” she urged from the back seat. “Are you a father?” she asked. The sheriff said “yes.”
“Then turn on the lights and sirens and go.”
Sam had spent the day at home in St. Charles, 50 miles north of East Lansing.
He skipped class to go to the doctor’s for his pneumonia. He spent the rest of the day watching movies and doing homework with his girlfriend, Liz Williams, a student at Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy, where Sam attended high school.
While driving on M-52 later that day, Sam fell asleep at the wheel.
His green Geo Prizm catapulted off a small hill, ran into a tree and flipped over multiple times before landing in someone’s yard.
Sam had been very sick and the pneumonia had worn him out, family members said.
His mother, who is a critical care nurse at another hospital, gave orders to the 12 nurses and doctors in the emergency room to replace the tube in his lungs because his oxygen was low.
Sam was barely alive. His face was blue and his right eye was severely bruised and would later go blind. He had no broken bones or cuts, but he had severe brain injury and trauma to the abdomen and spleen.
The following days
Within a day of the accident, his father, Jim, told nurses that the family wanted to donate Sam’s organs.
Doctors told the family that if he ever did wake up from the coma, he would be in a vegetative state.
If he had to be a vegetable, the family joked, he’d be a “rutabaga.”
It was that silly humor and positive thinking that helped the family get through each day of Sam’s coma, they later said.
When doctors asked the family to take Sam off his life support, they said no. They refused five times. They believed he would make it.
Each time doctors predicted he would die, Maureen saw it as a good sign. They were never right; Sam was still alive.
Sam’s family and close friends stayed downstairs in an empty floor of the hospital, living in the three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and lounge area that was no longer in use.
Each night, they would set the alarm to wake up every 15 minutes so someone could run upstairs to check on Sam.
As friends and family prayed for Sam’s recovery, they shared stories about his past.
“He’s done a ton of stuff in his life already,” his mother said. “I can’t help but think that God’s saving him for more.”
When Sam was 15 years old, his sister, Heather Boyes, was diagnosed with lymphomatoid papulosis, a rare lymphatic system disorder and sometimes precancerous condition consisting of legions on the skin.
“He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘I’m gonna save you, Heath,'” said Heather, now 30. “It was the sweetest thing anyone ever said to me, but I didn’t see it as very valid.”
Sam began researching at nearby colleges and found some possible causes for her condition. His research won him Best of Category in biochemistry at the 2003 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
He researched other patients at Harvard University for five months in the summer and fall of 2004 and took MSU courses online. He started at MSU in January.
‘One little human touched so many ‘
More than 1,000 people visited the Howell family within the first two days after the accident — something the hospital staff said they had never seen before.
Brain pressure peaks 72 hours after a brain injury, so 32 religious groups held a “wall of faith” to pray for Sam.
“This one little human touched so many people and it kind of set off a chain reaction,” Maureen said. “So many people who have been involved in the prayer realized right at the onset that it was the making of a miracle.”
The Howells marked where people were praying for Sam on a large world map with push pins. The pins spread across Africa, South America, Europe and Asia. The United States overflowed with pins, forcing the family to get a separate map.
“Mom, I bet when God looks down on the earth, he sees fireworks and those are the prayers being sent up for Sam,” Heather remembers her 7-year-old daughter saying.
He woke up to a joke
Sam woke up in late April, more than two months after his crash.
Some people come out of comas violently and are angry or confused, but Sam woke up smiling after hearing a naughty joke, family members recall.
“He’s very much Sam,” Maureen said of her son’s knack for practical jokes and his cunning sense of humor.
But there was still a long six months in St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, after his stay in Covenant, before Sam could return home.
Maureen stopped working as a nurse. Sam’s sisters would rush to the hospital each day after working as teachers. And later, Jim, a former state representative for St. Charles, left his job at the state attorney general’s office.
The family set up an online blog with photos, stories, songs and poems about Sam. The sisters added daily posts on Sam’s progress. They named it “Miracle Boy.”
“Sometimes it’s updates and sometimes it’s just me pouring my heart out,” Heather said.
‘Look at the tears — all joy’
Sam was finally able to move home on Oct. 18. During the six months after he woke up, Sam worked in therapy to regain control of his muscles. He had improved enough to continue his recovery at home.
Nine days after he came home, friends of the family threw Sam a welcome home party. About 400 people came to show their support and welcome him home after his eight-month hospital stay.
As soon as he arrived to the party, Sam stood up for a few seconds, smiling and waving. He then signed with his hands, “Thank God and thank you.”
Sam’s family and friends, teary-eyed and smiling, applauded and covered him in hugs and kisses.
“Just the look on his face, his mom and dad’s face — that’s what it’s all about,” said Charles Brown, a Saginaw County sheriff who helped throw the party. “Look at the tears — all joy.”
Sam’s family says he hasn’t lost his intelligence. Sam says he’s anxious to get back to his studies. He plans to take an independent study through Saginaw Valley State University and some online courses through MSU.
He’s been playing card games like euchre and watching movies with his girlfriend, nieces and nephew.
“I still know how to have fun,” said Sam, who still jokes around, calling his dad an old man and cleverly stealing the computer from his sister.
He is working each day to do physical things such as walk, talk and eat on his own.
On Saturday, Sam spoke clearer and walked with just one arm around his mom’s shoulders.
Doctors now say he could have a full recovery, but it’s unknown what his shortcomings might be.
“He’s got hurdles to get through, but he’s such a determined human,” Maureen said. “I’ve never seen him not be successful just because he’s so tenacious to keep going and going.”