honoree zekeZEKE CROZIER - 2017 Honoree

Hard working, ambitious, young and full of promise. These are all words that could be used to describe Zeke Crozier, a Crew Chief in the U.S. Army at the time of his traumatic brain injury (TBI).

With an incredible work ethic, Zeke was accustomed to working multiple jobs at once from an early age. At one time, Zeke was working around the clock holding positions at Walmart, Men’s Warehouse and in construction. Then in June 2004, Zeke felt the call of duty and enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve his country. For several years, Zeke was based in Gardner, KS, while also going to school at Johnson County Community College. Then in March 2011, Zeke was deployed to Afghanistan to help in the war effort. Zeke said good bye to his beautiful girlfriend (who is now his wife), Lacy, and his young children. Then Zeke left home unknowing of the life-altering path that lie ahead.

Zeke was well suited for his role in the military. He was dependable, steadfast, brave and a natural humanitarian. He excelled in his duties and quickly climbed from a mechanic in the war (working on helicopters) to a Crew Chief. In his job climb to the next position of Flight Engineer, Zeke was actually in his final flight requirement on the night his accident occurred.

Zeke had only been in Afghanistan for 41 days when his Chinook helicopter violently crashed. Even in the haze after the accident, Zeke recalls vivid details from this night. Zeke and his flight crew were assigned to moving troops, and the conditions were dangerous. The night sky was the purest of black, and the winds were howling. The terrain below the helicopter was rough and rocky, and the men were attempting to land in a small landing zone circled by trees. The helicopter had carefully passed over the trees, and Zeke announced it was clear to come down. Then as the crew was preparing to land, engine #2 suddenly stopped working. So instead of a gradual descent, the helicopter dropped approximately 150 feet crashing into the ground.

During the crash, Zeke’s head was thrust violently back and forth knocking him unconscious and causing his traumatic brain injury. Zeke was trapped in the back of the helicopter lying flat on the floor when ground troops rushed in to save the men on board. Zeke was missed at first and was the last soldier to be rescued from the destruction. The Military flew Zeke from Afghanistan to Germany for immediate medical attention. Zeke was put in a medically-induced coma for two weeks with a bolt placed in his head to monitor pressure within the brain. He was also treated with intubation to help control breathing. At the time, doctors warned Zeke’s loved ones that he may not survive, and even if he did survive, he would likely suffer from severe disabilities for the rest of his life. Doctors were unsure if Zeke would walk or even talk again.

Shortly after his time in Germany, Zeke was moved to a military hospital in Maryland for continued treatment. His last destination was a VA medical hospital in Minnesota, a leading center in rehabilitation for victims of brain injury. In Zeke’s awakening days, he recalls a lot of pain and confusion. His right hand was completely shattered from the accident, but this injury was ignored at first, overshadowed by the brain trauma. At the Minnesota facility, Zeke was stationed close to the front desk with an alarm on his bed because he was considered a high fall-risk. During the start of his stay, Zeke couldn’t even swallow on his own. He was forced to re-learn everything he ever knew. He was medicated around the clock and recalls feeling muddled and terrified often. Fortunately, Zeke received tremendous care from the medical staff, and his devoted girlfriend, Lacy, was able to live in free housing across the street. Shortly after Zeke's accident, Lacy and Zeke made the decision to get married and were wed during Zeke's stay in Minnesota. Zeke will tell you, Lacy was a constant source of support as well as motivation in his recovery efforts.

At the start of Zeke’s recovery, he faced a wide range of obstacles. Language didn’t make sense to him at first. His left side was not in balance with his right side. He constantly struggled with the left side of his face drooping and the muscles on the left side of his body sagging. He needed a wheel chair to get places. Zeke had a very difficult time adjusting to the constant support needed from the medical staff. He did not feel comfortable seeking help from others and always felt the desire to reciprocate. Until this point, Zeke was accustomed to being the helper instead of needing the help. With his ambition and drive, Zeke worked to reach his goals in recovery as quickly as possible. He regained his ability to speak and eventually worked his way out of the wheel chair to the walker.

