As a freshman cheerleader at Poston Butte High School, Javonté had spent more than a year perfecting his runs, flips and acrobatics. But on a beautiful April day, a poolside somersault went horribly wrong. What they thought was a broken collarbone turned out to be much more serious. Even life-threatening.
One Bad Tumble Leads to Traumatic Injury for Javonté
As a freshman cheerleader at Poston Butte High School, Javonté had spent more than a year perfecting his runs, flips and acrobatics. His efforts paid off as the school won the state championship for co-ed squads and was selected to represent Arizona on the highly competitive national stage.
Javonté had found his passion. His coach saw something special in the 14-year-old, encouraging him to try out for the varsity team in only his sophomore year. So on a beautiful April day, Javonté was hanging out with his mom Katie and girlfriend Mekaya, practicing flips into his backyard pool, thinking about that goal to make the varsity team next school year. “I must have shot a hundred pictures that day, everything was so perfect,” said Katie.
No one recalls what exactly went wrong but Javonté’s world spun out of control that day.
“I was beside the pool and tried to do a flip,” said Javonté. “I guess I under-rotated because I landed on my head.”
With his head and neck jutting out at an odd angle, mom’s first thought was a broken collar bone. “He popped up from the bottom of the pool, and said, ‘I’m ok mom’ then rolled over and fell back into the water,” Katie recalls. He was unconscious in the water, bleeding from his head, chin and leg. When Katie and Mekaya pulled him from the water, he regained consciousness, spitting out a chipped tooth.
Katie pushed back the thought of any serious injury. She’d been way too close to tragedy in the past. The loss of her daughter on prom night 13 years ago in an accident. And her husband taken in a hit and run nine years ago. The thought of losing Javonté as well was simply impossible to contemplate.
Thinking she could get him to a hospital faster than an ambulance could get to them in San Tan Valley, Katie helped Javonté walk to the car and took him to an East Valley hospital. By the time they arrived Javonté was showing clear signs of shock. Doctors worked to stabilize him as the boy shook and turned blue. His jaw began to swell.
As he started going numb from his shoulder to his wrist, Javonté whimpered, “Mom, I’m broken.”
He was right. Doctors ordered a CT scan and MRI, where they discovered the true extent of his injuries.
“I’m very sorry but your son has broken his neck at the C-3 vertebrae. We’ve done everything we can for him here; we need to transfer him.”
Katie has a hard time describing her feelings in that moment. She flashed back on how she pulled Javonté from the pool. Did that cause additional damage? She walked him from the pool to the car. Should she have waited for an ambulance? Her quick online research offered scant hope – a significant injury at C3 can lead to a severe spinal cord injury, or even death.
As Javonté’s pain ratcheted up, the doctors set in motion a plan to transfer him to another hospital. As he was strapped down in the ambulance, the EMT pulled Katie aside and quietly advised, “You need to take him to Phoenix Children’s.”
Katie believes that advice may have saved Javonté’s life, and certainly preserved his mobility. She agreed and the ambulance raced to Phoenix Children’s Level 1 Pediatric Trauma Center.
“We arrived at the Trauma Center and everyone was there waiting for us,” Katie recalls. “Javonté’s blood pressure was really unstable. Right away there were 20–30 people working on him but there was no chaos, no raised voices. I was so scared but they let me stay near him and someone stood with me and explained everything that was happening,”
As Javonté was prepped for surgery, Dr. Ruth Bristol, a neurosurgeon with Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, sat with Katie to explain what would take place.
“Javonté has suffered a break through the disc space,” Dr. Bristol told her. “I recommend removing the broken disc and inserting a bone graft to allow the surrounding bones to heal and fuse together.”
The three-hour surgery was complicated. Javonté’s disc was ruptured completely. Dr. Bristol stabilized vertebrae 3, 4 and 5 with a titanium plate and 4 screws, and then inserted a donor disc.
All the while, a circle of family and close friends waited with Katie. “The surgeon came out. We all looked at her. I just held my breath,” said the mom who had already suffered unspeakable loss in her life. Dr. Bristol smiled and nodded her head yes.
“I scooped her up in a hug,” said Katie, overjoyed that her son had made it through this significant hurdle. Dr. Bristol explained the surgical process and confirmed that Javonté had done very well.
Reflecting on that day, Katie knows she made the right decision. “It was very obvious that the other hospital could not have saved Javonté. If I had taken him there, he would have died or been permanently paralyzed.
Javonté’s trauma story ended that day but his battle was really just beginning. After surgery he struggled to move his arm and to walk. Injury to his neck caused problems with swallowing. A week-long stay at Phoenix Children’s was packed with programs aimed at getting him back to full strength and activities.
Laura, a therapist in the Frances H. McClelland Rehabilitation Program at Phoenix Children’s, helped him through these challenges. “It was scary learning to walk again but she believed in me and saw that I needed to be challenged to do more.
Javonté gave his best in physical, occupational and speech therapy, all necessary to gain full function and to fulfill his mom’s goal, “He needs to be perfect.” But Javonté's goal was more specific:
“I WILL make it back to cheer.”
The next three months tested his will. Daily therapy, home schooling and even taking his finals to catch up with his classmates, brought Javonté to the point where Dr. Bristol was comfortable removing his neck brace. However, she cautioned him that it would take about six months for the titanium plates to finish fusing to the bone. Ever the optimist, Javonté interprets that as a winning ticket. “I’m definitely getting back into cheer and I plan to make the varsity team. I just want to do the things I love. I am starting my life right where I left off,” he says in a confident rush.
Katie is, of course, more cautious. “Yes, I worry about him re-injuring himself. I just remind myself that he is alive and he is a blessing!”