NESS CITY — Those who don’t know Dayton Copeland might not notice much difference between him and other teenagers.
The Ness City High School junior loves to drive and hang out with his friends. He umpired at games for the Ness City Recreation Commission this summer. He had some luck in dove season and looks forward to playing basketball again.
But those close to him see signs of the traumatic brain injury he suffered in a vehicle crash almost a year ago such as a little bit slower reaction time and occasionally a short temper. But they also see positive changes and the determination and faith they say led to a remarkable recovery.
“Dayton’s a very determined young man, and I didn’t know how far physically he would be able to go. He did have so much to overcome. I knew if anyone could do it, it would be him,” said NCHS Counselor Tonya Fenlay.
It was Dec. 12 when Dayton, after working with his dad, Nathan, after school then went to a friend’s to take some beef jerky off a dehydrator. He was to meet his father later at a basketball game. He didn’t make it, colliding with a vehicle whose driver failed to yield at an intersection in rural Ness County.
From the Ness County Hospital, Dayton was flown to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita. Doctors there did not offer the family much hope about his recovery from the brain injury during his eight-day stay there.
“The injury he had, they said only 1 percent survive and 90 percent of the people that do survive with that type of injury, usually it’s not a very good outcome. It’s usually a vegetative state,” his mother, Angela, said.
On Dec. 21, he was transferred to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital-Omaha Campus. The hospital specializes in rehabilitation in brain trauma, spinal cord injuries and other conditions.
“When he came to us, he was not very responsive. He would not communicate, he would not open his eyes. He had part of his skull removed because of the bruising of the brain tissue and swelling of the brain,” said Dr. Samuel Bierner, medical director and physiatrist at Madonna.
Dayton’s therapy started quickly.
“We got to Madonna, and they told us the plan, and the next morning they said, ‘OK, we’re going to walk.’ He’s not even conscious,” Angela said.
“We want to get people moving and keep their limbs from developing contractors, make sure they are starting to exercise and move because we know that’s good for the brain and good for the body,” Bierner said.
“Even when he woke up and started talking to us and asking question, I didn’t realize ’til weeks later he really didn’t know what was going on even though he was awake and talking to us,” Angela said.
Today, Dayton has no memory of the accident or those early days in the hospital. And when he did wake up and realize he was in a hospital, he thought it would be like previous trips to the hospital where he was able to go home after a few hours.
“I thought I’d be able to walk out just fine,” he said. “It didn’t happen that way.”
His therapy consisted of physical therapy twice a day, occupational therapy, recreational therapy and speech therapy.
His team originally set a date for him to finish inpatient therapy March 17. But Dayton had a different plan.
“Once he started making progress, he made progress very quickly,” Bierner said.
“He pretty much started setting the tone of everything,” Angela said. “He was progressing so fast, and he was arguing with them about the dates.
“He’d look at the calendar and say, ‘The 10th looks good,’ and they would move his date of discharge to the 10th,” she said.
“He ended up getting out of outpatient rehab on March 1,” she said.
He was back in school that month and had an emotional welcome.
“The first day back at school here, there were so many people crying, so many tears of joy,” Fenlay said.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” Dayton said.
Dayton was a shy kid before the injury, but that is one thing that has changed.
“He’s always been friends with everybody, but he’s not as shy,” his mother said.
“He doesn’t like a lot of attention. He kind of got used to attention after being at Madonna. I think that’s where that change in personality came from, just because they were so supportive and always cheering, and everybody knows everybody there,” Angela said.
“I used to by shy,” Dayton agreed. “Then it just kind of hit me, why be shy? You never know when your time will be. Don’t be shy.”
Fenlay said she also noticed a difference in Dayton when he was an umpire during children’s baseball games with the rec commission this summer.
“He seemed more assertive this year and a little more take-charge,” she said.
There are lingering affects Dayton and his family have to be careful about, however.
“They say his brain can still heal up to two, three and 10 years down the road,” Angela said.
He can overheat easily, since the brain regulates body temperature.
There’s a greater concern, too.
“They say he cannot hit his head again, especially in the first year or two. He would not recover like he did this time if he had another head injury,” Angela said.
That fact wracked her nerves when he umpired at the rec this summer.
“I went to the very first game, and I think I was holding my breath the whole time that he wouldn’t get hit or fall,” she said.
But even with those concerns, the Copelands focus more on making sure Dayton lives life to the fullest.
“You’ve got to be careful the rest of your life, but it doesn’t mean you’re not normal and can’t do normal things,” his mother told him. “You just gotta take care of yourself and take care of your body.”
They also focus on gratitude for his recovery, something they attribute to prayers from the community and especially to their own faith in God.
Dayton keeps a reminder of his faith close to his heart. About a month before the accident, he had purchased a pendant on a chain inscribed with Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.”
Ironically, because of an early morning basketball practice, the day of his wreck was the one day he hadn’t worn it.
“We put it on the wall next to the bed when we couldn’t put it on you,” Angela said.
“I’ve worn it every day since I woke up,” Dayton said.
“I think this whole ordeal has strengthened my faith,” Angela said.
It’s that faith that she will draw on when the worries of a mother hit.
“It’s still my worst nightmare,” she said of the crash that injured Dayton. “I worry more often about it. I worry about all my kids, the one in college. I worry about my husband. When they’re not with me I worry about them.
“I just have to pray, ‘God take care of them,’ and hopefully he will, just as he has with Dayton,” she said.