BELGRADE - On a sunny morning in late September, Wyatt Welch stands up for the first time in 10 months.
It's not one of his better days. He's tired from fighting a cold. He hasn't been sleeping much since the accident almost a year ago.
But he's determined to get out of his chair. Today.
The machine that will help Wyatt stand is rolled into the physical therapy room, straps and belts dangling from its black metal frame.
Small improvements, like flexing a finger, are lauded in Wyatt's twice-weekly therapy sessions.
New movements, however slight, mean he's getting stronger. Getting better.
But today, Wyatt wants to take a big step. He wants to stand up.
When the frame is fully assembled, two sets of hands lift him from the chair and gingerly arrange him in the new device. He's strapped in at the chest and waist.
Wyatt's dad, Ross, slowly pumps a lever to raise the machine. Slowly, Wyatt's legs un-kink from their 90-degree bend. Wyatt smiles.
Up he goes. His legs straighten a little more.
"Higher," and the lever is pumped again.
He's tall. He practically towers. He asks for a tape measure. He's grown since the accident-lengthened, actually. His body is one inch longer than before. Six feet even.
A therapist comes over to hug him. He returns the gesture, leaning down to rest his arms lightly around her shoulders.
"I can finally look into your eyes," she says.
Life feels almost normal again. But it won't last.
Seventeen-year-old Wyatt is a quadriplegic, mostly paralyzed from his chest to his toes. He will probably never stand up again on his own.
When Wyatt thinks about the accident, that winter night that changed everything, the first and last things he remembers are the lights.
On Dec. 21, 2009, the Belgrade Panthers Varsity Wrestling Team was hosting the Anaconda Copperheads for a night meet at the high school's event center.
New to the sport, Wyatt had joined the wrestling squad after being cut from the basketball team. Wrestling was a way to stay involved, an opportunity for the boy, who loved sports-football, basketball, rodeo, BMX-to compete.
As spectators made their way into the gym and took their seats, the Panthers were warming up in pairs. Wyatt and his partner were practicing takedowns.
Each boy had the other in a headlock. It was Wyatt's turn to go down.
His head hit the mat before the rest of his body. He landed on his right side. As people will recall later, it was immediately clear that the move had somehow gone wrong.
Ross Welch, who was in the crowd, ran to his son, now lying prone on the mat. An ambulance was called.
Wyatt doesn't remember this.
As he slowly came to, his vision was blurred and he couldn't make out anything but the gym lights above him. To him, the room was silent.
He says now that he lifted his chin and tried to get up off the mat. But his arms wouldn't move. Neither would his legs.
There was no pain yet. Just fear.
"It was like a movie," he says now. "When something bad happens, people call your name, but you can't come to them."
As he stared up at the lights, Wyatt was loaded onto a hard metal stretcher and rushed to the Bozeman Deaconess Hospital emergency room.
The rest of the night, and the next two weeks of his life, are mostly lost to Wyatt. He spent that time under anesthesia, first while he underwent surgery to straighten his spine, and then to keep him still while the repair healed.
The diagnosis that night: a C-4 spinal injury. Permanent paralysis from the shoulders down.
A dark winter
The six months that followed are a time Wyatt would rather forget.
Two weeks after his surgery, Wyatt was transferred by medical plane to Denver's Craig Hospital, a renowned rehabilitation center.
It was winter in Denver, the days cold and snowy, and nightfall came early. Inside the hospital's walls, Wyatt was battling a different kind of darkness.
At first, he couldn't be left alone. Unable to breathe or eat on his own, Wyatt was dependant on a complex network of tubes and wires to keep him alive. If one of his parents got up to leave the room, he would panic and thrash. Unable to leave his side, Wyatt's parents took turns sleeping by his bed.
The logo used by Craig Hospital is that of the "broken man," a person who suffers a spinal cord or brain injury but becomes whole again through rehabilitation.
And Wyatt was broken.
For the first month, a ventilator prevented him from speaking. He was glad for the excuse not to talk, to shake off questions about how he was doing.
The answer was that Wyatt didn't know if he wanted to be alive anymore.
"I was pretty much just a ghost," he said. "I didn't care for anyone, didn't care about anybody."
When he wasn't in class learning about how to live in a wheelchair, Wyatt was in bed, watching TV or staring out the window.
His parents, Ross and Shirley, said that during this time, their son was hardly recognizable, physically or emotionally.
He lost about 40 pounds. His skin looked translucent against the stark white hospital sheets. A neck brace partially obscured his face.
Their confident, mischievous boy who faced down enraged bulls as a bullfighter and loved to play pranks was buried in grief. This Wyatt was angry, mean even, and lashed out at his family, the ones closest to him.
