For a day and a half, Jacob Fischer lay trapped, face down in his car, hidden in a brush-covered ravine while relatives and friends searched frantically for him.
The 17-year-old from Independence was near death when rescuers found him. His brain was bleeding and swelling, his lung collapsed, and a femur, ankle and heel broken.
A Kansas City firefighter never saw someone survive a wreck that bad.
But Fischer did survive, and now, three years later, even is walking again — thanks in part to a surgeon who once was trapped and injured in a ravine himself.
Still, Fischer’s life is forever changed.
He suffers from nerve damage in his legs. He wears a brace on his right calf to walk. The brain damage changed his personality.
Despite those challenges, Fischer drives, works at an auto-parts store and has his sights set on nursing school, hoping to perhaps even work some day for his orthopedic trauma surgeon.
“I’m proud of him,” said his mother, Stephanie Fischer. “He pushed himself so hard.”
Jacob fought back and finished his junior year of high school in a wheelchair. He challenged himself in physical therapy to be able to return for his senior year without a wheelchair or crutches and to walk across the stage at his graduation ceremony last year.
His strength touched a lot of people, including the surgeon and the first firefighter who arrived at the wreckage — both of whom became friends of his.
Kansas City firefighter Michael Jordan said he had never seen anyone survive a wreck as bad as Fischer’s.
“I honestly thought he was dead,” said Jordan, a 12-year veteran. “I’ve never seen anyone come out of something like that alive. I knew he had to be a strong kid.”
Tragedy can make a “good person better and a bad person worse,” said the surgeon, Archie Heddings of the KU Medical Center. “Jacob falls into the former category.
“He’s going to do something in his corner of the world. He’s going to make it a better place.”
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Jacob Fischer doesn’t remember losing control of his car in dense fog along Noland Road on Nov. 1, 2008, and slamming into a tree. He wishes he did.
“I want to know why I went in there,” he said. “I don’t know if I fell asleep or what. Maybe I was blinded by some bright lights.”
He doesn’t remember the 32 hours he spent pinned across his passenger seat in his wrecked car. Two Kansas City police officers — both off-duty — went out of their way to help the family while Jacob was missing. One of them summoned a police helicopter, whose pilot found Fischer less than a mile from his home just hours before he probably would have died.
In the months after the accident, he underwent a dozen leg surgeries — most of them attempts to clean out bacteria embedded deep in his leg. The hours he spent trapped in his car gave the bacteria time to gain a strong foothold.
He dropped from 145 pounds to 104 pounds. During physical therapy in 2009, his leg broke again.
“My dad heard it across the room,” Fischer said.
The pain required a nerve block to quell. Fischer underwent surgery again. Doctors repaired the break, inserted a steel rod, and tried to kill the persistent infection.
Last year, doctors removed the rod and declared the bone finally healed. The day after that surgery, Fischer said, he was “up and walking just to prove a point.”
During physical therapy, Fischer always asked to do more than the therapist suggested. When she asked him to walk using parallel bars, he walked around the room using his wheelchair in front of him for balance.
When Fischer returned to school, his therapist told him not to use the stairs.
“I walked up and down the stairs all the time,” he said. “I was making myself do some work. Basically, if they told me not to do it, I’d do it . I wanted to do what the other kids were doing.”
Fischer returned to his job at a fast-food restaurant, but “they had me doing all the cleaning,” he said. He wanted the variety he had before and felt the managers were frustrated with him because he moved slowly, so he quit. He later got hired at the auto parts store, where he stocks items, installs batteries and windshield wipers and works the cash register.
A few months ago, Fischer bought his first car since the wreck, a used Pontiac Grand Prix. He wasn’t afraid to get behind the wheel again, he said.
“I don’t have any bad memories,” he said, “because I don’t remember anything.”
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Fischer, now 20, said he feels fully recovered, except for nerve damage in his legs that cause his toes to curl up on his left foot and prevents him from lifting his right foot, a condition known as “drop foot.” His right calf muscle has atrophied because he hasn’t been able to flex it. He also takes pain medication for stabbing pains in his right leg and wears a lift in his left shoe because his left leg is about 1 inch shorter.
His mother noted that he loses his balance easily in the dark or on uneven ground.
The lingering issues don’t deter Fischer, who wants to run and play baseball again. He hopes he can find a nerve specialist who can help him overcome his remaining nerve problems.
“I’m just an ‘I’m going to make this happen’ kind of guy,” Fischer said.
His determination impressed his surgeon, who can identify with Jacob because of his own car wreck at age 20.
Heddings said he fell asleep while driving and careened off Interstate 35 in the middle of the night. He, too, remained trapped in his car for hours. A trucker eventually spotted one of his headlights in a ravine.
Heddings also suffered nerve damage, but to his left shoulder. It took him more than a year to recover.
“I went from being a strong guy in the Army to a weakling with an arm just hanging there,” he said. “It gave me a starting point for Jacob. He was so active. I sure want to see him go back to that.”
The wrecks changed both men’s career ambitions. Heddings said he had planned to pursue a military career but switched to medicine. Fischer said he now wants to pursue a medical career, possibly in nursing. Both men consider their experience as a patient an asset.
Fischer’s dream job, he said, would be to work as Heddings’ nurse in an operating room.
Heddings said Fischer still faces some challenges with his nerve damage, but Fischer already has proved that he is not a typical patient.
“If there’s anyone who can break the mold, he can do it,” Heddings said.