Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on New Hope athlete Jeremiah Jethroe. The first part of the series ran in Thursday’s edition, while the final installment will run in Sunday’s paper.
A few weeks after Jeremiah Jethroe’s February neck injury at a New Hope baseball practice, his mother, Michelle Jethroe, woke up in the middle of the night, rising from the couch when she heard a ripping sound coming from the hospital bed that dominated her living room.
She hurried to her son’s bedside to find him fighting in his sleep to tear off his neck brace. It was pushing painfully against Jeremiah’s jaw while he lay on his back, so he’d undone the Velcro and removed the front part of the brace — all while he was “30 percent” conscious.
“J.J., no!” Michelle yelled, afraid Jeremiah would re-injure his neck by taking off the brace. “No!”
The incident, she said, scared her to death.
“It was just so much discomfort for him,” Michelle said. “He didn’t know.”
It proved to be one of the low points in a recovery process that included months of slow progress, thousands of dollars and plenty of pain.
But through it all, the focus remained in Jeremiah’s mind: He would go to school again. He would play baseball again. He would be the same Jeremiah Jethroe he was before a thousand pounds of pipe fell on his neck.
“Jeremiah never gave up,” Michelle said. “He always had in his head, ‘I’m going to get back. I’m going to get back.'”
‘A real sacrifice’
The day of Jeremiah’s injury, the Jethroes got home from Baptist late, past 11 p.m. But even after he spent eight hours in the hospital, all the pillows in the world couldn’t help Jeremiah sleep comfortably in his own bed, as he was forced to lie on his back because of the brace.
So the next day, the Jethroes rented the hospital bed from Baptist Home Medical Equipment. They had to move the loveseat out of the living room and shuffle the furniture in order to fit the bed, which could be electrically adjusted up and down for comfort. Michelle slept on the couch every night so she could watch over her son from five feet away.
In the following weeks, Jeremiah spent most of his time in that bed, unable to accomplish much. He watched “Naruto” all the way through; he Snapchatted with friends until it wore him out.
Jeremiah could no longer drive himself, so Michelle became his transport to doctor’s appointments, while his father Ronald helped with dressing, showering and other typically mundane tasks that the pain and the restrictive neck brace — only allowed to come off in the shower — made impossible to perform alone. Until Jeremiah could walk more steadily, his parents even fed him in bed, a practice helped by the hospital table the Jethroes bought.
“We had to do everything for him for a long time,” Michelle said.
The sudden changes were frustrating for everyone, and they made things hard financially, too. Meeting insurance deductibles for medical care, making trips back and forth to Flowood and renting the bed and other medical equipment quickly began to add up.
“It was a sacrifice,” Michelle said. “It was a real sacrifice. We’re still paying for that neck.”
As their costs mounted, the Jethroes had to bear the sight of their son in pain, too. Whenever Jeremiah accidentally moved his neck — not an easy enterprise in the tight brace — the pain was “about a good eight” out of 10.
Michelle jumped each time her son grunted in discomfort, a grimace on his face.
‘He is a fighter’
But even in the worst of times, Jeremiah fought to keep doing the things he loved — and not just baseball.
Ranked second academically in his graduating class at New Hope High, he hadn’t missed a day of school since fourth grade at the time he got hurt. Although his neck was broken, he resolved his perfect attendance streak wouldn’t be. He had friends lined up to help him out of the car and through the hallways the very next day, a Friday, before he realized it was simply impossible: The pain was too much.
When Jeremiah made his way back to school March 2, just 11 days — and only six school days — after his injury, he brought a pillow for his neck. Teachers adjusted chairs, moved desks around and even let Jeremiah leave a few minutes early so the hallways wouldn’t be crowded.
Jeremiah’s passion for music didn’t fade, either. He plays the alto saxophone in the New Hope band and the church band at All Nations Ministries. While he hasn’t been able to perform for either since his injury, that’s more attributable to COVID-19 than any physical limitation.
“Even when he was in a neck brace and couldn’t look down, he would still get on there and play so he wouldn’t lose it,” Michelle said. “I thought it was kind of odd that you would see him blowing, but he did it.”
It was a sign that even when her son was in immense pain and discomfort, he was still as resilient as ever.
“He’s not a quitter,” Michelle said. “He is a fighter.”
‘That’s what he was living for’
Jeremiah was originally set for a follow-up appointment at Baptist after his injury, but Michelle prayed on it, and God led her to Dr. Graham Calvert at the Mississippi Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center instead.
It turned out to be a wise decision.
When Calvert saw that the broken bone in Jeremiah’s neck had begun to move — a common occurrence with a hangman’s fracture — he scheduled a surgery for April 6 at River Oaks Hospital in Flowood. Because of the hospital’s COVID-19 policies, only one parent could attend the three-hour procedure. Michelle went, but Ronald had to stay behind.
“That was big,” Michelle said. “That was really big.”
Calvert and Dr. Charles Cannon made an incision in the front of Jeremiah’s neck, subverting the conventional wisdom of going through the back for the procedure, and inserted a titanium plate with four screws to keep the bone from slipping out of place and damaging nerves in the area.
After the surgery, the Jethroes noticed a major difference. The pain decreased. Jeremiah’s movements became easier and smoother.
And when Calvert set Jeremiah’s release date — when he would officially be medically cleared to rejoin the Trojans and participate fully in practice — the day was immortalized in the Jethroe household.
Jeremiah quickly had the date saved in his phone and marked on his calendar: June 30.
“That’s what he was living for,” Michelle said.
When Jeremiah was 6, he was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, and the symptoms were severe.
Involuntarily, Jeremiah’s eye twitched. He snorted and sniffed and grunted. He tensed up, clenched his fist and constantly cleared his throat.
Upon his diagnosis, Michelle asked her son if he believed God could heal him.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jeremiah replied.
Ten years later, some symptoms are still there, but they’ve progressively lightened. No one even knows Jeremiah has Tourette’s if the Jethroes don’t mention it.
So at age 16, when Jeremiah broke his neck, his mom asked him the same question she’d asked a decade ago: Did he trust that God could heal him?
“Yes, ma’am,” Jeremiah told her again.
So even when Jeremiah’s recovery was at its most painful point, the faith-driven Jethroes still felt like God was in control.
But Michelle wouldn’t wish what happened to her son — and its sudden and dramatic impact on her family — on anyone else.
So when she looks out at Jeremiah and his teammates frolicking in the light on Trojan Field, she prays the whole time — and not just for him.
“I am praying for every single, solitary child out there — that nothing like that would ever happen to any of them,” Michelle said. “I don’t want any parent or child to go through what we’ve been through.”