The Balengers’ summer trip to Hawaii was supposed to be a homecoming, birthday party, graduation gift and family hurrah all in one, the last vacation they would take while the boys were still boys.
Nick Balenger, a rising senior pitcher on Lake Braddock’s state championship baseball team with a sense of humor as sneaky as his emerging fastball, would turn 17 on Maui, where he was born. He and brother Alex, older by a year, had not visited Hawaii since they were toddlers.
A family member had given Steve and Sylvie Balenger, the boys’ parents, donated airline miles for two for the 50th birthdays they each celebrated in May.
The eagerly awaited visit to an alluring locale that for years had been a cherished and idyllic family reference point ended on the Balengers’ first full day on the island, at Makena Beach, or “Big Beach,” the same beach where the boys would play 15 years ago.
On July 25, with Steve Balenger standing about seven feet away and Nick’s mother and brother sunbathing nearby, Nick misjudged the depth of the water while somersaulting into a wave in the Pacific Ocean. He hit sand.
Steve Balenger splashed over and with help from others dragged his son’s limp, gritty body from the surf.
“Dad,” Nick said in a low, scared voice, “I can’t feel my legs.”
After 21 / 2 weeks in intensive care at Maui Memorial Medical Center — the same hospital where he was born — Balenger flew home last month by cramped air ambulance and was immediately transported to MedStar National Rehabilitation Network in Northwest Washington, where he will remain indefinitely.
The pitcher, who this summer in his last outing for an elite travel team struck out 13 batters at a tournament in Tennessee and who would have been the defending state champion’s likely No. 1 starter next spring, only recently regained limited movement in the fingers on his throwing hand. He can move two fingers on his left.
Instead of starting the senior year bustle at his Fairfax County high school this month and considering colleges that had begun to recruit him, Balenger spends his days in acute rehabilitation therapy, trying to re-teach his muscles simple movements through excruciating exercises that leave him spent by late afternoon.
Instead of playing baseball or swimming in the pool in his Burke back yard, Balenger tries to regain skills by playing games such as blowing a Ping-Pong ball across a table with a straw. Instead of typing or writing his homework, the National Honor Society member dictates his thoughts into voice recognition software for an education coordinator at the rehabilitation facility.
“The funny thing is,” Balenger said softly in the deliberate, trail-off cadence he has taken on since the accident, “back when I wasn’t injured, I would dream about flying or living in a mansion or swimming on the beach. Something that I wasn’t able to do. And now I dream about walking in school, or picking my nose, I don’t know. Any normal, little thing.
“My goals and my dreams have gotten a lot lower. I thought that was interesting.”
The day of the accident, a Wednesday, the Balengers had jogged or done yoga on the beach at about 7:45 a.m. Nick got in a workout. “Its 7am here.. #earlybird,” he had tweeted that morning, several hours after posting a picture of a Hawaiian sunset.
“Flying in, seeing all the mountains and the awesome landscape,” Nick Balenger recalls from his wheelchair in his room at the rehab center, where the Kukui nut lei he wore on the island now hangs. “It was magical.”
They all got in the water on Big Beach around noon. With Nick and Steve still swimming, Sylvie and Alex returned to their towels but shortly thereafter noticed a commotion after a dune buggy skirted past them toward a group huddled near the water. Then another buggy tracked through. This time, Sylvie followed. As she approached the throng, she could tell that the “long, skinny foot” visible among the bystanders belonged to her prone son.
Lifeguards strapped Balenger to a gurney, then drove him to a parking lot to wait for an ambulance. Nick gauged his discomfort level at 10 out of 10 and begged for a painkiller. Sylvie rode in the front of the ambulance and Alex drove his shaken dad in the rental car.
Balenger’s C4 and C5 vertebrae were dislocated. Doctors could realign his spine without further damaging his spinal cord. Two days later, they fused the vertebrae because his ligaments were so damaged it was the only way they could stabilize him.
Nick Balenger celebrated his 17th birthday, July 31, in an intensive care unit. One of his gifts, which he was supposed to pick out himself, was a silver chain on which to keep his state championship ring. He lost 23 pounds in eight days.
