GH's Ferris cherishing every breath

When Grand Haven junior Patrick Ferris takes the ice as a forward on the Buccaneers' varsity hockey team, his shifts are often interrupted by a lack of breath.
Nate Thompson
Jan 31, 2012

In no way is Ferris out of shape, or suffering from asthma as some opponents have wondered, when he begins wheezing on his way back to the bench.  

In a sport that requires quick bursts of speed and continued aggressiveness for up to a minute straight, Ferris’ condition could spell the end of the line for most.

Fortunately for the Bucs and their inspirational, soft-spoken leader, Ferris isn’t like most others.

If he was, Ferris might have been another in the large percentage of patients highlighted by his medical team at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids who wouldn’t have survived the delicate surgery following his near-fatal accident at Crystal Mountain Ski Resort in which his windpipe was crushed and separated from his larynx during a snowboarding crash, leaving him gasping for air.  

“Still, almost six years later, the staff (at Helen DeVos) is still talking about Patrick,” said his mother, Beth Ferris. “He was a miracle.”

Like many accidents, Ferris’ was the cause of a simple mistake. Ferris was just 11 years old on Feb. 25, 2006, and was with his close friend, fellow Grand Haven classmate and Bucs’ hockey teammate Asa Pellegrom. The pair enjoyed an afternoon on the slopes and were cutting across the hill on their snowboards at the Thompsonville ski resort because it was nearing dinner time and they were being called into the lodge.

“There was a flat area near the bottom and to get across, we had to cut under the rope,” said Pellegrom. “It was tied to the snow machine and it basically separated the hill.”

While Pellegrom was able to duck and dodge the rope, Ferris wasn’t, and it caught him on the side of the neck, clothes-lining him to the ground.

“It hit me and pulled up,” Ferris said.

QUICK REACTION IN CRISIS

Initially thinking it was simply a clumsy wipeout, Pellegrom’s first reaction was to laugh. But as he approached his friend still lying on the snow, he quickly realized it was a much more serious matter.

“Patrick was trying to talk, but all that was coming out was a gargling noise,” Pellegrom recalled. “I couldn’t make out what he was saying, so I asked him if he wanted me to take off his helmet. He was able to shake his head, ‘No.’”

Pellegrom, fearing something wasn’t right, said he “booked it down the hill” to alert snow patrol. Looking back at the incident, Pellegrom’s quick thinking and reaction were vital in saving his friend’s life.

“Asa’s our hero,” said Beth Ferris. “He’s always joking with his family that if they don’t treat him nice, that he’ll move in with us because we love him so much.”
Both of Patrick’s parents, Beth and father Randy, were at the resort as well, and were at their son’s side within minutes of the accident.

“They called the ambulance immediately, and fortunately, it was just a quarter mile down the road,” Beth said. “And they had an advanced life support technician aboard, who knew exactly how to handle the situation.”

Patrick said he doesn’t remember much from the accident, but vows that someone was with him when Pellegrom left to get help.

“Maybe this sounds crazy, but he says there was someone dressed in black holding him still. He swears by it,” Beth said. “But there was no one there. The only thing we can think of was it was his angel. He fortunately stayed relaxed; otherwise, he could have easily suffocated.”

By the time the ambulance arrived, with his breathing restricted, Ferris was in shock and his face was turning blue. During the frantic ambulance ride to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, he went into cardiac arrest.

Paramedics helped stabilize Ferris’ breathing by using chest tubes to help his lungs fully expand; a device similar to a corkscrew to create an airway to insert a tracheotomy tube in his neck; and stents to set the trachea in place. From Munson, he and Beth were flown to DeVos, where he underwent surgery to stitch his shattered trachea back together.

DELICATE SURGERY

Patrick’s surgery was extensive — nearly six hours long — and elaborate. Surgeons had to insert, remove and reinsert a breathing tube between each stitch in his trachea to ensure proper oxygen flow.

Still, following surgery, Patrick wasn’t all the way out of the woods.

“When we asked the surgeons the prognosis (after surgery), they were honest with us,” Randy said. “They told us people typically don’t survive this. There were a cascading series of failures that could still complicate things.”

Patrick was put into a medically-induced coma for 10 days to help the healing process and remained in the hospital for two weeks.

“I was kept in this rotator bed, which helped keep my neck from moving and restrict my breathing,” Patrick said.

Prior to leaving the hospital, doctors performed procedures to determine the extent of damage to Patrick’s airway. They revealed paralyzed vocal cords due to nerve damage, leaving him to struggle to speak above a whisper. His voice has improved slightly today, but will never be booming. 

But the series of failures doctors warned the Ferris’ about never materialized. Beth said it’s a minor miracle alone that her son didn’t experience brain damage from the lack of oxygen he experienced following the accident. 

Ferris was allowed to go home on one of his favorite days — St. Patrick’s Day. Patrick often used the day to celebrate his birthday at school, since he has a summer birthday, Beth explained.

Patrick underwent several weeks of occupational and physical therapy at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, where he said he regained his strength, as well as did some speech therapy.

“It was tough, but it seemed to go by faster after awhile,” Patrick said, a testament to the positive attitude his parents said he kept throughout the ordeal.
May of 2006 marked somewhat of a milestone in his recovery. He visited Cincinnati, Ohio, where an airway specialist removed the tracheal tube in his neck.

BACK IN THE GAME

Nearly a year later, Ferris was back playing competitive sports, and also returned to the slopes on his snowboard. But due to his restricted breathing capabilities from the accident, sports with limited substitutions — such as basketball — became too difficult to play. 

Today, he’s a member of the Bucs’ varsity golf team, but his true passion lies on the ice. Ferris said he’s cherished being a part of a talented Bucs’ squad, which through Saturday, sported an impressive 14-4 record playing in the O-K Tier 1. He scored a goal and also had an assist in his team’s last game — a 7-2 win over Grand Rapids West Catholic.

Grand Haven varsity hockey coach Dan Gadbois is well aware of Patrick’s condition, and knows Ferris’ shifts will be cut short throughout the rest of his varsity career. Despite his condition, there are no further health concerns with Patrick being involved in a physical sport.

“We’ve got him set up on the side of the ice closest to the bench, in the case he does need a quick sub,” Gadbois said. “He knows he can’t go full strength all the time, but the thing I love about Patrick is, I’ve never heard him complain. Not once. That in itself is more impressive than any leading goal scorer or anything like that.”

Pellegrom said the transformation to where Ferris was six years ago to seeing him contribute on the ice now, has proven inspirational to himself and fellow teammates.

“It shows that miracles really can happen,” he said.

Even Patrick is aware of how fortunate he was, and is intent on showing his gratitude.

He’s already decided that a portion of the money he receives from friends and family for his graduation from Grand Haven will go directly to DeVos Children’s Hospital.

And who knows? Maybe that small token of appreciation could help produce another miracle like Patrick Ferris.

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