Letting Go of What Was
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Pat and Tammy McLeod remember the day their son, Zach, was injured in a high school scrimmage. Zach underwent emergency brain surgery, but continued to have setbacks. The McLeods tell of God’s nearness as Zach’s life and theirs.
Letting Go of What Was
Bob: It was an autumn evening in Boston. Pat and Tammy McLeod were involved in a ministry event; and their son, Zach, was in a preseason high school football game. It wasn’t until the ministry event was over that Pat checked his phone.
Pat: Our son/our second son had been trying to reach us. As soon as I got on the phone, he practically screamed: “Dad! Why aren’t you answering your phone? Zach’s been hurt!” There had been parents calling; there had been coaches calling. “Now the hospital is calling. They said that he collapsed and is being airlifted to a hospital and will have to undergo emergency brain surgery.” That’s when I realized this was serious.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, January 30th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. We’ll hear today about Zach McLeod’s football injury that ultimately changed his life and his family’s life. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re going to hear a hard story today; it’s tied to football. You played football when you were in high school and college. You’ve been around football for a lot of years. You’ve raised sons, who played football. Did you ever have any second thoughts, while they were playing or after they were playing, about whether that was safe for them?
Dave: Yes, I did; I don’t know what Ann would say.
Ann: We both did.
Dave: I do remember my youngest son playing college football. The good thing is he is on a scholarship. As a dad and mom, you’re like: “This is awesome! It’s free!”; so that was exciting.
His freshman year, he started. I remember he caught a ball, and two guys came. I’m a quarterback, so I’m watching the thing—I threw a lot of those balls. You could just see it—like in slow-mo. The ball’s going to get there when these two guys come, and they hit him from both sides. Helmet literally popped straight up in the air. He caught it; got knocked out. Got up; walked off the field; missed a play; went back in. I’m sitting up there, like, “Just stay off.”
I went home that night—I’ll never forget this—went online and started studying brain injuries. This was before it even became a thing in the NFL and the movie and that kind of thing. I started to read the research. I’m like, “If he has another concussion, I think, as a dad, I have to step in and say, ‘You’re done.’” Of course, he would’ve resisted that.
You start to see what the effects are: short-term and long-term. That was one of the first times; every game was like, “Is this worth it?” Then, when he got to the NFL, and he kept getting hurt with his hamstring and had to quit, I was sort of glad—like, “The fear is now gone.” There are other ways that things could happen; but you think, especially as a receiver, you run across there—at any moment, life can change. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Bob: Yes; we’ve got a couple joining us today, Pat and Tammy McLeod, who know about how things can change, firsthand. Pat and Tammy, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Pat and Tammy: Thank you.
Bob: These are fellow Cru® staff. For those who aren’t aware, FamilyLife® is part of Cru/ Campus Crusade for Christ®. Pat and Tammy live in the Boston, Massachusetts, area and have been doing ministry on the campus at [Eastern accent] Harvard; did I say that right? [Laughter] Harvard University for 20 years; is that right?
Pat: That’s right.
Bob: Great ministry that you guys do there. We are thrilled to be linked together with you.
They’ve written a book together that is called Hit Hard: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was and Learning to Live Well with What Is. The What Was and the What Is all relates to one play in a football game with your son; right? Did your son grow up loving football? Was that—
Pat: Oh, yes.
Bob: You were an athlete, so you were throwing the ball to him in the backyard when he was a kid; right?
Pat: Yes; he comes from a legacy of a football family, for sure—his grandpa, his dad, his uncle/my brother.
Bob: Did that make you nervous, Tammy?—that he loved football and wanted to play?
Tammy: No; I didn’t know it was dangerous. I knew—
Bob: You saw these guys collide and then hitting each other.
Pat: She loved that; admit it! [Laughter]
Tammy: I knew they could break arms and legs, but I didn’t know they could break brains; so I wasn’t worried. I knew legs could be set and healed.
Bob: Wow. When he was young and he was playing, he never had any problem? He was doing well; he was excelling. Take us to the game where everything changed.
Pat: We weren’t there. We were at the first meeting of the year for our campus ministry. A girl came up behind me—a Harvard student—she had a very concerned look on her face. She said, “Your son’s trying to reach you.” Our son—our third child/second son—was at home, alone—had been trying to reach us; he told us that. We had our phones tucked away in our backpacks.