Even after returning to Washington, his parents were still finding sand in his hair and ears, a reminder of the unforgettable.
“I remember every second,” said Nick, who never got around to using the baseball glove he had packed. “I remember my neck getting crunched. I remember floating around in the water waiting for my dad to get to me. He pulled me out of the water and I just remember the waves hitting me as we were going out. It seemed like forever for him to get me out of the water.
“Luckily, I took a big breath before I went underwater and got slammed. My dad saved my life. He pulled me out. If he wasn’t there, I would have been not here.”
Steve Balenger has his own term to describe the family’s first day on the beach: “Hell in paradise.”
For more than two weeks after the accident, Nick was unable to move his lower extremities or abdomen. Two Lake Braddock teammates — best friends Mitch Spille and Nick McIntyre — had flown to Hawaii to support Balenger and to read to him his text messages and tap out his replies.
After an 18-day stay in the ICU and protracted haggling with an insurance company over transporting him to the East Coast, Balenger arrived at Dulles International Airport on Aug. 13 after a three-leg flight.
About 80 Lake Braddock students and parents, many clad in school colors purple and gold, lined the entrance ramp to the rehab facility that afternoon, some waving get-well signs, shaking cowbells and blowing noisemakers.
The ambulance paused at the foot of the ramp so Balenger’s well-wishers could shout and wave through the back window and bang the back door before the vehicle eased into a restricted area. Three TV stations covered the homecoming.
Jet-lagged, flat and unable to lift his neck, Nick could make out some faces and voices through the window. That encouragement kick-started his rehab before he was even wheeled into the facility. He since has zoomed in on the footage so he can see who all was there.
“Oh man. That made the whole trip worth it,” Balenger recalled a couple of weeks after his arrival, his legs snugly wrapped in bandage tape to help keep his blood pressure up. “It was awesome. And then waking up and seeing all those posters around here. It was the best feeling.”
“I hope they weren’t disappointed by me just rolling by and not saying hi.”
The boy who used to be in constant motion and who once sliced up his driver’s license in protest of not being allowed to drive, the master bench jockey of the Lake Braddock dugout, the kid who thought duct tape could fix anything, now has to rewire his brain as well as his body.
“My doctor told me something that really worked for me,” Balenger said one morning between therapy sessions. “He said, ‘Live in the moment.’ Don’t think about what’s going to happen in two weeks or three weeks or six months. Don’t think about if you’re ever going to walk again. Just think about moving your arm in therapy, and just think about what’s going to happen 30 minutes ahead of time. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen later, because then you’re just going to feel like crap and be all depressed. So live in the moment.”
Those moments now can be the joy of moving a new body part. His toe wiggling in Hawaii merited all-caps reportage on a Web site that Tamara Balenger, his aunt and godmother, set up for Nick’s medical updates. With assistance, he recently got himself to a standing position, a major accomplishment also trumpeted on the site. His persistent nausea is waning, and the neck and shoulder pain is not as searing.
Life has moved on. Steve and Sylvie Balenger have returned to work. Alex Balenger is a freshman at James Madison University. Nick is taking government, geosystems and English classes online at the rehab facility and hopes to return to school by November.
He misses his room, his bed, and pet dogs Jinga and Scrappy, although he got to cuddle a pinch-hitter canine for pet therapy. Three other recent visitors: Washington Nationals players Ian Desmond, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, who delivered a team-autographed Nationals jersey with “BALENGER” stitched on the back.
There are plans to turn the family dining room into Nick’s bedroom and to modify the bathroom on that level of the house. The family room likely will move from the basement to the first floor, so Nick can more easily entertain his buddies.
There is yet another piece of family business to consider. While in Hawaii, Alex came up with the idea that all four Balengers should get tattoos to permanently commemorate how Nick’s accident had drawn them closer. For now, they’re leaning toward “koa ohana,” Hawaiian for “strong family,” with the date 7/25/12.
The Balengers raised the subject with Nick one night in the Maui hospital. He bit his upper lip and said, “I want it.”
The family could flaunt their matching tats on vacation next summer. For now, Nick has vetoed a beach destination. They’re thinking Europe.