At the Oceana Heritage Festival 5k Run in Wyoming County on June 21, two runners stood out from the rest. Nathaniel Evans and Brianna Bailey didn’t just run for fun; they ran for a reason.
On May 22, their Westside High School classmate, Zack Mitchell, was in an ATV accident that caused severe brain trauma and left him on life support for more than three weeks. The two runners wore “Team Zack” shirts to raise awareness of his situation.
“Knowing that I was running for Zack made me run faster,” Evans said. “In my head, I figured that if I was up towards the front of the pack, more people would notice me and the shirt I was wearing.”
He and Bailey finished second in the men’s and women’s divisions, respectively.
“He’s fighting for his life, and he deserves for everyone to know this brave battle he’s been fighting,” Evans continued. “I don’t know him personally, but I learned of him when this accident happened. He and his family needed all of the support they can get, so I jumped on the opportunity to help.”
Zack, who turned 16 Wednesday, has been in the hospital since the accident.
When it happened, he was flown to CAMC General by HealthNet and not given much hope to live. A few hours after his arrival at the hospital, his family was told that his condition was grave and he wasn’t going to make it.
“I was devastated,” Zack’s older sister, Whitney, said. “I didn’t believe the doctors, though. I know a greater physician.”
Even though Zack was wearing a helmet during the accident, he still sustained traumatic brain injuries. He had a skull fracture on his left side.
“If Zack hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I don’t think he would’ve survived,” Whitney said. “It has seriously made me rethink ever going over the speed limit on an ATV ever again!”
Zack’s mother, Tereasa, said the skull fracture caused his brain to swell and raised his Inner Cranial Pressure to dangerous levels.
“When he first arrived at the hospital, they inserted a drainage tube into his brain to try to relieve some pressure. Since Zack was in such a bad condition, the doctors had to put him in a drug-induced coma and literally lower his body temperature until he was frozen,” she said.
“A normal ICP ranges from 5-15,” she explained. “To get a general idea of your ICP level, when you are at the peak of a sneeze, your ICP is around 25-30. Zack’s ICP was sometimes around 35 constantly. Anything over 30 is deadly.
“Since these pressures were so high, they were forced to do another brain operation; this time, it was a craniotomy.”
Tereasa said that operation decreased the pressure some, but only temporarily. The doctors performed another operation as a last resort.
“The doctors said that is all they could do. They put in another drain tube, and if it didn’t work, all hope was gone.
“A few days went by, and his ICP was averaging around 20, sometimes dropping as low as 12 and going as high as 25. Finally, the pressures started dropping and they stayed low, which was a sign for the doctors to start taking him off the medicines.”
She said a few days later, Zack started moving, and in about another week, he was responsive and able to answer questions by giving a thumbs up for yes and thumbs down for no.
“Seeing all of the improvements that Zack is making, despite the doctors saying on the first night that he wasn’t going to make it, makes my heart so glad,” she said.
“Zack is easygoing and loves to smile. When I saw him smile the other day for the first time since May 22, I knew that God was giving me my son back. It was like the weight of the world was taken off of me, like I was just set free.”
She said the outpouring of support the family has received is overwhelming. Within three days of the accident, Zack’s story was shared across the country through Facebook pages and thousands of shares on posts from his friends and family.
“It’s just been awesome,” she said. “Great support from the small community we live in, from our personal family, Zack’s friends and our church family.”
Zack’s friends are also thrilled with his progress.
“It’s amazing how far he’s come,” said Hunter Darnell. “When I found out that he wrecked, I felt my heart drop to my stomach. I just felt like crying, and it seemed like every good memory we had was going through my head. We’ve been friends since kindergarten, and he’s always been there for me through thick and thin.”
Recalling one of those memories, he said, “One time my grandpa, Zack and I went squirrel hunting. We were going into the mountains, and Zack started screaming ‘A turkey!’ We all started looking, and in the road, there was a dove. He was always doing something to get people to laugh.”
Michael Hatfield agreed, calling Zack easygoing and a joker.
“I’ve been friends with Zack since the fourth grade,” he said. “We always played basketball in gym class and hung out in the cafeteria.
“[After the accident,] I got depressed. I thought that I was going to see one of my best friends get laid to rest at such a young age. I couldn’t even imagine what his family would’ve had to go through.”
Since the accident, family members say Zack has gone from being given no hope to live to doctors saying he’ll be able to go home July 23. Their most recent update is that Zack is standing on his own with little assistance (his leg muscles weakened while in the coma), writing his name and age and pushing himself in his wheelchair.
He’s also smiling.
A fund has been set up to help with Zack’s medical bills and other related expenses for the family. If you would like to donate, visit www.gofundme.com/zackery-mitchell-fund.
Also the WVU fan page www.facebook.com/WestVirginiaMountaineers has temporarily been transformed into a page for Zack, which you can follow for regular updates on his condition.