As soon as I got on the phone, he practically screamed: “Dad! Why aren’t you answering your phone? Zach’s been hurt!” There had been parents calling; there had been coaches calling. “Now the hospital is calling. They said that he collapsed and is being airlifted to a hospital and will have to undergo emergency brain surgery.” That’s when I realized this was serious.
Bob: This was a high school game?
Pat: High school football game, yes. It was actually a scrimmage.
Dave: It was a scrimmage, yes.
Bob: What year was he, Tammy?
Bob: Did you get this information from your husband, or was your phone buzzing as well?
Tammy: Yes; mine was buzzing, but they were both tucked away in our backpacks. Pat motioned me to come. He was on the phone talking to Nate as we were walking out the door.
Bob: In those moments, my default is to believe the best. I’m an optimist: “Okay, he has to have surgery; everything’s going to be okay. I think they can fix these things.” What was your default in that moment? Were you—both of you—were you worried? Or were you thinking, “This was going to be okay”?
Pat: I was in probably a shock. Let me say this—when you’re the parent of an athlete, you’re used to getting calls like this, telling you your son was hurt. Nate himself had broken his arm five times, so I wasn’t immediately worried. When he said “emergency brain surgery,” I got very concerned; but he, also—my son is somewhat dramatic. I thought this might be a little over the top, so I was taking this with a grain of salt.
When we met with the doctor, and he said, “Yes, your son has suffered a brain injury; that this is going to require opening up his skull cap and removing a blood clot. This could result in death or a full recovery,” that’s when, I think, the numbness and the shock set in of: “What’s happening? What does this mean?”
Ann: What did happen? How did this injury occur?
Tammy: Pat and I have two different opinions on this. Zach was hit hard a week earlier. I think what happened was he was hit once, and this was probably second-impact syndrome. We didn’t know what that was; we had never heard of it before. A person at Spalding Rehab told us about it.
He, on the night of the scrimmage, had just intercepted a pass and scored a touchdown. Kids were jumping all over him in the end zone. Then, on the next play, when he was playing defense and tackling, he tackled, with four other people, the ball carrier. We kept rewinding the play; we watched it many, many times. It looked like a 3 on a scale of 0-10, a 10 being a hard hit.
It looked like nothing, basically. His head didn’t hit the ground; his head didn’t hit another player. His head didn’t hit anything. I don’t know what happened for sure, but I think he had second-impact syndrome. The first concussion that he probably had didn’t heal, and then he got hit again; that’s the danger.
Dave: Yes; that’s an extreme danger.
Tammy: That’s usually when the massive swelling happens, which is what happened to Zach, and why he had to have his skullcap removed because the swelling was too great.
Dave: You said you guys don’t agree on that?
Pat: I don’t know that we don’t agree on that; I think it’s possible. What I would say is that Zach’s injury, in some ways, is a fluke. I think they happen in a lot of things, not just football.
The bigger concern I have about football these days is not these kinds of events, to be honest with you—it’s the sub-concussive events, and the accumulation of those over years of playing the game, that seem to be the cause of CTE, which is a debilitating reality in the lives of a lot of these former NFL players.
Bob: Go back to that moment in the hospital, where a doctor says to you, “We’ve got to take off his skullcap and deal with a clot or he could die; or it could be full recovery.” You’re a mom; are you just paralyzed with fear at that point?
Tammy: The doctor did add one phrase—he said, “…death, or full recovery, or anything in between.” I never thought he would die, so I wasn’t afraid that I would never see him again. But the strange phrase, “or anything in between,” made me really pause.
Bob: Zach’s completely unconscious; he’s unaware of any of what’s going on. It was emergency surgery that they performed immediately?
Bob: Was it a long surgery?
Pat: Four-and-a-half hours; right?—four or five hours.
Bob: The doctors came out after surgery and told you what?
Pat: This guy was not famous for his bedside manner. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, it doesn’t sound like it: “Death or anything in between.” I mean—
Pat: Yes, he basically said: “We did what we had to do. We took out the blood clot. We cauterized the vessels. Now we have to wait.” And he said, “Do you have any questions?” We were like, “I’m sure we do, but I don’t know what they are.” Then he just bowed and left. A nurse came in, and he filled in the blanks—and there were many of them—saying that, for the next five days, they would have to monitor him. The brain could continue to swell for up to five days after an injury like this.