Why did this have to happen to him?
His parents couldn't give him a reason.
All they could do was love him through it.
Nature of the break
While Wyatt was trying to adjust to his new body, his body was adjusting, too. After so much time lying down, his first attempts at sitting up made his blood pressure spike, and he would vomit or faint.
His compromised immune system became more prone to infections. While recovering, he had to undergo surgery for kidney stones.
And there were the muscle spasms, caused by scar tissue forming in the damaged area of his spine, blocking messages from below the level of the injury to his brain.
With Wyatt, attempts to move or rearrange him often caused his legs to stiffen and convulse. They also came on for no particular reason. The spasms usually lasted a few seconds, sometimes up to 15 or 20. Sometimes they were powerful enough to twist his limbs "like a pretzel," requiring someone to untangle and reposition him in bed or his chair. A few times, he fell off his bed.
At Craig, Wyatt had to relearn every motor skill he'd developed in 17 years. Eating, dressing, bathing-all required a different approach, with help from nurses or family members. During their six-month stay in Denver, the Welches picked up enough new medical equipment to fill a small U-Haul trailer.
But out of the despair at Craig came a piece of good news: Contrary to his original diagnosis in Bozeman, Wyatt was not completely paralyzed from his shoulders down. While he had no controlled movement in his legs, feet, fingers or trunk, he did have limited mobility in his arms and hands.
In February, he developed enough upper arm strength to push a manual wheelchair. After the awkwardness of the first motorized chair, he was thrilled for the extra bit of freedom.
"His face lit up, and his eyes got wide, and the smile on his face made me cry," Shirley said. "He said, ‘Now I feel human again.'"
Things began to get better after that. With the new lime green chair came independence. He was able to wheel himself to friends' rooms. He met a girl. He started going on group outings, to sporting events or restaurants. At an equine rehabilitation center, the former rider got to nuzzle up to a horse when the animal stuck its head in his lap.
"About halfway through, I realized it still sucked, but I needed to get with it," Wyatt says. "There was still stuff I could do."
Wyatt's injury is classified as "incomplete," meaning the spinal cord was not severed. The full extent of his injury is unknown.
While he will most likely never walk again, other muscles may come back, with time and work. Until the injury site has fully healed, about two years from the date of the accident, his doctors say, there is hope for a fuller recovery.
Baffled by the system
In May, the Welches got the go-ahead to bring Wyatt home for the final weeks of his junior year of high school.
Wyatt's care is extensive and expensive, as the Welches soon discovered back in Belgrade.
Though the Welches have health insurance through Ross' job at Rocky Mountain Supply, Ross spends almost every evening on the phone with the insurance company, fighting for reimbursements for everything from a wheelchair lift for his truck to Wyatt's medication, which costs $300 a month.
Right now, Wyatt needs around-the-clock care. Someone must be available in case he spasms and falls. During the night, Shirley and Ross take turns waking up every few hours to turn him, critical in preventing bedsores. They sleep lightly, always listening for a shout or cry from Wyatt, whose muscle spasms often keep him from sleeping more than a couple of hours a night.
Vigilance is required in Wyatt's care. There is always a threat of infection. Daily personal care routines must be followed thoroughly. If a cough lasts more than a few days, he has to go to the doctor for antibiotics. He has chronic neck and shoulder pain from holding himself up in his chair all day.
Early on, Shirley decided she wanted to be the one who took care of Wyatt. At Craig Hospital, she and Ross took a certification course on how to care for quadriplegics. She chose not to go back to work in order to be available for her son, which has further limited the family's already tight resources. Between Wyatt's medical expenses and the family's day-to-day needs, Ross' salary doesn't stretch far enough.
But the insurance company and the Welches continue to butt heads over how best to look after Wyatt. Shirley says the company's position is that someone who needs 24/7 care needs to be in a specialized facility, not at home. According to Shirley, insurance also refuses to reimburse her for her role as caretaker. They'd prefer the Welches hire someone else to see to his most private needs, she said.
"I don't want anyone else taking care of my son," she said. "That's my job."
The Welches' financial challenges were compounded in late August when they were evicted from the home they'd been renting outside of Belgrade. The owner of the house wanted to sell it and told the Welches, who had been providing upkeep on the property for a break on the rent, they had 10 days to move.
With no extra money for a new place, the family moved into their 22-year-old son Cody's one-bedroom apartment.
The apartment is not safe for Wyatt. To get to the second-story living space, either Cody or Ross must carry him up a flight of stairs. The bathroom wasn't built for a wheelchair user. Wyatt's long medical bed takes up about a third of the joined kitchen and living room. Most nights, Cody sleeps on the couch, and the boys' parents take the bedroom, where a metal rack at the foot of the bed holds everyone's clothes.
