Kerr defies odds in recovery: 2013 East graduate walking, driving a year after breaking his neck
Still in disbelief not long after one of his best friends, Andrew Kerr, broke a bone in his neck jumping into Island Lake last July, Alex Trapp said then that he couldn't believe it was real, that Kerr is "going to get over it within a year and he'll be back to normal."
Kerr isn't completely back to where he was before the incident, and likely never will be, but he's pretty dang close, all things considered. The 22-year-old 2013 Duluth East graduate went from controlling his powered wheelchair with his mouth, to using a joystick, to operating a manual wheelchair. That gave way to a walker, then crutches, then a cane. Since December, Kerr has walked without assistance.
A year after the scary spinal cord injury, Trapp appears downright prophetic, even if his words were fueled by fear at the time. Kerr recently started driving again, and he works out almost daily, honing his balance and strength. He and his older sisters, Allyson and Tyra, leave for a two-week trip to Europe on July 31.
"It's obviously like a flip of the coin, shake of the dice as far as that goes," Kerr, who was a terrific hockey player at East, said. "You have to work hard to get back as much as you can, but the way the injury works, at some point there's nothing you can do. It's just the way it goes.
"Obviously, I was really lucky and I have worked hard to get back as much as I have. It's definitely a combination. It's not like just because I wanted it completely normal, I can. But I can make the most of what I have."
Kerr was swimming at Island Lake with friends and ex-East hockey teammates last July 16 when he jumped into the water. Initial reports suggested he leapt from an inflatable trampoline, but Kerr says nobody witnessed the event, and he doesn't remember. He could have jumped off the dock. Whatever it was, he didn't resurface. Friends noticed him and pulled him from the water.
Kerr was airlifted to Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center. Once he regained movement in early August, he was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., where he stayed for about four months. That facility specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.
A defenseman on the ice, Kerr played three years of junior hockey, including a pair of seasons with Dubuque in the United States Hockey League. He was planning to study and play hockey at Wisconsin-Eau Claire before the accident. Instead, he will attend Minnesota Duluth.
Another curveball in a year full of them, but Kerr can't complain. Rather, he attacks his workouts at the Essentia fitness center with vigor, ear buds in, hat on, his face cloaked in determination.
"I just feel fortunate that I can walk, and that my arms work, to some degree," he said. "It's obviously really disappointing that I'm not able to do a whole bunch of stuff that I used to do. That sucks, but I kind of try to look at it through the lens where it could have been so much worse. I get bummed out, but I try to look at it that way."
Said Kerr's father, Clayton: "He's always said, 'I want to get better, I want to get better.' He's always worked hard. They told him, 'These are spinal cord injuries, and you can't just work hard and get better. Everything takes time.' "
Clayton and his wife, Cindy, joined their son in Colorado. During that time, they sold their home — with help from family and friends, who cleaned it and facilitated the sale — thinking Kerr would need a handicap-accessible house.
Still, they have no regrets. Just gratitude for all the help they received.
"The amount of work they did was absolutely beyond anything we could have imagined," Cindy said. "We're going to pay it forward for the rest of our lives, that's for sure."
Kerr broke his C4 vertebrae. Eventually, the C4 and C5 vertebrae came to sit on top of each other, which caused Kerr to hunch forward. Thus, he had fusion surgery in April. That straightened him up and reduced pain, but it left him out of commission and in a neck brace for about 10 weeks.
It wasn't a total wash, however. Kerr got a puppy out of the deal, a yellow Lab he named Leo.
Kerr had the brace removed earlier this month. On Thursday, he met with his surgeon, Dr. Jared Broadway, who noted everything was fusing together well and, moving forward, Kerr just has to be smart.
"I think he told him something like, 'Enjoy life,' " Clayton recalled.
Kerr intends to do just that. One thing he and his family won't do is dwell on July 16, 2016. They've shown little interest in revisiting the episode. A year later, it doesn't really matter whether Kerr jumped off a dock or a trampoline, or why a seemingly innocuous dive went so terribly awry.
"We've never really chased it to find out," Clayton said. "He wanted to move forward from where he was at and just focus on his rehab. We don't know what happened and maybe we'll never know, which would be fine. We're looking forward."