He said: “If we can no longer control that brain swelling, we will have to go back in and remove the skullcap and put it away—the bone flap—in his abdomen for a period of several weeks so the brain can swell and then contract again. Once that’s done, then they reattach it.” Then he said—and this was a haunting comment—he said, “You should hope that that would never happen, because I’ve never seen one who’s undergone that process to have a full recovery.”
Dave: As I read in your book, the brain didn’t swell.
Pat: Well, they were managing it to the point where they thought they had it under control; they sent us home to sleep. That sleep was interrupted by a phone call—that we were so dead asleep that we couldn’t even hear it—it wasn’t until I overheard the automatic answering machine, in those days, that starts blaring out stuff. It was the nurse, saying: “We can no longer control the brain swelling. We’re going to need to go back in and do the second operation.”
I finally got to the phone right as she was winding up her message; and in a few moments, we were on our way back to the hospital.
Bob: This was what, then, 24 hours?
Pat: This was three days later.
Bob: Three days later.
Ann: Tammy, what did you feel, going back to the hospital?
Tammy: I remembered what the nurse said; so I thought, “Okay; we’re going to have ‘anything in between.’” I didn’t know what that meant.
Ann: Were you gripped with fear?
Tammy: Yes; because of my relationship with Zach—it was really close—we prayed together every night for Zach’s school. We sang worship songs together; he taught me most of the worship songs I know. We talked about what we’re learning in Scripture together. I wondered, “Will I be able to do anything I used to do with him, ever again?”
Ann: You guys had an experience with Zach the summer prior to this, I believe, where you went to South Africa. Tell us about that.
Pat: We were, that summer, working with children who had disabilities in Africa in an AIDS orphanage and a home for children with disabilities. The disabilities were severe. They were physically staggering to observe. But once you got over that initial shock and began to connect with them, you realize that these are people. They reflect God’s image, and you just have to give it some time.
Each of us did; and within a day or two, we began to form these relationships that, by the end, were really amazing connections, including Zach. [Tearful] He had formed a real bond with a couple of kids. We were sharing a moment—this was now back home, two weeks after the summer mission—we were talking about these kids, reflecting on those moments, laughing at those fond memories.
Zach paused and said, [Tearful] “Dad, I wonder if God would have me become like one of them.” I took the comment serious and looked at him and said, “You know, Zach, if something ever happened and you did, we would love you the same way we love those kids; right?” He said, “Yes; yes, Dad, I know that.” It was, literally, about two weeks from that day that we got the call.
Some of those thoughts were going through my mind, from beginning, for sure. I didn’t even tell Tammy about that conversation until a few weeks after, partly because I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to think that that was even a possibility, that Zach would become permanently disabled.
Bob: Tammy, it sounds like Zach has always been remarkably close to the Lord.
Tammy: Yes; he was, in his high school, known as someone who really loved God. People really loved him, because he treated people really well. You could see the love of God coming through to his schoolmates. When this tragedy happened, his school didn’t understand it. They couldn’t believe that something like this happened to the best kid in their school, in their opinion—that’s how they viewed him.
I would run by the school, and by the Charles River, just praying that the kids wouldn’t turn away from God. Instead of getting angry with Him, that they would be drawn nearer to God through the whole process.
Bob: You’re praying for these kids in that regard, but what about you?
Tammy: What about me? I put on Zach’s iPod and listened to all his songs as I ran by the river. Pat would be sitting in the hospital room. I couldn’t find comfort there; so I left to get into sunlight, beauty, nature, the river—and running, crying, and praying for Zach.
Bob: Were you asking God: “Why?” and “What?” and “Are You even there?”
Tammy: Actually, no. It sounds weird; but when I have seen other people suffer, I ask the “Why?” question. But when it was me suffering, the thing that stood out to me most was God’s nearness in suffering. That’s all that I was thinking about. I don’t think I would’ve survived, actually, without a relationship with God.
Just reading the Psalms every day, letting them wash over me with God’s truth and hope, was sustaining. I felt God speaking to me through the words of Scripture. Praying—I could just fall on my face, on my bedroom floor, and cry out to God. I didn’t even have to say any words; I could just cry before Him. The biggest thing that stood out to me was God’s nearness in suffering.
