With his left leg gone, a young athlete rebuilds his life
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A gruesome accident in July cut off most of Jabari Bailey’s left leg, instantly ending his career as a football player at Tuskegee University in Alabama and nearly killing him.
Yet, only hours after the life-altering event, the 20-year-old from Memphis was already thinking about the future, his father recalls.
“His ability to mentally handle this situation has been nothing short of miraculous ... He was angry for about two to four hours. Then he starts talking about, ‘Where do we go from here? It’s time to move on,’” said his father, Javier Bailey.
His son said he has no other choice.
“Yeah, I mean I knew I couldn’t keep dwelling on the past,” he said. “That’s not going to help me move forward. Ain’t no time machine. So you can only look forward. Looking in the past ain’t going to do nothing but hold you back.”
That’s not to say moving forward is easy. Like many people who have lost a leg, Jabari Bailey has phantom limb sensations - his brain tells him the missing leg is still there, and he can even feel his toes moving.
“Your leg is gone, but you get shocks and you feel it where your leg used to be,” he said. “So it could feel like somebody’s stepping on your foot, or somebody’s tickling the bottom of your leg or somebody rubbing your foot.”
Sometimes the phantom limb sensations are just neutral feelings, he says, but sometimes they hurt.
And as he worked through a recent physical therapy session at Regional One Rehabilitation Hospital, certain movements left him groaning in pain. It was particularly bad when he got up and down out of a wheelchair to practice walking on crutches.
Blood rushing to the remaining part of his leg still hurts sometimes, he said, though not as badly as it did a few days earlier.
More discomfort came as he and physical therapists worked to remove and replace a tight elastic sock that fits over the remaining part of his leg.
The elastic sock, called a shrinker, uses pressure to control swelling. This therapy session took place only 15 days after his leg was lost, and physical therapist Audrey Pinner says the shrinker is pushing against sore tissues.
“Pain. It hurts,” Jabari Bailey said afterward. “That’s probably the worst part of therapy, putting the shrinker on and off.”
Many people are finding themselves in the same situation. The nonprofit Amputee Coalition estimates 2 million people are living with limb loss in the U.S. And the number of amputations is increasing; about 54 percent of lost limbs are due to vascular disease, including diabetes, the organization says.
Jabari Bailey’s athletic training helps him do well in rehab, but the situation still takes an emotional toll on him and his family.
One day he received video messages from his football teammates. Though the messages were positive and encouraging, they still saddened him, his father said. But his dad says Jabari bounces back from such moods quickly and relies on Christian faith: “He’s grateful he did not lose his life. I’m grateful I didn’t lose my son.”
Since Jabari Bailey was in the sixth grade, he worked hard to develop as a football player, his father said.
“My wife and I never missed a game,” his father wrote in a Facebook post about the incident. “We believed in Jabari’s dream and we were always there to support him. After high school, we hit the road, father and son, visiting prospective schools who were following him and recruiting him for NCAA play.”
The six-foot-tall athlete chose Tuskegee University in central Alabama. He joined the Division II school’s football team as a walk-on and made a good impression, prompting the coach to offer scholarship money, said Jasher Cox, assistant athletic director.
He was reducing weight this summer to move from linebacker to strong safety, and dropped from 210 pounds to 186 pounds, his father said.
He was back in Memphis on vacation and stayed a bit longer to take part in his great-grandmother’s 97th birthday party.
On the morning of July 11, he received a phone call from one of his old teammates from high school who was having car trouble. So began the chain of events that would cut off his leg.
As the football player’s father describes it, Jabari pulled his vehicle around in front of his friend’s stalled vehicle, so the two stood nose-to-nose at the side of Frayser-Raleigh Road.
Jabari stepped between the vehicles to attach jumper cables, with one of his legs between the vehicles and the other off to the side.
“He said ’Daddy, it couldn’t have been 14 or 15 seconds,” his father said.
