Luke Halo Update
NORTH BLOOMFIELD, Ohio -- Luke Holko carries the bag into the living room, toddling his way along before resting on his knees.
"Catch Daddy!" he says as he opens the bag, grabs a ball and tosses it to his father, sitting on a couch. One, two, three, 10 tosses follow ... until Luke reaches in to grab a baseball wrapped in a plastic bag with the word "Captains" imprinted on it.
"That's from Ben, isn't it?" his mother says.
Luke tosses it to her. A few minutes earlier he had been wrestling with "Buck" and "Doe," his stuffed animal deer who have been through so much with him.
Were it not for a slight unsteadiness when he walks, this would be another 5-year-old playing with his toys while his parents chat with a visitor. It would be impossible to tell that 11 months earlier, Luke Holko was fighting for his life. "He keeps breaking down barriers," says his mother, Nicole Holko.
That her husband Chad and Nicole can now smile a little does not lessen the ordeal they endured, which began on Sept. 2, 2009, when the three sat with Chad's father at a minor league game of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in Niles, Ohio.
Luke was in his dad's arms, in the front row just past first base when a line drive off the bat of Ben Carlson screamed into the stands and into the back of Luke's head. The ball dropped directly down, which meant he took the full impact. He immediately went limp, Chad raced for help and a nightmare began.
Luke's cerebellum hit his brain stem, which caused many and serious concerns. Luke was put into an induced coma for two days, and his parents experienced a prolonged period of waiting to see how he would respond and return.
Now ... 11 months later ...
"He's doing great," Nicole said, "and we just think it's important people know that because so many people asked and cared about him."
Time gives Luke's parents the ability to put things in perspective. They remember how Luke had to learn to swallow again, to talk, to regain his balance, to remember when it was time to go to the bathroom. They believe his hearing is returning, but they aren't sure because it's all mixed up in the regular growth and development process. They see him play now, though, and even with the imbalance caused by the brain not sending the proper signals to his right leg they realize how far he has come and they believe he will progress further. Because they recall that no matter how well the doctors treated them and Luke, they also never gave a prediction or long-term prognosis. Because they just didn't know.
"They never wanted to commit to anything," Nicole said. "They still don't. Because of his remarkable progress."
Luke stayed in Akron Children's Hospital for a month, then went to a children's rehab center at Cleveland Clinic. He went back to Akron Oct. 30 and came home Nov. 5, one day after his tracheotomy tube was removed.
He came home in a little wheelchair, said his first word since the injury Dec. 11 -- and it was "More."
"He wanted more Cheerios," Nicole said.
Christmas was good, and by the middle of January he was out of the wheelchair and using a small walker. That stayed until the middle of May, when he was walking on his own.
Now he toddles through the house, though he has some unsteadiness because of the calf-muscle issue, for which he receives four botox injections every three or four months.
"When he falls, he's kind of graceful about it," Chad says. "He'll say, 'I'm OK.' Then he gets up and goes on with what he was doing."
The Holkos recognize that this is Luke's reality, which helps. He is young enough that he remembers little of what happened, so as he recovers and grows he merely goes about his business. Nicole said when he came home in his little wheelchair he was "as normal as he could be."
The strength and patience of Luke's parents permeates the home. Nicole spent every minute with Luke in the hospital. Whether it's their son's situation, insurance concerns, hospital visits, trips for therapy ... they persevere and they do not complain.
"You do what you have to do," Chad says.
"That was a lot of it," Nicole says. "When he was in the hospital he could not tell us. We had to be the voice for him."
Motherly instinct took over as well. A few months prior to the injury, Nicole had a miscarriage. She was angry, devastated. But not having a baby meant she could spend the time with Luke. When he was in Cleveland at the Clinic's Center for Children's Rehab, she knew something was wrong. She felt it. Turns out he had an ear infection, and it was because of her that it was treated when he returned to Akron.
They admit they were emotional about what happened, but also focused on Luke's well-being. They never asked why, or why me?
"I was always hopeful," Nicole says. "I just knew he was going to get better."
"We were upset, but any time you thought something that way you realized he was in a worse spot than we were," Chad says.
Now their main concerns are that Luke continues on the road to recovery. That when he gets to school he's as healthy as he can be to avoid what could be hurtful comments from other kids who might notice his gait, his balance.
"We don't want it to be any harder for him that it would be anyway," Nicole says.
They talk about the accident, and wonder what might be done. They say they are not the kind to file a lawsuit, but they would like to use what they know to protect others, perhaps with a net similar to the ones that protect fans behind home plate.
"You don't want to put a barrier between the game and the fans," Chad says. "But we don't want anyone else to go through what we went through."
The Indians have been supportive, inviting Luke and his family to a game earlier this year. Former manager Eric Wedge and his wife became involved, as did several players, among them Jensen Lewis and Scrappers Dave Smith and Travis Fryman and his family.
One of the more emotional days came when Carlson (now with the Lake County Captains) visited. What happened was a complete accident, but it shook him. So he took a day to visit Luke. At first, Luke was his usual shy self.
"Ben didn't know what to say," Nicole says. "But eventually he fit right in like he was family. He stayed and played with Luke for four hours. Luke cried when he left. It's weird to say, but if this is going to happen it couldn't have been from a better person. Luke got hit by a really good guy."
As they talk, they realize that Luke's birthday was July 20, and the party was last weekend. It was a good event, one they never doubted would come but wondered what it would be like. It was normal, with friends, cousins, relatives coming to the modest country home in Northeast Ohio.
At one point Chad wanted to show where Luke was hit, where a scar was still visible in the back of his head.
"Hey Luke," Chad says. "Look at the door."
Luke does, and when he realizes why he bounces up and runs to his father.
"Daddy!" he says, punching him in the stomach.
The one point they would like to get across: Thank you. Thank you to everyone who wrote, donated, prayed and took time to express support.
"Just thank you to everyone out there who supported us," Chad says. "People all over the world."
As he speaks, Luke plays with his stuffed deer, the ones that were with him every day he was in the hospital. Luke makes a wrestling move, then pins "Buck" under his shoulders.
Just like any other little boy.