The space is tidy but cramped. Most of Wyatt's specialized equipment is in a storage unit because there's no extra room.
Shirley knows the apartment is not appropriate for her son. But the family's in a bind: Without timely insurance reimbursements, they can't scrape together enough for monthly rent. There also isn't much in the way of handicap-accessible housing in Belgrade.
Shirley, a petite woman with long auburn hair, becomes visibly distressed at any mention of the apartment.
"I'm embarrassed," she said. "I want to make a secure home for Wyatt. But we are flat broke."
The Welches are lost in a system of baffling bureaucracy. Friends offer suggestions: Wyatt needs a caseworker. Wyatt should be getting money from the state. Maybe there are grants to help you.
Shirley throws up her hands.
"How do we do these things? How do we find these people? Our insurance system sucks. I don't understand how our insurance companies can tell you what and when you can do something for your sick loved ones."
Shirley also admitted to occasionally feeling frustrated when well-intentioned people tell her how good Wyatt looks. Aside from the obvious fact that he is in a wheelchair, Wyatt is a handsome blond-haired teenager with a warm smile for well-wishers and a quick wink for the bubbly female classmates who like to flutter around his chair at school and football games.
But she sees the other side, she says, the days she picks him up right after school, when his friends are all headed to football practice or to hang out. She tries to comfort him when he wishes for his old life back, but there's only so much she can do.
"People are nice and they're kind, but they don't understand what it takes to take care of him," Shirley said.
In a recent blog post, she elaborated on this frustration. "He does put on a good face at school because he does not want pity...It hurts him more when people feel sorry for him," she wrote.
"As parents it feels like we are in a no-win situation. We want him to get out there and try to get involved any way he can. Then on the other hand if it hurts him so much should we push him to do it? I really don't know what is best for him at this point? I do not want to hurt him any more then he does."
A day in his life
A typical day for Wyatt begins a little before 7 a.m.
Each morning, Ross and Shirley lift him out of bed and proceed to ready him for the day, which can take an hour or two. His personal hygiene routine now includes cleaning around the new imitation-diamond studs in his ears that he and Cody got two weeks ago.
Lately, he's chosen to dress in shorts and a T-shirt, to take advantage of the warm weather. The outfit is completed with spotlessly white Puma sneakers and a black MSU Bobcats hat, which he wears slightly cocked to the left, a habit left over from years of rifle shooting.
A couple mornings a week, Wyatt goes to physical therapy at Lone Peak Physical Therapy in Belgrade, where he and therapist Josh Green work on his range of motion.
The ultimate goal is to restore as much of Wyatt's function and independence as possible.
Because he is an incomplete quad, "there's no rule book for Wyatt," says Josh. "We never know what we're going to get."
While he lies on a padded table, Josh manipulates his limbs in different directions with various levels of tension. To strengthen his trunk muscles, Josh sits Wyatt up at the end of the table and sits behind him, supporting Wyatt's weight with his shoulder.
Lately, Wyatt has been able to sit up for a few seconds by himself.
The stretching keeps Wyatt limber but also improves his circulation and helps keep his heart and lungs conditioned. While they work, Josh and Wyatt chat about football, school and life in general. Josh is his main confidante, Wyatt said.
They also engage in a little good-natured ribbing, which the self-described smart alec enjoys.
"Why you got shorts on? It's supposed to be cold today." Josh asks him as he straightens Wyatt's arms over his head.
"I can't feel it!" Wyatt retorts.
When the session's over, another therapist helps lift Wyatt back into his chair so Ross can take him to school. He totes a green backpack slung over the back of his wheelchair-he didn't pick the color, which matches his chair, he's quick to point out. It contains all the medical supplies he'll need in the course of a day: pills (22 total, at four different intervals), wrist braces, fingerless gloves for pushing the wheelchair, extra catheter supplies and a large bundle of wrapped straws, which he uses to drink with at lunch. Staying hydrated is important, so a green water bottle-his mom's choice, like the backpack-is always strapped to the side of the chair.
Once at school, he has an aide to help him. He can reach her by text; he can text quickly by tapping out messages with his knuckles on the phone's touch screen.
His aide, Darcy VanBeek, is there for whatever Wyatt needs: retrieving a dropped book, pushing him to class if his arms are tired and administering oral exams while the other kids write out their tests in the classroom. She even helps him draw in seventh period art class; because he can't yet grasp things with his fingers, he holds the pencil like a ski pole, his fingers curled tightly around it. Darcy guides his hand and lends advice on object placement and shading.