Then in the midst of Zeke’s healing process, he experienced further devastation upon hearing the news of a massive crash in Afghanistan. The flight of Extortion 17 was shot down on August 6, 2011, making it the deadliest helicopter incident in the history of U.S. Special Operations. 38 men lost their lives on this night, and Zeke had personally served with three of these men. In fact, one of the pilots of Extortion 17 (who survived the helicopter crash with Zeke only a few weeks prior) was supposed to return to the United States to visit Zeke in the next week or so. Zeke’s loyalty and devotion to these men are the reasons he traveled to attend their memorial services even while he was still unstable and in the trenches of his own recovery.

In late October 2011, Zeke was released from the rehabilitation center in Minnesota, and he returned home to his children for the first time in months. His rehabilitation continued with full-time rehab and then eventually part-time rehab. The adjustment to civilian life was not easy. Zeke struggled with his retirement from the military as it did not happen on his terms and timeline, and it took him a while to find new purpose. Piling medical bills, battles with insurance and a decreased salary were also challenges for Zeke and his family. On the plus side, Zeke appreciated all the extra time he received with his three sons, Michijah, Chase and Gunnar. Being with his children every day brought him joy and renewed meaning. He received tremendous support from his family and the community around him. Also with the help of advocates, such as congressman, Kevin Yoder, Zeke was finally and deservedly awarded the Purple Heart, a U.S. military decoration granted to those wounded or killed in combat while serving with the U.S. military.

Zeke recalls a turning point in his new life after he saw a picture of himself taken by one of his sons. Zeke was asleep in the picture and slouched over. His physical appearance had changed since the accident, and the picture reflected a man Zeke barely recognized. Zeke had gained a lot of weight from the lack of exercise and the medications. The meds also made Zeke feel lethargic and zombie-like. Furthermore, Zeke had fallen into an unhealthy pattern of self-wallow and complaining. So from this point on, Zeke was motivated to do better. He adapted a new mentality convincing himself there was no other choice. Zeke got off the pain medicine and started exercising regularly. He was driven to become as self-sufficient as possible. Zeke does not want to live with the label of “disabled veteran.” He’s not going to allow a limit or a cap on what he can achieve in life.

Zeke has also developed a profound awareness of others around him also suffering from disabilities. When he enters a store, for example, Zeke will look for people who might be struggling. If there’s any way he can help someone else—even with a small gesture, such as reaching an item off the store shelf, Zeke is eager to help. Zeke also discovered a passion for artwork and started his own business called, Handy Cappin’ LLC, which specializes in custom design using bottle caps. Each piece is unique and specifically designed for his customer. (Zeke proudly offers a 10% military discount to active and retired military members, veterans and spouses.) His artwork is now on display in several local businesses, and he donates many pieces to charity. His work brings him happiness and allows Zeke to serve in a different way.

Also exciting for Zeke’s future, Zeke was recently chosen by Designing Spaces’ Military Makeover as the next recipient of a home renovation. The award-winning home improvement show is hosted by R. Lee Ermey, an actor best known for his role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the war movie, Full Metal Jacket. The show will be aired on the Lifetime television network after the renovation is complete.

Despite the challenges that Zeke still faces, he approaches life with resilience, determination, gratitude and a great sense of humor. He continues to show progress and growth in his recovery efforts. Hard working, ambitious, young and full of promise… these are all words that can STILL be used to describe Zeke Crozier today.

honoree jamesJAMES MCGINNIS - 2016 Honoree

Smart, dynamic, outgoing, kind-hearted, strong, full of promise. These are all words that could be used to describe James McGinnis, a senior at Olathe East High School at the time of his injury. A well-rounded, faith-devoted, straight-A student, James played everything from football to basketball to track to the cello. On September 12, 2014, under the Friday night lights of the Olathe District Athletic Complex (ODAC), James’ team was playing Olathe South, its biggest rival. In the third quarter of the game, James made an ordinary tackle that appeared harmless at the moment. However, the tackle caused a shearing effect, which is tearing of the brain’s nerve fibers as it shifts and rotates inside the skull. James was able to complete one more play and then collapsed at the six-yard line. The team trainer and coaches ran over to help James, but James lay limp and unconscious. As the gravity of the situation grew apparent, the stadium fell silent and the players kneeled in prayer. An ambulance arrived and whisked James to a local hospital where his injury was quickly assessed. A CAT scan showed “Acute Subdural Hematoma” with a mid-line shift, which means damage and bleeding around the lining of the brain. Doctors hurried James into surgery to remove a piece of his skull (bone flap), which helped relieve pressure and allowed his brain to swell. James only had a 7% chance of survival prior to the surgery. By surgery being performed within four hours of the injury, his odds of survival doubled to 14%--although still dismal.