At that moment, another driver smashed into the back of the stalled vehicle, catapulting it forward and catching Jabari’s left leg between the two vehicles.
His leg was almost completely severed, hanging on by a ligament and a piece of muscle, his father said.
“I pretty much knew the leg was gone when the accident first happened,” Jabari Bailey said matter-of-factly. “I could look and tell and I knew it wasn’t no saving it.”
The crash had cut an artery.
“I remember somebody coming up and saying that they needed to tie my leg because of the pace that I was bleeding,” Jabari Bailey said.
According to the football player’s father, a woman used her own belt as a tourniquet to stanch the bleeding.
Jabari Bailey said he can’t remember who the woman was or what she looked like, but he’s grateful.
His father said the woman didn’t give her name. He believes she must have had some medical or military training.
“The surgeons told (my wife) Stacy and I that he surely would have bled out but for that belt cutting off the wound,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “The Bible says we entertain Angels even though we are unaware of their presence. This family wants to say thank you........whoever you are. We love you and wish we knew your identity.”
Family members say the driver who struck the stalled vehicle, 47-year-old Frank Smith, is getting off too easily. Immediately after the crash, he was charged with failure to yield in an incident that caused serious injury or death, lack of auto insurance, and failure to exercise due care.
All those charges are misdemeanors.
“It leaves (Jabari) laying in a hospital bed missing a leg,” his father said. “While this other guy is out on bond.”
Smith has a long record of driving offenses, including driving under the influence.
The arrest affidavit from the July crash says Smith was taken away by ambulance. It doesn’t mention any drunk driving test.
The Bailey family has asked prosecutors to charge Smith with more serious counts in the crash that cut off Jabari Bailey’s leg. They’re familiar with the legal system: Jabari Bailey’s grandfather is Walter Bailey, the longtime attorney and Shelby County commissioner. Other family members with legal training include his uncle Taurus Bailey, and his father Javier Bailey, who formerly practiced law and now works in real estate.
“We are reviewing all of the circumstances of this case to determine if other charges are more appropriate,” Shelby County District Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich said in a statement. “That could be done at the General Sessions level or as a submission to the Grand Jury.”
Efforts to reach Smith’s lawyer weren’t successful Friday.
Jabari Bailey went through three surgeries to stabilize his leg. He spent several days at Regional One Hospital, then was transferred to a nearby rehab center affiliated with Regional One.
His family hopes to fit him with an high-end prosthetic leg with a built-in knee and microprocessor controls to help guide his gait.
The cost of prosthetic legs can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $50,000, said Karen Lundquist with the Amputee Coalition. And insurance companies sometimes don’t cover specific types of devices such as microprocessor prosthetics because they’re deemed experimental.
Insurance companies sometimes also put in place lifetime and annual caps that can severely limit coverage, she said.
Tuskegee University has offered to continue paying Jabari Bailey’s athletic scholarship, though his playing days are over, his father said. The university is also promoting a GoFundMe account to help offset various costs.
“The university wants people to know that we’re gonna do all we can to assist him in achieving his goals,” said Cox, the assistant athletic director. When he comes back to school, the athletic department will help find work for him to do and offer other support, he said.
The family expects that he’ll be out of college for a full year doing rehab. But Jabari Bailey says he still plans to complete his degree and start running businesses on his own, maybe real estate or a restaurant.
“I’m still going to do big things. You can believe that,” he said.
The physical therapy session July 26 aimed to simulate the conditions Jabari Bailey would face when he went home the next day. The family home in Cordova has stairs, so he practiced climbing steps on crutches.
The family owns a big dog that might knock him off balance, so the physical therapists simulated this, too, by letting Jabari walk on crutches while giving him gentle shoves and stepping in front of him.
The athlete swung on the crutches up and down the hallways in the rehab hospital. When he reached the spot where two hallways intersect, he paused, head down, and leaned on the crutches to rest.
Then he continued.
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com