Reprinted with permission from Princeton Town Topics
May 28, 1997

School Community Rallies to Assist the Family of Paralyzed Hun Player

Not all beautiful things start out beautiful. The pearl, for instance, is just a piece of grit at first, an intrusion into an oyster's otherwise healthy system. It is only the oyster's response to the intrusion -- the effort to soothe, cover over, and accept -- that turns the grit into something of value.
That same sort of process is taking place at the Hun School right now, where Chris Heinel, a sophomore lacrosse goalkeeper, was paralyzed in a game last month. A remarkable coalition of Hun parents, students, and administrators has come together behind the Heinel family to help them through the crisis.
In the seven weeks since the accident, committees have been formed to raise money, and to investigate the changes that will need to be made to accommodate Chris on campus. That comes in addition to the remarkable personal sacrifices that individual Hun students, parents, and faculty members have made to make Chris and his family as comfortable as possible in the face of such a staggering life change.
"The word that comes to m!nd first is 'phenomenal,' " says Chris's father, Jeffrey Heinel. "It is the single most powerful concerted effort I have ever seen a group of people make."
Hun has responded like an oyster to that unwelcome piece of grit. The community has rallied around the Heinels, accepting Chris's injury as a part of itself and assuring that when he is well enough to return, the Hun School will be Chris Heinel's oyster, and the Hun community wili make him its pearl.
The "how" of the April 10 accident -- the first thing anyone asks -- was maddeningly mundane: a loose ball, a goalie charging out of the crease, an opponent rushing in, a collision. It happens every day. But on that particular day, the angle of the collision was just such that when the whistle blew and play was stopped, Chris Heinel couldn't get up again.
The "why" of the accident is another matter. One wants not so much to ask for as to demand an answer, to shake a fist at heaven and demand some proof that this had to happen, that whatever we are to learn from this could not have been taught in any other way.
The injury to Chris was like a bomb dropped on the small community of the Hun School. Chris was taken by helicopter to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, and within hours, a crowd of between 50 and 100 students, parents, and faculty had congregated there. Hun Headmaster Dr. Jim Byer remembers them standing together, in shock, waiting to see what had happened."
After those hours of initial confusion, the Hun community responded as though Chris's injury were a personal attack not just on him, but on his friends, family, teachers, and classmates.
Two days after the accident, Dr. Byer approached Chris's parents and, without knowing what the full extent of his needs or injuries might be, made an unconditional offer to the Heinels. Chris's mother Jeanette remembers, "Jim Byer said, 'We want Chris back,' and I told him 'We want him back there.' "
Over the following weeks, the extent of the damage to Chris's spine became apparent. Two days after the accident, Chris was moved to the spinal unit of Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Phliadelphia. In two different operations, doctors were forced to fuse the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth vertebrae in his spine, leaving him paralyzed below the neck.
Currently, Chris has recovered some movement in the biceps of both arms, and the Heinels hope that he will gain back even more ability to move that region of his body.
Two weeks ago, doctors took Chris off the respirator and he was able to speak for the first time since the accident. Last week, he left Thomas Jefferson for Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, where he has started a program of physical therapy that will last at least 12 weeks.
Two weekends from now, at least 15 student volunteers, plus their family members and members of the Hun faculty, will begin taking physical therapy training classes at Kessler so that they will be able to assist Chris when he returns. The goal is to have Chris ready for Hun, and to have Hun ready for Chris, by September. The road ahead is not an easy one, but little could be more difficult than the past seven weeks.
A 9-year-old boy doesn't come right out and say "You're my hero" to his big brother; but he shows him every day. That's how it has always been with Joshua Heinel, Chris's younger brother. A student at Germantown Academy, Joshua only wanted to play the same sports as Chris, and he only wanted to play the positions that Chris played.
In the first weeks after the accident, it was the presence of familiar faces and voices that kept Chris going, says his mother. One of those was Joshua's. Every night, he would get on the phone to his brother's hospital room before he went to sleep. Chris was on a respirator and couldn't speak, so they would put the phone next to Chris's ear and Joshua would pick up whatever he was studying in school, and he would read over the phone to his big brother.
But Joshua's was not the only familiar voice Chris heard.

"Angel Sent to Us"
The accident happened on a Thursday. Two days later, when Hun's Resident Advisor Margaret Weeks came to visit Chris in Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, where he had been moved the previous day, she learned that Jeanette Heinel had not slept in 48 hours.
With Chris unable to speak or drink liquids, she had been staying awake through the night, swabbing his ilps and talking him through his fears and his recurring nightmares about the accident.
Ms. Weeks offered to spend that night in Chris's room, so that Jeanette could sleep. She sat up with him through the night, just as his mother had. "He seemed to take some kind of comfort in my being there," she remembers.
Additionally, Ms. Weeks found that she had a talent for reading his lips, and was able to communicate with Chris better than anybody else. "At the end of the night, I asked him if he wanted me to come back, and he said 'yes.' He said he wanted me to come back the next night."
Ms. Weeks came back the next night, and every night after that, and the Hun community, from Dr. Byer to the staff of the Resident Life office, shifted tasks around and shouldered extra work to make it possible for her to be there.
As Resident Advisor, Ms. Weeks lives in the donnitories at Hun, and develops close relationships with the students. "I've always adored Chris and his family," she says. "He's a sweet kid, with just enough of the devil in him to make him interesting."
Still, Ms. Weeks insists, her attention to Chris is not extraordinary. "I'm not doing anything I wouldn't do for any of my kids."
The Heinel family has a different opinion. "Margaret is an angel sent to us from God," says Jeanette.