After surgery, James was placed in a medically-induced coma for five days. During this time, a flood of high-school students and friends invaded the hospital each day and stayed until all hours praying and showing their support for James’ family. James’ parents, Patrick and Susan McGinnis, never left James’ side. Until James awoke, they waited patiently at his bedside with no light, sound or movement allowed in the room as any stimulation could harm recovery. As parents and caregivers, Patrick and Susan experienced shock, disbelief and fear. With adrenaline on overload, Patrick and Susan barely ate or slept during the initial days of the accident. They leaned heavily on friends and were extremely thankful to a supportive community that coordinated meals, organized a fundraiser and supported their business during this time. Patrick and Susan remained positive, hopeful and celebrated any signs of progress. They focused on moving forward and educating themselves about brain injury and what to expect in the days to come. Patrick and Susan soon learned and accepted the fact that no two brain injuries are alike. Therefore, survival odds and potential outcomes could not fully be predicted, even by the best doctors.

The first miraculous moment to happen in James’ recovery was about a week after his injury. James was still in the process of awakening from his coma and could not open his eyes yet. His parents were leaning close telling James they were proud of him and loved him. At this moment, his parents noticed his right hand move slowly and attempt to form the hand sign for “I love you.” (This was a sign James used often since 2nd grade.) His parents immediately knew what James was trying to communicate, but the doctors were not convinced. The doctors thought the hand gesture was just a reflex. A few days later (day 10 from the incident, to be exact), James could clearly make the “I love you” sign with his hand and doctors agreed the gesture was purposeful. In the days to follow, James achieved other small but vital milestones such as wincing in reaction to pain, forming a tear from his right eye, recognizing music (the song “Toes” by ZBB motivated James to try getting out of bed!) and giving the “thumbs up” sign. These little achievements gave big hope to family and doctors.

On the 18th day from the accident, James was transported from a local hospital to a Rehabilitation Hospital in Nebraska. Susan McGinnis recalls being alarmed by the aggressive approach of the nurses and therapist. On day one, they began evaluations and demanded that James be up and out of bed. This terrified Susan after so many days of fragile treatment of James. Additionally, she was not accustomed to others being in control of James. However, Susan quickly changed her feelings of reluctance and was very thankful for the support and relief provided by the hosptial staff. As James began his daily therapy, the McGinnises were still facing hardships—not only dire concern for their son, but they were nervous about rising medical costs and the possibility of insurance not lasting long enough. At this time, Susan was staying in Nebraska with James in housing across the street from the hospital, and Pat was commuting back and forth from Olathe on weekends. The progress felt painfully slow to Susan who was there with James each day. Pat’s perspective was helpful as he was away for longer periods and could see clear advancements in James from week to week. (On a side note, James was at level four on the Rancho Scale at the start of rehab. The Rancho Scale is a common tool used to evaluate and follow the ten levels of progress after a brain injury. The ultimate goal, of course, is to reach level ten.)

James entered rehabilitation with a tough and curious state of mind—seeking explanation from therapists about each approach and wanting to change the approach if it wasn’t working. At the same time, James’ playful side began to reemerge as rehab progressed, mixing in plenty of fun and laughter (and even a few pranks!) during his daily work. Before long, James was feeling at home at the hospital and beloved by everyone on staff. Altogether, James was in Nebraska for 189 days, which included both inpatient and outpatient rehab. During this time, he achieved many milestones starting with simple tasks such as sitting up on his own and swallowing ice chips to greater tasks such as standing on his own and walking with assistance. Also during his time in rehab, James underwent surgery to return the bone flap to his skull (which had been “stored” in his stomach), another important step in recovery.

