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Dana Hunsinger Benbow Indianapolis Star
Published 7:58 AM EDT Jul 18, 2020
The hockey game Carson Rainey never got to play was on a Saturday in Pittsburgh. Rather than get a hotel room on Friday night, Carson and his dad, Gary, rolled out of bed at 3:30 a.m. that Saturday and loaded up the SUV to make the six-hour drive from Indianapolis.
Carson pushed the back seats down as he’d done dozens of times before, the life of a 15-year-old elite hockey player traveling for tournaments. He lay down and curled up to catch some extra sleep. His dad took the wheel.
About 5:45 a.m. as they went through Dayton on Interstate 70, a mix of snow and rain falling, Gary Rainey hit a patch of black ice on an overpass. The car began to fishtail.
“I was trying to control the car,” said Gary of that January morning. “But it began to spin out of control and got hit by a semi that put us into a guardrail.”
The airbag deployed in front of Gary; he suffered minor injuries. When he turned and looked for Carson in the backseat, it was empty.
The impact threw Carson 40 feet from the SUV.
“It was the worst feeling I had ever had in my life,” Gary said.
He ran from the car and started screaming for his son. Carson yelled back. Gary found him under the guardrail, lying in a puddle, half of his body on the road, the other half in the snowy grass.
Gary was so relieved. Carson was alive. He was conscious and alert. He was talking. Then he heard the haunting words.
“Dad, I can’t feel my legs.”
A sense of calm
Carson was taken to Dayton Children’s Hospital, where doctors told Gary his son had fractured the C-7 vertebrae in his neck and damaged three vertebrae on his spine. He had a lacerated spleen and kidney and injured and misplaced nerve bundles.
Surgeons said they didn’t know what the extent of Carson’s spinal cord damage would be. They didn’t know whether he would walk again.
Carson, now 16, said he barely remembers what was said regarding his paralysis.
“As far as what I know, there was hope of me walking again, but it wasn’t going to be for awhile,” he said. “It hurt a lot but, I mean, I didn’t think too much about it. I just thought about the possibilities of what could happen.”
Yet even as Gary sat in the emergency room that Saturday, he said he had a sense of calm.
“There was never a moment that I didn’t believe he would walk again, and I don’t know why,” he said. “Now, I just think, ‘Wow, it actually happened.’ I always believed it would, but it’s just amazing to watch.”
‘I’d love to see him back on the ice’
Carson has one crutch and is making a lap on a sidewalk that forms a circle outside of Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. His physical therapist, Sarah K. Johnson, is amazed by his progress.
After spine surgery in Dayton — rods, screws and plates put in his lower back — Carson was transferred to Riley two weeks later. He spent the next two months doing intense physical therapy.
Since March, he has been coming to therapy with Johnson two to three times a week. He was still in a wheelchair when Johnson started working with him. Now, he is able to walk on his own with a crutch.
Carson’s athletic mindset, his determination, translated from the ice to rehab, Johnson said. Like being behind in a game but still knowing there is the possibility of a win.
“With athletes, if there is a chance that we can win, we are going to do everything we can to do it,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if he would be where he is today if he didn’t work as hard as he does. It’s like any practice with an athlete, you give them a goal and you want them to move forward.”
Carson started playing hockey when he was 9. He had ADHD, so Gary and his mom, Christi, were searching for something for their son to focus on. Something he was good at that would give him reasons to do well in school and clean his room.
Carson was so good he was invited to play on a travel team.
At the time of the accident, Jan. 18, he had reached the highest level of hockey for his age, playing on the 15U Junior Fuel AAA team with the Indianapolis Youth Hockey Association.
He was a wickedly fast skater. He played mean defense. But he also racked up assists. And, most recently, he had been playing forward.
“Was he going to be in the NHL before the accident? No, he wasn’t,” said Gary. “But can he be part of the community and teach kids the love of hockey and get out there and skate as well? Absolutely.
“I’d love to see him back on the ice. And I think one day, he will be.”
Carson is the ultimate goofball. Inside the hospital Wednesday for physical therapy, he joked with Johnson and was dramatic as she gave him exercises to perform. When he completed one, he would yell, “Boom!” Or he’d start swinging his hips in a funny dance.
But Carson also is serious about therapy, and without any crutches to assist, he took a dozen steps.
“You have to work hard no matter what,” Carson said. “Because you don’t get better if you don’t work hard.”
Johnson even jokes sometimes that he is “faking” his injury because of the progress he’s made.
Saturday marks six months since Carson’s accident. He still can’t move below his left knee. But there is feeling, and that gives Johnson hope that some connection is still there. And if anyone can overcome that obstacle, she said, it will be Carson.
For Gary and Christi and Carson’s younger brother, Eli, the walking is just a bonus to having Carson with them.
“He shouldn’t be alive right now,” said Gary. “It’s a miracle he is. And to see him walking is just amazing.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.