Like Brothers Talking
When Jeffrey Heinel arrived at Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center on the night of the accident, the hrst two people he met there were Princeton University lacrosse coach Bill Tierney and his son, Trevor Tierney, a Hun senior and teammate of Chris. Chris was in the hospital's trauma unit, where he had been fitted with a metal halo to prevent any movement of his head or neck.
"As my son was lying in the Robert Wood trauma unit," Mr. Heinel remembers with emotion, "Trevor Tiemey went in there, took his St. Christopher medal, and put it on Chris's halo."
From that moment on, Trevor and Bill Tierney became the most frequent members of a steady stream of Hun students and faculty coming to visit Chris. "Trevor came every night that he could," said Jeanette Heinel. "Often he was the only person that Chris wanted to see. It was like listening to two brothers talking."
Trevor Tierney, the starting varsity goalie for Hun, had worked closely with Chris. Bill Tierney, whose Princeton University team won the NCAA Championship on Monday, tried to explain the closeness of two goalies: "This affects me more as a father than as a coach, but I think I have a greater appreciation of the relationship between Chris and Trevor from coaching lacrosse," he said. "You can recognize a bond between goalies -- especially where the older one is bringing along the younger. They're more than just teammates."
When the Princeton University lacrosse team beat the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, clinching the Ivy League title, coach Tierney stopped the team bus at Thomas Jefferson, and at 10:45 p.m. led the four team captains and the assistant coaches up to Chris's room to present him with the game bail. Prior to the game in which Princeton beat Maryland for the NCAA championship on Monday, the coach announced on national television that the team would dedicate the game to Chris Heinel.
When the Hun varsity team beat Moorestown in overtime to clinch the Bianchi Division title, Trevor Tierney got the game ball, had all the team members sign it, and drove down to Philadelphia that night to give it to Chris.
"You do things that you hope wili make him smile a little, and make that day a little easier," explains Bill Tierney. "And maybe some of those little things help more than you even think they will."

Chris Heinel Fund
Only days after the accident, the Heinel family made a decision that would focus much of their life, and most of Chris's recovery, around the Hun School.
"Without question," says Jeanette Heinel, "It is Chris's friends who are going to get him through this. I would never take him away from the Hun community." With that in mind, the Heinels decided to move from their home in Blue Bell, Pa., to a house within easy commuting distance of Hun.
Fellow Hun parents helped them locate a suitable house in Lawrenceville, and others are helping to renovate it to accommodate Chris. Nick D'Angelo, who owns an electrical contracting business, had arranged to install an elevator in the house, and Dave Ventresca, who owns a construction company, is remodeling the basement to serve as a "gym" for Chris's physical therapy. In the future, the basement will be converted into an apartment for Chris.
"We are just very, very fortunate to be associated with these people," says Mr. Heinel, who owns an investment firm in Blue Bell. "I could not have done this without them."
Much of the work vital to Chris's eventual retum to Hun is taking place far outside his hospital room. Brian Stone, a Hun School parent, explains that within three days of the accident, a group of people interested in Chris's progress began meeting. The group divided itself by the members' various areas of expertise: construction, transportation, media relations, real estate, and others.
With the assistance of the Craig Battle family, Hun trustee Rip Mason, and other Hun parents, Mr. Stone helped lay the groundwork for the soon-to-be incorporated Chris Heinel Fund, which will be able to accept contributions to help the Heinels offset the cost of Chris's care.
Other members of the group have already started analyzing the Hun campus, and are creating a plan to make it wheelchair accessible.

Goals Remain Same
Beginning with the days immediately following Chris's accident, when all-school assemblies were called to update the students on his condition, Hun has reached out to other students who have, been indirectly affected by the injury. Counselors were made available to any student who wished to visit one, and a psychiatrist came to the school to speak to the students about the emotional impact an injury like Chris's would have on the school.
Dr. Byer has arranged for Charles "Chick" Kelly, a 27-year-old quadriplegic who teaches at Malvern Preparatory School in Pennsylvania, to come speak to the Hun student body about Chris's condition and needs.
Mr. Kelly said last week that in his June 2 talk he will tell the students to remember that while Chris's day-to-day life has been dramatically changed, Chris, as a person, has not. "He is no longer independent, but his major life goals: college, a job, a family life, are still the same."
"We fully expect Chris to retum to school," says Dr. Byer. "We want him to."
The Hun School's response to Chris Heinel's injury is also a response to Chris Heinel, the person. A three-sport athlete and an honor student, he appears to be held in very high regard by ail who knew him before the accident. And that opinion has only been reinforced since.
"He's a pretty courageous kid," says Hun lacrosse coach Steve Czelusniak. "He's facing up to this challenge pretty well."
Bill Tierney, who has observed Chris's interaction with his own son, and with other visitors, says that many of those people who appear to be helping Chris, are also being helped by seeing his strength in the face of his paralysis. "As tragic as something like this is, it is amazing what it can do for other people. It's amazing what Chris has done for other people already."
As for the Hun community's response to Chris's injury, Mr. Tierney says he is not surprised. "Chris is one of those kids you just love as soon as you meet him. He's got that big smile, and he's such a hard worker that you know he's going to fight his way through this thing. It's easy to pull together for somebody who is so easy to love."

-Rob Garver

Note: Donations to the Chris Heinel Fund can be mailed to The Chris Heinel Fund, P.O. Box 564, Yardley, PA 19067.