All Together for Austin: Paralyzed athlete back at school, home for Christmas
WALKER COUNTY, GA. (WRCB) -- Academically, Austin Whitten has caught up to where LaFayette High School would expect any sophomore to be.
But his journey back from a paralyzing injury is as much a story of patience as persistence.
"I'm doing good, still pushin' it," he says. "There's always a reason (why this happened). We just don't really know that yet."
Whitten could have defined the phrase "freshman phenom." At 6'5" and 230 pounds, the then 15-year-old was a force for the Ramblers in football, basketball and baseball.
The swimming accident June 9, barely into summer break, changed everything.
"What they told me at Erlanger, I had only had a one percent chance of walking, because of my injury," he says. "But that's just book definition. So I think I can prove the book wrong."
Fusion surgery at Erlanger would segue into weeks of therapy at Shepherd Center, Atlanta's world-renowned treatment facility for spinal-injury patients.
Mother Angie, and father Brian, keep friends and the community posted on his progress via their personal Facebook pages.
One video shows him swimming backstroke. Another shows him harnessed into a Lokomat; robot-assisted walking therapy in which a mechanical exoskeleton supports his body weight and moves his legs on a treadmill.
"We're at the point in his rehabilitation where we're waiting for some home equipment, a Standing Frame," Brian Whitten explains.
"You can crank, or raise up, from a seat to standing position. He can ease some of the pressure on his legs. It'll improve his circulation, and blood-pressure."
'Home' also means a return to classes.
"We already were ADA-compliant, with ramps and accessible bathrooms," Principal Mike Culberson explains.
"We have several other wheelchair-bound students. Our adjustments for Austin, were in where we sent him for classes."
"I get to visit every hallway," Austin says, with almost a straight face.
His wheelchair isn't motorized.
His four-course block schedule begins with weightlifting in the physical education wing, English mid-morning, history early afternoon, lunch, and then a return to the gym.
"I'm trying to get stronger, stronger and better," he says. "Back to gettin' it. Kickin' it in the butt."
"It's great to see the support he's received from so many other students." Culberson says. "And his close friends who were there for him beforehand."
The first proof came only hours after the accident.
"Trion players and coaches showed up at the hospital," Angie Whitten says. "Signs of support popped up."
Days later, 'All Together for Austin', a prayer vigil, rally and fundraiser, packed Lafayette High School's football stadium.
"I mean, you'd expect it to a point. But it just seems like everybody went above and beyond, what I would ever dreamed," Angie Whitten says.
"There's points where I just really don't like it (the extra attention)," Austin says. "I don't like to be that different."
"I was used to seeing my name in the paper, or something like that (for athletic accomplishments). But not all this much."
He, and his parents, reserve the glory for God.
"My faith is different because of what I've had to go through," Austin says. "But I kind of like it now."
"Our faith in Him has made it bearable," Angie Whitten says. "But at times, the mom side of me does kick in, and it's upsetting that he has to deal with life the way he has to now."
Some things haven't changed.
"They're not telling me what I'm getting for Christmas," Austin says. "They hide, and I can't find."
"The Christmas present is that we're together," his mother says, eyes moistening.
"The outcome could have been way worse. God was watching out for our family, is all I say."