On Day 207 after the incident, James finally returned to his home in Olathe, Kansas. The decision to leave the facility in Nebraska was nerve-racking for James and his family, but James was determined to complete his senior year and graduate alongside his friends. James was greeted with open arms by his entire community. He received special recognition during “senior night” at the Olathe East varsity basketball game, bringing the crowd to its feet when James surprised everyone by walking several steps on his own. Right after this moment, James got everyone in the gymnasium to hold up the “I love you” hand sign, including the opponents’ team and fans from Olathe South. One important goal for James, worth noting, was being able to walk 30 yards on his own—the distance between the place of his collapse on the football field to the sideline of the football field. In fact, his father had been growing out his beard and refused to cut his beard until James could complete the 30 yards. On day 328, James did it—he finally got his chance to walk off the football field.

The one-year anniversary of James’ injury in September 2015 marked an anxious time for James and his family, conjuring up difficult memories. To turn this date into a positive mark and reflect on the love and support James has experienced, James and his family had the “I love you” hand sign tattooed on their bodies. This included his mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, a few friends and even his 84-year old grandmother. The image is now a permanent reminder that even in the darkest times, love triumphs above all things. Despite the hardship James still faces, he approaches each day with courage, faith and determination. He continues to show growth and advancements in recovery. Smart, dynamic, outgoing, kind hearted, strong, full of promise. These are all words that can STILL be used to describe James McGinnis.


honoree davidDAVID HAYDON - 2015 Honoree

2015 Amy Thompson Run for Brain Injury Honoree David Haydon is a survivor of a traumatic brain injury whose story is nothing short of a miracle. His perseverance, strength, and unwavering faith are what make David such a deserved honoree and an inspiration to others.

Prior to David's injury, David was living "The American Dream" as a successful attorney with a loving wife, Gigi and daughter, Merrill, a thriving high school student. David, a Kansas City area native, attended the University of Kansas as an undergraduate and received a law degree from the University of Virginia.

With strong analytical skills and a knack for negotiating, David found contract law to be a good fit and spent the first part of his career as a transactional attorney at Kansas City-based law firms. His methodical mind, attention to detail and passion to always do what's right earned David the trust and respect of his clients and colleagues. Eventually David's curious nature and quest to try new things led him away from the firm environment, joining Farmland Industries and conducting international business in places such as Mexico, China and the Caribbean. Ultimately, David returned to his roots joining Levy Craig law firm, where he was employed when he was injured.

On January 23, 2013 while David was walking back to his office downtown from lunch with a colleague, a speeding car ran a red light. Both men were hit hard; David, injured far worse than his colleague, flew almost 30 feet crashing head first into a nearby building. The outcome was catastrophic. Rushed in an ambulance to the hospital, paramedics had to intubate David to keep him alive. David was rushed into surgery. His neurosurgeon removed two parts of David's skull allowing his brain to swell, a vital step in surviving a massive head injury.

Meanwhile, David's wife, Gigi entered a world of shock that lasted for months. At the hospital, Gigi was told by the neurosurgeon that David would not survive the night or would be unrecognizable from the person he was and would never work again. Miraculously, David beat the odds and survived the first 24 hours after the accident, and was transferred to the neuro unit at K.U. Medical Hospital.

It took David about 5-6 days to begin showing even the smallest signs of response, such as a reflex or twitch. After two weeks, David finally "awakened" and to the relief of his family, started answering simple questions such as his wife's name or where he lived. During this time, Gigi recalls being immensely thankful for the tremendous outpouring of support from their loved ones, as David required constant supervision. Family members and close friends would visit around the clock and take shifts watching over David to make sure he didn't unintentionally harm himself. In this phase, David would often be very confused and agitated, a common side effect of brain injury.

Eventually, David was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Lincoln, NE to begin the recovery process. It was March 6, when he finally understood and could comprehend who he was and what happened to him. David remembers other milestones such as when he said, "I love you" to his daughter for the first time since the accident and when he could actually see with his own eyes again.

