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Remarkable recovery: Jeff LeMay's story one of inspiration and hope

LeMay, who was struck by a minivan while crossing London Road more than a month ago, has recovered to the point where he returned home Wednesday.

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Jeff LeMay (Derek Montgomery photo)
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St. Scholastica football coach Mike Heffernan and offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta were two of the first people to see Jeff LeMay at the hospital in the early morning hours of July 31.

It wasn’t good.

LeMay, a St. Scholastica football and baseball player, had been struck by a minivan while crossing the street only two or three hours earlier and was in critical condition, in a coma.

“It was terrifying,” Heffernan said. “I never want to experience that again. He had just gotten out of his first surgery for his face. He had a patch over his face. But we were going to be there. We were going to support him. It was like having one of my kids in the hospital. You get that phone call … it’s something that I’ll never forget.”

Remarkably, LeMay has recovered to the point where he returned home Wednesday to Shoreview, Minn., and is even talking about playing sports again. In the meantime, he plans on attending a St. Scholastica football game this fall.

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The Saints, who open the season at noon today against visiting Mayville State, will wear No. 29 decals on their helmets this season, and homecoming Sept. 21 against Crown will be “Jeff LeMay Day.”

“Obviously we miss him, but we’re so happy for how far he’s come,” said senior quarterback Zach Edwards. “I love the kid. I wish he was here, but so proud of him, so amazing in his recovery. It took an act of God, for sure.”

Remarkable recovery

LeMay and his mother, Kari, sat down at home in Shoreview Thursday for a phone interview. Kari was mostly there in case he stumbled, but he didn’t. He might occasionally pause to find the right words, but there were no obvious indicators that he had fractured his skull and suffered brain trauma from the accident near 19th Avenue East and London Road in Duluth. He still needs crutches, having shattered his tibia and fibula in his left leg, but that’s about it.

On Friday, Aug. 9, he came out of his coma.

“We’re happy to have him home,” Kari LeMay said. “There was a point where we didn’t know if he was ever going to wake up. So, yes, huge progress. The doctors couldn’t predict what was going to happen because every patient is different. The fact he was young and healthy boded well in his favor, but you never know. They wouldn’t give us any predictions.”

Kari LeMay posted updates on Jeff’s progress on a CaringBridge site and “literally thousands of people were praying for Jeff.”

At first after coming out of his coma, Jeff LeMay was like, “Where am I? What happened?” He could say words but not phrases, and it took another week or two for him to talk in complete sentences. At first, he had trouble recognizing people, but eventually, it started coming back to him.

“Little by little,” LeMay said. “There was a lot of confusion. I just tried to stay true to the doctors' orders when I was up in Duluth.”

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Kari LeMay described it as a fog.

“He could hear phrases, he could hear voices, but it took awhile to kind of piece it together and make some sense out of it,” she said. “But as the fog slowly lifts, it comes back to him, but he still has some areas he is not quite clear on. He just needs more time for everything to get back to the way it was.”

Jeff LeMay was originally cared for at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth for nearly a month before being transferred to Regions Hospital Rehabilitation Institute near the Capitol in St. Paul. The LeMays said Jeff received excellent care each step of the way, and based on the hospital photos Kari posted to their CaringBridge site, he clearly had a new team, this one of medical professionals, on his side.

When he first got to Regions, it took lots of prompting and reminders to help walk him through tasks such as taking a shower. Put the shampoo in your hand, put it in your hair, etc. But after doing it a few times, he no longer needed all the prompts and eventually began doing it all by himself.

LeMay got his first dry run at returning to normal life on Sunday, going home for a little while just to see if he could make it up and down stairs and get in and out of the shower safely.

“It is good to be home, and I’m starting to get back into some sort of normal routine before we start outpatient therapy and stuff like that,” LeMay said. “As I’ve progressed, for the most part I’ve been able to turn my brain back on.”

One of the early highlights was a simple event.

“His mother and his girlfriend were most excited to see Jeff get his haircut,” Kari LeMay joked, referring to Jeff’s girlfriend Olivia Klejewski.

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A true Saint

LeMay was a team captain in football and baseball at Mounds View High School and was a member of the Mustangs’ 2014 state championship baseball team.

At St. Scholastica, LeMay was a starting running back unless he was sidelined by an injury, including six starts his freshman year. He was versatile — blocking, running and catching the football — and kind of a hybrid between running back and slot receiver.

LeMay’s most productive season was as a sophomore in 2017, when he rushed for 512 yards and five touchdowns while adding 239 receiving yards and two more scores. Last season, as a junior, he missed games due to a “stinger,” a pinched nerve in his neck. He started five games and finished the season with 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns while adding 13 receptions for 163 yards. In baseball, he was a backup outfielder.

To see a healthy person like that, an athlete and friend, reduced to a hospital bed, able to do nothing, was hard for Heffernan to comprehend. His second visit to see LeMay wasn’t much better than his first.

“It’s just the not knowing,” Heffernan said. “Then you see him, it’s a sight I’ve never seen before and I never want to experience again. Then six days — six days later — he was in the same exact spot. He looked exactly the same, and it was relived all over again. He was out that long, no improvement. It was scary.”

Edwards described LeMay as fun-loving and goofy, a real character. The two used to share a place together.

Edward said he could never fathom LeMay dying. It was just too hard to grasp.

“That thought never crossed my mind,” Edwards said.

But even Edwards admitted there was a time where it was bleak. But then, just days later, Heffernan received a text saying Jeff was awake, and those same two coaches, Heffernan and Acosta, visited a short time after.

“We went in and you could tell right away, he was Jeff,” Heffernan said. “I could tell he was still working on things, but we chatted for about 10 to 15 minutes and it was awesome, it was great.

“It’s amazing to see firsthand how the body knows how to shut down and let itself heal and get itself right, and then it starts coming around. It was unbelievable, just unbelievable.”

Heffernan was able to shake his hand, and now, he can’t wait to hug him.

LeMay admits he has missed out a little on his senior year, but he said, ultimately, it was nothing more than a “hiccup” compared to what it could have been. The accident has taken him away from football for this fall, but he hopes to be back for the baseball season. It has also pushed back his schooling. He hopes to graduate in the spring of 2021 with a degree in science education. He would like to be a middle school or high school science teacher.

“All things considered, I feel really lucky to be where I am, that I’m even able to crutch away from this whole ordeal. I’m blessed to be able to talk about it,” LeMay said. “As I come more and more aware, my mother brings up all the support and messages on the CaringBridge page . It seems like a lot of people have been praying for me and looking out for me as I go on the road to recovery, and a lot of people have helped me along the way. I’m just very grateful.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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