Laurel teen’s persistence helps recovery from paralysis

Phillip Hartman, center, stands with his parents Faith and Mark near their Laurel home. Surgery for scoliosis of the spine on Oct. 25, 2017, left Phillip paralyzed from the waist down. After almost two years of recovery, he is back on his feet. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

LAUREL — Seventeen-year-old Phillip Hartman of Laurel is a Bulldog in more ways than one.

Perseverance and tenacity are part of the body chemistry of the 17-year-old Laurel High School senior, whose sophomore and junior years were anything but normal.

As he faced surgery for thoracic scoliosis, he was ready.

When he emerged from surgery with lower body paralysis, he didn’t give up.

“It’s been a long journey. I’ve got what I’ve got,” says Phillip. “Not everyone has the same problems as everybody else. But you still have to thank the Lord that you’re still here and you’ve got what you’ve got. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Up until the fall of 2017, Phillip was a teen who had decent grades, played trumpet in the Laurel Bulldog school band, and yearned to wing pumpkins as a camouflaged wingman with the family’s Little Big Gun air cannon at the World Championship Punkin Chunkin.

But persistent pain worsened.

“I’d always have this back pain and I never knew what it was from. Mom always thought it was from my backpack but it actually it turned out to not be,” said Phillip.

From his pediatrician and the hospital for X-rays, Phillip ended up at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children. in Wilmington. The diagnosis: thoracic scoliosis in neck, severe curvature of the spine.

Scoliosis is a lateral (side-to-side) curve in the spine, usually combined with a rotation of the vertebrae.

Faith Hartman, Phillip’s mother, recalls the original test was done in April 2017. Her son had severe levoscoliotic curvature of the lower cervical and upper thoracic spine.

“He had a rib that didn’t grow out all the way. We found out in April he was already at 61 degrees (curvature). If he didn’t have surgery, the more that he curved, the more that it would affect his airway, his heart and breathing,” said Ms. Hartman.

Surgery at A.I. duPont was set for Oct. 25, 2017. An MRI prior to surgery showed the spinal curvature had progressed to 71 degrees.

“I supposed to be in there for four to five days. I didn’t get out until December 19, 2017. I was supposed to be about four to five hours in the operating room. I ended up being in there for about 13 hours,” said Phillip. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

During the surgery, which included inserting two aluminum rods in Phillip’s neck, complications arose.

“He was paralyzed from the waist down,” said Phillip’s father, Mark Hartman. “He wanted to know why he couldn’t move his legs and we just told him because he was over-medicated. We tried to play that off to keep him from not being scared. But eventually it had to come out. Come to find he had a spinal cord injury that caused him to be paralyzed.”

He immediately went to the Intensive Care Unit. Doctors had to detach three ribs on each side to deal with air leakage in Phillip’s lungs, said Ms. Hartman.

All strapped in, Phillip undergoes therapy in his recovery from complications from surgery to correct scoliosis and severe curvature of the neck and spine. (Submitted photo)

“No guarantee of a full recovery,” said Mr. Hartman. “They said that time will tell. Certain things will come maybe in a certain number of months. Eventually, we started seeing his toes move.”

Lower extremity sensation and movement began with little spasms.

“My mom was in there nonstop,” said Phillip. “I would joke with her. One of my things was I would say was, ‘Don’t make me kick you.’ She said, ‘Do it.’ And I did. Mom said, ‘Do it again.’ So, I kicked her again.”

He wore leg tights to promote circulation. A tilt board helped stabilize blood pressure. Phillip had custom-made leg/lower body braces, which cost about $10,000. A specially made wheelchair was $5,000.

His stay was A.I. duPont was brightened by a visit from the school’s band director, administration and several band members.

His road to recovery was paved at Lakeside Physical Therapy in Laurel with occupational and physical therapy every day.

“They are the ones that got him on his feet and walking,” said Ms. Hartman. “It seemed like it didn’t matter on the time frame that insurance allowed. Most visits were an hour, but they didn’t care if they spent two hours with him.”

“Ever since I started there, they got me up and walking — since day one. I was up on parallel bars the first day,” said Phillip.

He graduated from one- and two-hand parallel bars, to leg braces, a walker, forearm crutches and when needed, the wheelchair.

Phillip Hartman, in his younger, pre-high school days, as a member of the family’s Little Big Gun team at Punkin Chunkin.

“The leg braces were hips down to my feet. I only used those once,” said Phillip.

“For school, instead of taking gym, they let him use gym time for therapy,” Ms. Hartman said.

His last session was November of 2018.

Throughout this ordeal, the family had faith, which Ms. Hartman says was solidified by an intervention while on a food run at the coffee shop at A.I. duPont.

“I went down and placed their order for sandwiches. There was another gentleman standing there. He was talking. There was nobody else there. I figured he was talking on Bluetooth,” said Ms. Hartman. “I turned back and he said, ‘Ma’am, I’m talking to you.’ ‘You’re talking to me?’ I said. He said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ He said, ‘God just spoke to me and told me that he (Phillip) was going to be OK.’ A complete stranger.”

Caught up in that emotional moment, she did not get his name.

“You hear of things; other experiences people have gone through. But until you go through it … and the next day, Phillip could move his legs. When he told me that that night, it is just hard to describe. It almost like it gave me a sense of calmness, that Phillip really was going to be OK.’”

Phillip kept up with schoolwork during his stay at A.I. duPont and at home while undergoing therapy.

He returned to school in May of 2018.