Dave: Did you two handle it differently? Was it different for you, Pat?
Pat: That part was not different. In fact, people have often landed on this question of: “Have you doubted your faith?” and “How could you not?” People were so surprised at both of our answers to that question being the same of: “Actually, no.” I realized: “I need to figure out how to answer this better, because they don’t believe me when I say that.” [Laughter]
Now, I just tell people: “Listen, I have definitely had doubts about the existence of God in life, and doubts about my faith and certain beliefs that I hold; but not during this time. In fact, in some very surprising and unexpected ways, I felt like I experienced the greatest moments of connection to God and of conviction that there really is a God.”
It’s not the “unmoved Mover” of Aristotle—this god, who really doesn’t care. It’s a crucified God; it’s a God who has revealed Himself in Christ, as a God who has come into this world and suffered in order to save us from an eternity of suffering. Meeting God in that way was, for me, like bringing me deeper into my understanding, and comprehension, and experience of what the gospel is. It was different [than Tammy’s] in that my focus was less on the Psalms and more on the Gospels—the last quarter of each Gospel, which focuses on a suffering God.
Bob: You had to start thinking about the fact that life as you knew it was about to change in a very dramatic way. We’re going to take time this week to go into what that story’s been like.
All of us have hopes and dreams and expectations for our kids, for our own lives, for what life should be. Here was a moment where you weren’t sure what the future was going to be, but it sure wasn’t going to be what you thought it was going to be when you went to that first meeting on a Friday night with kids at Harvard for Cru. Now, all of a sudden, life was going to change in a very dramatic way.
I think what I hear you guys saying, though, is that, in the moment where you are brought face to face with these things, God brings unexpected grace in that moment/the grace you need for that moment that might not have been there for you prior to that moment. Now, that you need it, here’s God saying, “Okay; I know what you need.” He pours it out; it’s available to you in that moment.
Ann: Psalm 34:18 came to mind as you were speaking; because it says, “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” That’s exactly what you were feeling, that crushed part of your spirit; yet, you felt his closeness. I think observers of pain and suffering can get angry with God. More often than not, I hear those that are in it, feel the closeness of God/feel His peace that passes all understanding.
Bob: You guys reflect on this in the book, Hit Hard, which is subtitled: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was and Learning to Live Well with What Is. We have copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Our listeners can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy. You may know somebody who has experienced this in their family or something similar; get them a copy of this book; let them read Pat and Tammy’s story. I think they’ll find hope and encouragement; but they’ll also go: “Yes, we’ve been there. We’ve experienced what you guys have experienced.”
Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to order a copy of the book, Hit Hard; or call us at 1-800-358-6329 to order your copy. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Our toll-free number is 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Ask about the book, Hit Hard, when you get in touch with us.
When couples go through this kind of an experience in their family, it can often lead to isolation in a marriage/put a strain on a marriage relationship. Here at FamilyLife®, our goal is to help strengthen marriages so that, when these times come along, you are spiritually ready for them; and as you go through them, you are able to find the help and the strength that you need in the midst of these kinds of trials.
We’ve looked, over the years, at: “What are the factors that lead some marriages to persevere and to endure, even in the face of hard times?” and “What are the things that cause other marriages to erode when things like this hit?” On our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, we have an assessment that a couple can take together. It’s called the “Love that Lasts” marriage health assessment. You answer a few questions, and it can help you see how ready your marriage is for some of the challenges that you may face.
We’re encouraging listeners to go to FamilyLifeToday.com and take this assessment. In the areas, where your marriage could use some help, we can provide articles and resources—encouragement. That’s our mission, here at FamilyLife—is to help effectively develop godly marriages and families. This assessment is one way we can help you analyze how your marriage is doing, then we can provide you with resources to help strengthen those areas that may be weak.
Again, you’ll find the “Love that Lasts” marriage health assessment on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. It’s free to take. I just want to encourage you to spend a few minutes and ask the question, “How are we doing?” and see how the assessment helps you answer that.
I also hope you can be back with us again tomorrow when we’re going to continue our conversation with Pat and Tammy McLeod, talking about the “new normal” for their family after Zach’s injury and how all of them have had to adjust to that and adjust to it differently—and about coping with what you guys describe as “ambiguous loss.” I hope our listeners can tune in for all of that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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