If he doesn't eat lunch with his friends in the cafeteria, Wyatt takes his lunch in the resource room. Darcy unwraps whatever he wants for the day; on this day, a chocolate muffin and small carton of milk.
Once his food is arranged, Wyatt feeds himself. He has a hand brace that can hold a fork, but it's usually easier to squeeze the food between his palms and bend his head down to eat.
"He's in charge of his care. He's just kind of taught me what I need to know to help him," Darcy said.
Wyatt tries to wheel to class before the halls overflow with yammering teenagers; otherwise, he gets stuck in the crowd. Teachers also let him leave class 10 minutes early. Belgrade High has an elevator for going up or down floors, but Wyatt sometimes needs help from friends or a teacher to navigate over a few sections of coarse carpet in the school.
Wyatt the student is very much the same as before the accident.
"I hate school," he said. "With or without the chair."
He likes his Advanced Placement English class, but he's easily distracted in school and spends a good portion of each class chatting under his breath with neighbors or rolling his chair back and forth. His cell phone seems permanently affixed to his lap, where it buzzes intermittently with new messages from friends in other classrooms.
It gets old asking for help all the time, he says. The hardest thing for Wyatt to adjust to, especially at school, has been the loss of his independence.
"I have to count on so many people to help me out," he says. "I don't like asking people to do something for me. I hate it."
And, "it probably gets old being asked," he added.
After school, unless he is doing scorekeeping for a girls' volleyball game, Wyatt's mom picks him up and they go back to the small apartment, where he reclines on the couch and does homework, watches TV or chats on the Internet.
The biggest change in his routine since the accident: "I'm always home now," he said.
He doesn't like to talk about it, but he's lonely. He's well liked at school; in September he was crowned homecoming king. But it takes a lot of planning to go out for any kind of excursion, and it usually seems like "too much of a hassle," he says.
Shirley and Ross say they encourage him to get together with friends, to attend sporting events and start developing new hobbies.
Wyatt has met a few other guys in wheelchairs and plans to learn to monoski this winter with a pal, David, who's a paraplegic. He also wants to raft, hunt and try any sport that's modified for people in wheelchairs.
The only sport he won't play is wheelchair basketball, the sport he tried out for but didn't make, leading him to join the wrestling team last year.
"It's close and it hurts," he says.
Doctors have told the Welches it will get easier with time. It hasn't yet been a year since Wyatt was injured, and he's still physically coping with the loss of his body. The emotional part will take longer still.
‘My life's not over’
On Dec. 15, Wyatt will turn 18, six days before the one-year anniversary of his accident.
He will graduate from high school in the spring and has started brainstorming career options, including jobs in teaching, psychology or forensics. Ideally, he'd like to go to a college that offers wheelchair sports, but that might mean moving out of state where there are opportunities.
The old dream of serving in the military, like his older sister Stephanie, is gone.
Details like if his family will accompany him to college and who will take over his care are still big unknowns. Right now, the day-to-day concerns are enough to deal with.
"It comes as it comes," Wyatt says of the future.
Figuring out exactly what his physical limitations are is key. He's been making weekly progress in therapy, impressing his doctors and therapists.
"Every day, surprises," said Judy Bolewicz, an occupational therapist Wyatt sees a few times a month.
To perform tasks that require finger dexterity, like buttoning a shirt, Wyatt has to learn to overcome the involuntarily tendency of his fingers to curl inward, called tenodesis. During a recent session, she lays his left hand flat on a desk, lightly pressing it in place with her own.
That day, Wyatt is practicing gripping and releasing what looks like a hollow wooden bead, about the size of a small carrot. Judy asks him to place the green bead into her hand, which she's holding out a few inches from him.
The first few times, the bead slips from his fingers, bouncing once on the beige carpet before rolling under the desk. Judy is encouraging; each time the bead drops, she picks it up and repositions it in his fingers.
He holds his breath, concentrating. He grabs the bead with all five fingertips closed around it, like the mechanical arm of an arcade game when it latches onto a stuffed toy.
Slowly, Wyatt lifts his arm up and over to Judy. When his hand is positioned directly over hers, he lets go of the bead. It drops into her open palm.
"That's awesome!" she exclaims, genuinely pleased. He's never been able to do this before. "That rocked."
Moments like these help remind Wyatt that his fate is far from sealed. With patience and practice, he will be able to do more and more on his own. He will learn to use what muscles he can. He will play sports again. He will live.
Wyatt said he hates the term "disabled," preferring "handicapped" or "paralyzed."
"I'm not ‘disabled,'" he said. "I still do what I want. I'm just different."
"Your body's just one piece holding you together," he said.
"I got messed up. But my life's not over."
Lauren Russell can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2635.