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A recovery some call a miracle

A pole vaulter's will to live overcame injuries that should have proved fatal.

Chase Kear works on speech therapy with Jennifer Setser as father Paul (left), mother Paula (rear) and brothers Cole (rear left) and Clay listen. "We'd like to think he's a miracle," his father says.
Chase Kear works on speech therapy with Jennifer Setser as father Paul (left), mother Paula (rear) and brothers Cole (rear left) and Clay listen. "We'd like to think he's a miracle," his father says.Read more

WICHITA, Kan. - The story of Chase Kear sounds straightforward: Pole vaulter suffers terrible injury, makes an unexpected recovery, returns home in time for Christmas.

Dig deeper, beneath the basic plot line, and there are many other threads to the tale.

There's perseverance, a young man's will keeping him alive when he probably should have died, pushing past others' expectations for his recovery.

There's the love of family and friends, along with him on the arduous road back to a normal life.

Kear's story also has an inexplicable quality, an improbable arc that has some wondering if they have witnessed a miracle.

"No one has been able to explain it to us," said Chase's mother, Paula Kear. "No one knows, not even the doctors."

If nothing else, Kear's story has miraculous attributes to it.

It started Oct. 2, during track practice at Hutchinson Community College. Chase was trying out some new poles, practicing pop-ups - jumps without the crossbar - when he lost control. Flying out instead of up, his feet caught the back edge of the mat, flinging his head to the turf below.

Chase didn't have a mark on his body, but was clearly in trouble, convulsing and fading in and out of consciousness when Hutchinson track coach Pat Becher arrived.

"I thought we were going to lose him right there on the field," Becher said.

Paul and Paula Kear rushed from their home in Colwich to the hospital in Wichita 20 miles away, a helicopter carrying their son overhead, close to death. A chaplain greeted them at the door.

"It started to get real scary because it wasn't the normal ER visit," Paula said.

Chase's skull had fractured across the front from ear to ear. Two sections of his brain were bleeding.

Doctors induced a coma to curb the massive swelling inside his head. It didn't work. The only option was to remove part of his skull, give the brain room to expand.

Can't we wait, see what happens, the Kears asked. No. Wait and he'll die. Even if we do it, don't expect him to make it, the doctors said.

A friend in the medical profession later asked to look at the scans, to see if she might be able to provide a better prognosis. She never returned.

"She couldn't come back and talk to us," Paula said. "She couldn't face us."

Somehow, the procedure worked. Chase was alive.

Then, another problem.

Chase remained unresponsive days after surgery, unflinching when nurses pinched his arm, eyes open, staring blankly past family members.

Might be time to start talking to special needs hospitals, doctors said. This could be all he is.

The Kears didn't care.

"At least he was alive," Paul said. "I thought, if I have to carry him, I'll carry him - as long as he was alive."

A few days later, Chase moved his arm, a reaction to a sonogram. Finally, a glimmer of hope.

Slowly, he became more responsive - parents and nurses euphoric with each wiggling toe, reaching hand, pursing lips.

Then, on the 10th day in the hospital, a nurse asked Chase to squeeze her hand if he understood what she was saying. He did.

"That's when we knew he was in there," Paula said.

Chase continued to progress from there, moving from intensive care to a regular room after 19 days, walking the hallways of Wesley Rehabilitation Hospital a week later.

Then, on Nov. 21, the young man who wasn't supposed to live, wouldn't have any brain function, walked unsteadily through the door of the family home, less than two months after the accident.

And the future, the one he wasn't supposed to have, looks good.

Chase turned 20 earlier this month, had surgery last week to fill the baseball-sized hole in his skull with a ceramic plate. He is enrolled in two online classes next semester and has been offered a chance to coach track at Hutch. He still plans a career as a firefighter, and hopes to pole vault again some day - despite his mother's pleadings.

Doctors can't explain how Chase survived, much less how well he has recovered.

Now, the Roman Catholic Church wants to know what happened.

Among the numerous prayers the Kears said every day was a special appeal to Father Emil Kapaun, a local priest and chaplain during the Korean War.

Kapaun is a candidate for sainthood for his heroic work with American soldiers during the war and in a Korean prison camp, where he died in 1951.

Church officials plans to hold a hearing soon, to talk with the Kears and doctors to gauge whether Chase's case might count as one of the two miracles Kapaun would need to be canonized.

"He could be a miracle or just somebody who had something horrible happen to them," Paul said. "We'd like to think he's a miracle."

Perseverance had a hand in his recovery, too.

Chase had the quality at a young age, a scrawny kid who never gave up, always fighting and clawing his way against bigger kids. He put it to use in high school, too - never the biggest, fastest or most talented, yet still earning state championship rings in football, wrestling and track - the first three state titles in Andale High history.

Perseverance helped Chase overcome a lack of natural ability in pole vaulting, his father's sport at Fort Hays State University. He struggled the first few years, even into his senior season, before determination won out, earning him third at the state championships and a scholarship to Hutchinson.

"In any sport, I have a lot of drive to be the best in whatever I do," Chase says, the conviction in his eyes telling you he means it.

That tenacity followed Chase into the fight for his life in the hospital, and has been a part of his therapy, where he has blown past goals others set for him, rewritten expectations with every step, every correct answer on math and reading exercises.

Even the unexplained-but-still-excruciating back pain can't stop Chase, the focus on the memory test before him never wavering as he shifts every 15 seconds to find a comfortable position.

"He's a stick-to-it kind of guy," his father says. "He shows up to therapy and is going to get well - that's all there is to it."

The emotional support of family and friends, of an entire town, has been part of his recovery, too, pulling him through the difficult times, making sure he knew there was something to live for.

Maybe love is the miracle behind the story of Chase Kear.