Under his 504 Plan, which ensures a child with a disability receives accommodations to ensure academic success, accommodations were made for transportation and an elevator. Efforts were made to ensure Phillip was not in hallways when classes changed.

Phillip joined the band in fifth grade. He earned Honors band status in 2015 for trumpet.

Students and staff at Laurel High School offer a welcome home to Phillip Hartman in December of 2017, following surgery and months of rehabilitation and therapy. (Submitted photo)

For halftime field shows this year, Phillip is drumming to the beat of the tympani. In the stands, it’s the trumpet.

He recalls missing the Bulldog Band’s big performance because of his surgery.

“I was starting my sophomore year. We were almost done with marching band season. We had our big major competition up in Pennsylvania three days after my surgery,” Phillip said. “I missed it just by that many days.”

The scoliosis and surgery complications weren’t Phillip’s first challenge. He arrived in his world June 11, 2002 as a premature baby. He weighed in at three pounds, 10 ounces.

“I still say he’s our miracle baby,” Ms. Hartman said. “He almost didn’t make it into this world.”

“I’ve been determined since Day 1,” Phillip said.

Community support

Phillip’s temporary release from A.I. duPont was for a Dec. 9, 2017 fundraiser. “They said it couldn’t be overnight,” Phillip said.

The idea, Ms. Hartman said, was to bring Phillip home for an hour or so.

“That afternoon before we got home with him, Rusty Dukes and part of the Good Ole Boys had put this ramp up for us,” she said.

Spurred by the Good Ole Boy Foundation, the fundraiser featured a Yeti cooler and private donations. The Laurel American Legion also donated its support.

Phillip received many cards and packages from Florida to New Hampshire.

Ms. Hartman’s eyes tear up when she speaks about the $5,000 check the Hartman family received from Mountaire Farms.

During his struggles after surgery, Phillip received a special boost for speedy recovery from Tori Belleci, from the televison show “Mythbusters,” whom Phillip befriended during the Punkin Chunkin days.

“Hey, Phil, it’s Tori. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. Your mom told me you’re having a tough go after surgery. I just want to say hang in there buddy, stay strong. Sorry, I’m not going to be able to see you at Punkin Chunkin. But I hope you’re doing well,” the message said.

“He and I have been friends going on eight years,” Phillip said.

“They are tight. They’re almost like brothers,” said Mr. Hartman.

Happy homecoming

On Dec. 19, 2017, Phillip came home for good.

Homecoming included a huge banner sign, courtesy of John Penuel of Penuel Signs, and a stop at Laurel High School.

“Once we got into town, they had students waiting outside at curbside welcoming Phillip,” said Ms. Hartman.

“That was when I took my first steps coming home. I was able to have enough strength to pick myself up out of my chair,” Phillip said.

One of Phillip’s best friends who helped along the way was band member Lucas Carr, a 2019 Laurel graduate whose father has battled paralysis.

On Monday, Aug. 26, Phillip walked down Scarborough Lane to start his senior year.

With no braces or wheelchair, 17-year-old Phillip Hartman walks down the road on Aug. 26 — the first day of school of his senior year as a Laurel High Bulldog. (Submitted photo)

“No braces … all me,” he says.

Barring a schedule change and Phillip meeting graduation requirements which he fully intends to do, Laurel High School’s class of 2020 commencement is Thursday, June 4.

His mother has a special wish.

“I really hope that when he walks across that stage to get his diploma, the school says a little something more for him for his determination on how he has got through this,” said Ms. Hartman.

In Phillip’s crystal ball, there’s Delaware Technical Community College in Georgetown to pursue an automotive career. Maybe someday a diesel mechanic, like his father, who also deals in demolition work.

“I don’t want to go to college far away from home,” Phillip said.

“That means we’re stuck with you,” Phillip’s dad said with a playful jab.

Phillip’s ultimate dream is to one day create a foundation for children with scoliosis, and even older adults, to assist with home care, supplies, medical equipment and firsthand experience support.

“I don’t want people having to go through what I did. Not everybody turns out like they did,” he said.,.

Guilt, sacrifice

“Phillip didn’t go through it by himself. I lost my job, because he is my son,” said Ms. Hartman.

“Family comes first,” said Phillip.

Mr. Hartman said he and his wife have battled guilt in putting their son through the surgery, which had a complicated outcome.

“Listening to Phillip, he didn’t want this surgery,” said Mr. Hartman. “After talking to the doctors and doctors giving not an ultimatum to us but what could happen if he didn’t have it, we kind of felt really bad because we forced him to have this operation and turned out the way it turned out.”

“We held a lot of guilt for that,” Ms. Hartman said. “But we don’t want to him to suffer in pain.”

Phillip holds an aluminum rod (two were inserted in his neck) as he looks at the facsimile of the curvature of his neck and spine that necessitated surgery. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

Mr. Hartman added, “As days and months went on and we’d have some progress, apparently maybe we did make the right decision. After he came out and he was paralyzed from the waist it was, ‘Are we bad parents because we forced him to have this?’”

“Something in my mind was saying, ‘I’d have to learn to walk again,’” said Phillip.

“I think we’ve done right in the long run,” Mr. Hartman said. “He has come a long way and I’m really proud of my boy, even though he gets on our nerves every once in a while.”

“One day, he looked at me and seriously said, ‘Mom, nobody likes what has happened to me, but at least I’m still here.’”

“I was very determined,” said Phillip. “I mean there were some things where I didn’t like what I had to do but had to do them. It is what it is. It’s part of life.”

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