David's injuries impacted the executive function area in addition to language, vision and hearing areas of the brain. Despite this news, David persevered, never losing hope or giving up, always ready to learn and always willing to work.

After nine weeks, David was released for home and reunited with his family. He has continued rehabilitation locally and is still improving every day. The greatest challenges he faces are hearing and vision loss and word retrieval issues, but he still strives to learn and progress. He currently is exploring options in advanced cognitive rehabilitation.

David and his wife look back on the past two years and can't imagine how they would have made it without the remarkable outpouring of support from their loved ones. They are forever thankful for everyone involved in David's recovery. He faces each day with determination and resilience and accepts that the recovery process is not a sprint and there is no timeline. He has learned to take life as it comes, one day at a time, one week at a time--with faith and fortitude.


honoree katieKATIE ZEMEL - 2014 Honoree

Courageous, strong, determined as well as incredibly warm and genuine are words that describe this year's honoree, Katie Zemel. A native of Overland Park, KS, Katie suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1998 when struck by lightning during a soccer game in her freshman year of high school at Shawnee Mission South. Katie's mother, Cathy Levin, was sitting in the stands during the game and recalls the sudden onset of stormy weather. Just as the words,"they need to call this game,"; fell from Cathy's mouth, an enormous bolt of lightning struck the soccer field. The bolt was so powerful it knocked down every player on the field. One by one, all the players slowly began to stand up-except Katie. Guesstimated by doctors as a million volts of electricity, the impact caused Katie's heart to literally stop beating. Thanks to the remarkable CPR efforts of bystanders, both a nurse and a physical therapist attending the game, Katie was revived and rushed to Overland Park Regional hospital. She was sedated at Overland Park Regional for two weeks until her breathing tube was finally removed, and then she was transferred to Children's Mercy. In the days following Katie's coma, she had to re-learn everything she ever knew, including the most basic skills, such as swallowing, blinking and smiling. Holding down food was among one of Katie's toughest challenges, and at one point, her weight dropped to as low as 75 pounds. 

Katie spent two grueling months at Children's Mercy until she was finally well enough to return home-on June 1, 1998, the day of her older sister's high school graduation. During that summer, she received intense out-patient therapy all day every day at the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City. By the end of summer, she was walking, talking and recognizing certain things again. Although it was a tremendously difficult time for Katie and her family, her progress was almost a miracle given the enormity of her injury. With a full-time para along her side, Katie returned to high school in the fall of 1998. Although she could not participate in the sophomore curriculum, she used her time at school to continue relearning everything she had forgotten. She spent five years total in high school and after high school, she was able to attend National Louis University in Evanston, IL. NLU has a two-year certificate program for those with disabilities. Kate stayed at NLU for four years and learned life-coping skills about safety and independent living. 

Upon returning home to Overland Park, KS, after NLU, Katie has made a life for herself. With the support of a wonderful manager and staff, Katie currently works three days a week at Hy-Vee crafting salads-to-go in the produce department. On her "off" days, she helps her mother with her catering business, enjoys Jazzercise and making art. To this day, Katie still lives with the effects of her brain injury. She has lost the sensation of hunger and fullness when eating, and she has no short-term memory. Without short-term memory, she requires devices, such as her iPhone, to remind her of everyday tasks such as when to eat and when to do laundry. Katie says the most important thing she needs from others is to be treated with patience. At no fault of Katie's, she often needs extra time to answer questions or get things done. It can be stressful or upsetting for her if others do not grant her a little patience. 

Despite these hardships, Katie faces each day with fortitude and a "can do"; attitude. More than 15 years after the brain injury, Katie is still showing growth and progress each day. In addition to her strength and perseverance, Katie has an exceptionally friendly and warm demeanor, and her smile is contagious. To put it best, Angela, one of Katie's cognitive therapists from many years ago, says this about Katie: "I've learned so much from Katie during the several years I worked for her. I've known her to be brave and resilient. Katie has a beautiful spirit and is always open to the best in life and in others. I am definitely a better therapist - even a better person - from having shared in part of her journey."