Salute to a young man’s perseverance after devastating diagnosis

Teen’s dream of joining the Navy may be over, but he is ready to tackle new challenges.

Since he was a little boy, Michael Anderson has wanted to join the military. Both of his grandpas were in the service, as was his great-grandfather, and he was eager to be a part of that honored tradition.

As he got older, the Putnam County teen set his sights on the U.S. Navy, where he hoped to train to become a nuclear engineer. He was winding up his high school career last year, just days before he was to sign his enlistment papers, when everything changed.

Last January, Michael began having severe headaches and suffering what appeared to be flu symptoms. Doctors diagnosed a migraine and prescribed medication, but the next day he was worse. He called his mom from school and asked her to take him to the emergency room at Putnam County Hospital.

Her son, a wrestler and four-wheeler racer, has a pretty high tolerance for pain, said Kellie Lowry, so she knew something was wrong. A CT scan revealed the awful truth. The doctor said the teen had an “aggressive” tumor on his brain. He recommended Michael be airlifted to IU Health Methodist Hospital.

It was a whirlwind for Lowry and for Michael’s dad, Mike Anderson. The surgery to remove a cavernous angioma, a cluster of blood vessels that had begun to leak into his brain, took place Jan. 25, 2018. Michael was left paralyzed on his left side.

During that dark time, Lowry said the hospital staff took good care of Michael, “but I’d say their waiting room chairs aren’t the best to sleep in.”

Six days later, he was transferred to Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, where he vowed to leave his wheelchair behind.

After three weeks of intense therapy, Michael proudly walked out of RHI with the aid of a cane. But his journey was just beginning.

For the past 10 months, he has been undergoing therapy at Neuro-Rehabilitation & Robotics at the IU Health Neuroscience Center to regain the use of his left arm and to improve his balance when he walks.

“He started at zero,” Mike Anderson said of his son. “He had nothing on his left side at all.”

It was a hard thing to see, the elder Anderson admits. Father and son have spent years on the Midget car racing circuit, traveling up and down the East Coast.

“We’ve raced go-karts and four-wheelers since he was four years old,” Anderson said, as he watched Michael struggle to step over obstacles during a physical therapy session. “He was number one in the nation in his class two years ago.”

Today, Michael can walk without a cane, though his gait is still unsteady. He can move his arm and hand, but he has a long way to go to regain full function.

Occupational therapist Rachel Lower said Michael came to her already in better shape than most of her patients. He was otherwise healthy, young and fit. And he was motivated. But teaching an arm to work again is a lot harder than it sounds.

“Everything we do is just automatic, right?” Lower said. “You reach for a glass of water and you don’t think about what your arm is doing. But it’s so complex. You have to extend your elbow, you have to keep your wrist in neutral, you have to open your hand, you have to flex your shoulder. So many movements go into just reaching for a glass of water.”

The rest of us don’t have to think about any of that, she said. “But Michael has to think about every single one of those movements and break down the task in order to be successful.”

To help him, she works to isolate certain movements and muscles, sometimes with the aid of a robot, which forces his arm and hand to manipulate a controller to play a video game.

To give his parents a window into his world, the soft-spoken teen challenged them to go without using one arm for a period of time. For starters, mom couldn’t crochet, and dad couldn’t tie his shoes.

Michael smiles when he sees his parents watching him as he walks backward on a treadmill during therapy. He’s a young man of few words anyway, but his brain is also working double time to remind his limbs what to do, so he stays focused.

Seeing how far he’s come has been amazing for both of his parents to watch, but along the way, he decided to let go of his Navy dream, accepting that he might never be in top physical shape again.

There were a lot of tears, but they weren’t Michael’s; they were his mom’s.

“I still cry every day,” she said, but not in front of her son. His determination has been an inspiration to her.

“He’s done fabulous with his attitude throughout. He’s a strong young man.”

The fact that he was a high school wrestler in excellent physical shape has helped him on the road to recovery. As an athlete, he knows his body very well, Lower said. He is strong and flexible, and his attitude is critical to his success.

But Mike Anderson is leaving nothing to chance. He built a small gym in his garage so Michael has a place to work out between his therapy sessions. He hired a personal trainer for his son. And one more thing: Quitting is not an option.

“He may not always want to do something, but he never gives up,” his mom said.

Same goes for school. Michael, who celebrated his 19th birthday last week, could have finished out the school year at home, but he chose to go back to Greencastle High School, where he graduated with his class last May. The month before, he was crowned prom king.

“He just does what he’s gotta do,” said Mike Anderson. “It’s all coming, but it’s slower than we expected or hoped.”

Recovery is unique to each individual, Lower said. Despite his post-surgery paralysis, Michael came into rehab at the Neuroscience Center fairly independent. But because he is so high-functioning, he may feel that in some areas he is far from fully recovered, she said, while in others, he can check them off and say, “yes, I can do all of those things.”

Regardless, she said, “Therapy’s not for life. Michael is working with a trainer, he’s going to college, he’s moving on.”

Michael has decided to enroll at Indiana State University in the fall to study civil engineering.

“Life is slower,” he said, “but I can still enjoy it.”

— By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist