Kansas man thankful for life, support system after spinal cord injury

Nov. 23—As people gather and show appreciation for each other this Thanksgiving, one Wathena man is a little extra grateful this year for simply being alive.

On Sept. 22, Jerad Hawkins' life changed forever.

"So we were just hanging out at the Lake of the Ozarks, a guy threw a ball in the water, I went to dive and get it. I dove in there, couldn't move, took a breath, and then woke up two days later in the hospital with a broken neck," Hawkins said.

With a broken C5 vertebrae, he was clinically dead and desperately needed medical attention. Thanks to the six friends that accompanied him at the lake, they performed CPR on Hawkins not once, but three times to save him.

"Three rounds of CPR, it's something to be thankful for. I broke my neck and they were careful getting me out of the water, you know," Hawkins said.

After the accident, Hawkins spent four weeks at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals in Nebraska, working tirelessly through physical, occupational and recreational therapy to regain muscle with the help of his physical therapist, Janelle Hansen.

"Every single day, there (was) something that changed with Jerad. There was something that got better, something more started moving," Hansen said. "It was just always a treat to work with Jerad."

Hawkins is thankful for the village that he had and the support and care that his family provided for him.

"It made everything so much easier," he said. "It was obviously a very hard situation, but having family there ... My brother flew in from San Diego so that was even awesome as well. It just made a very hard experience so much easier."

While his recovery has been miraculous in and of itself, it hasn't been his only success throughout the whole process. The day before Hawkins left to Nebraska for physical rehabilitation, he proposed to his now fiancé, Brooke Simpson. Her career as a nurse has been a driving force for Hawkins' speedy recovery.

"The first nine days, she was basically there by my side doing everything possible," Hawkins said.

Simpson showed her support from the first day.

"I just started moving all of his arms, legs, muscles," Simpson said. "That way we could be stretching him and we were doing everything we could because if anything was going to happen, we weren't going to let him just lay there and not have anything move for however, many days that was."

Hawkins knew he wanted to propose, so with the help of his parents, he got a ring and surprised Simpson.

"I put the ring in my gown in my pocket. She took me in a wheelchair and we walked around and she had her phone in my pocket and I said, 'You left something in there', and it was a ring," Hawkins said.

Simpson said that she wouldn't want to do this with anyone else, and Hawkins was moved to tears by their commitment to each other during his accident.

For the holiday, Hawkins has plans to see family members that he hasn't seen since his accident. He hopes to spend quality time together but realizes that he might have to do things differently than he did before.

Hawkins and his family created the "Team Dent" campaign to raise funds for his recovery and share a message of overcoming life's curveballs.

As for the future, Hawkins plans to get back into coaching youth baseball at the beginning of the year. He hopes his story can encourage other people, especially those who have gone through a spinal cord injury. Through three things, he hopes to do just that.

"Smile, be happy and keep grinding," Hawkins said.