Determination and community support are second to none

by: JOHN DENNY - Gladstone High School senior football players stopped by the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital last week to hang out with Jake Wheeler, who graduated from Gladstone in 2008. Wheeler is undergoing rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury. The Gladstone community has rallied behind the former three-sport athlete, with multiple fundraisers. This Fridays home football game with Astoria is an endowment game and half of the gate receipts will go to help Wheeler with his recovery. Pictured with Wheeler are (from left) Sean Williams, Andrew Conway, Vinny Rininger, Trevor Browning and Blake McNall.If heart and determination and community support mean anything, Gladstone 23-year-old Jake Wheeler will make a full recovery.

The Gladstone community has rallied behind Wheeler, who is battling to recover from a fractured neck, which left him paralyzed below his chest.

“I was swimming at a friend’s house and dove head-first [into the Willamette River] and hit my head on something,” Wheeler recalls. “I never lost consciousness. I was hoping it was a stinger, but I kinda knew it wasn’t.... My friends pulled me from the water.”

“They did surgery two days later and put a post in his neck,” said Jake’s mom, Pamela Whelden. “Jake has two fractured vertebrae and a bruised spinal cord.... The good thing is his spine was only severely bruised. It wasn’t punctured or severed, which means there’s a good chance he can make a full recovery. The doctors are hopeful. They say time will tell.”

Wheeler made a trip home for the first time since the injury on Sunday (August 25), and plans are for him to be permanently discharged from the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital next Wednesday (Sept. 4).

Wheeler has been working hard, undergoing 3-1/2 to 4 hours of physical therapy and occupational therapy a day, readying himself to negotiate life outside of the hospital.

He is in his senior year of studies as an environmental science major at Portland State University, and he plans to resume his studies when school resumes on Sept. 30.

“He’s been making excellent progress,” said Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon physical therapist Traci Hutchins. “When I first saw him he wasn’t able to sit up by himself. Now he has the ability to sit up and lay down by himself and to manage his legs — which have no feeling — by himself. He’s working on transferring himself in and out of a wheelchair unassisted, and he can almost do it by himself. He can go up and down a wheelchair ramp, and he’s working on getting on and off the floor by himself. These are advanced skills that not many people can do before I send them home.... Jake will need some help when he gets home, but he’ll be very close to being able to function independently....

“He’s got a positive attitude and a tremendous drive. You can tell he has a background in athletics, and he is used to working hard.”

“The physical therapy is pretty similar to what [Gladstone football coach] Jon Wolf had us do,” Wheeler said. “A lot of the same core stuff....

“When I first came here they said it (rehabilitation) would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But they were wrong. It’s not as hard as a Jon Wolf workout. Not even close.”

A right-hander, Wheeler has become ambidextrous. At first he had little feeling in his right hand. He’s progressed dramatically, to where he now can hold a cup, has a firm grip for a hand-shake, and can negotiate in a manual wheelchair with little difficulty.

“I can do wheelies in my wheelchair,” Wheeler said. “They encourage it.... There’s a stop so I don’t go too far.”

A lifetime Gladstone resident, Wheeler, who turned 23 in the hospital, has had plenty of support from his community.

A Gladstone High School alumni girls soccer game brought in just under $7,000 and a sushi fundraiser at Fuji’s Japanese Restaurant in Clackamas raised close to $5,000.

This Friday’s Gladstone High School home football game with Astoria is an endowment game, with half of the gate receipts going to Wheeler to help him with his recovery. Gametime is 7 p.m. Ticket prices are $6 for adults and $4 for students — no passes allowed.

There is also a Jake Wheeler Recovery Fund Account that the community can contribute to at area Key Banks.

Family and friends have been busy at Jake’s home, where they are remodeling the first floor, which will become Jake Wheeler’s living quarters. A ramp and deck are under construction, the house is being made wheelchair accessible front and back, and the bathroom is being remodeled for Wheeler’s use.

“I’m so grateful [for the community support],” Wheeler said. “I’m blown away! It’s unbelievable! I feel blessed. I love my community!”

“We’ve received a lot of donations [of building materials], and friends and family have been picking up hammers and cutting holes,” said Whelden. “Area businesses have been really wonderful with donations.”

Whelden singled out Russell Construction and Ore-Pac Building Products for going above and beyond in donating building materials, and to family friends Amanda Schumaker and Kaitlin Bliss for their efforts in fundraising.

“They say I’m doing better than expected as far as strength and mobility,” Wheeler said. “A lot better. I’m hopeful for a complete recovery.... They say after two years you’ll get a general sense of how it’s going to be.”

“I hope a lot of people come to the [endowment] game,” said Hutchins. “Jake deserves it.”

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