GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Liz Fanco’s family does hard things. It’s the motto her eight kids and husband rely on when the task at the time seems insurmountable. They are also words backed by the reality of the last two years.
A year ago, Fanco was just turning the corner on the hardest year of her life. After struggling with running to lose weight or get faster, she found success through Mary Free Bed’s Sports Performance Lab. She lost 100 pounds, cut an hour from her half-marathon and finished the New York City Marathon, the goal she set when she started running two years prior.
“It’s amazing, the change that’s happening for our kids because I prioritized my health, because I’ve made changes and my kids have picked up on the changes that I made and the example that I’m setting. That’s changing the trajectory potentially of all of these little people who are watching what I’m doing. And how cool is that?” Fanco told WOOD TV8 a year ago.
Fanco believed that journey was a personal one of self-growth and appreciation. But in June of this year, she learned that path was to prepare her for the hardest days of her life.
It started with a call about a crash.
“June 10th was the day the world stopped turning. Anna took a different road home than she normally does,” Fanco said of her 17-year old daughter. “She missed a turn, took a different road home. And there’s a kind of a blind stop sign, you come up and over a hill and the intersection comes in at an angle, and she was at the centerline and the stop sign was way over here and she didn’t see it and just drove right across M-37. And so they were hit, 55 miles an hour, T-boned on Timmy’s side. Right where Timmy was sitting is where the point of impact was.”
Timmy was 11. He was his mom’s running buddy the year before. They paced each other for the Grand Rapids half-marathon.
Now she was racing to the hospital while Timmy was being flown in by Aero Med.
“When they got to the accident scene, they thought he was already dead. He was completely crushed in the car and the extent of his injuries and the amount of blood loss, they thought that he was already gone,” Fanco said through tears. “My daughter, Anna, was in and out of consciousness and vomiting and kept saying, ‘Someone help my brother, someone please help my brother.’ And then finally, they got a hand in there and found that he still had a pulse but it took an hour to get him out of the car. And he is such a fighter because he stayed alive during that hour, but they didn’t think he was gonna make it on the Aero Med flight.”
When Fanco got to the hospital, doctors told her that Anna was stable. As she asked about Timmy, they brought her to a room with no windows and ushered in a social worker.
“Finally a nurse came to get me and they said, ‘They’re bringing him off the helicopter. He’s still alive. You can come see him quickly.’ And he was laying out in the trauma unit,” Fanco said. “His little broken body there and my first thought was, ‘OK, I need to pray.’ And I laid my hands on him and I prayed out loud for everybody in that room that was going to treat him.”
In the following hours, days and weeks, an unknown future loomed. Timmy survived the first 72 hours, which doctors said was an encouraging milestone. But he was still in a coma, unresponsive and suffering a number of major injuries: bilateral fractured femurs; broken arms, wrists and jaw; a skull fracture from where the front of his head hit the dashboard; and a level 3 traumatic brain injury that affected his brain stem.
“The goal was to get him home by Christmas,” Fanco said of doctors’ plans. “But that we were probably going to be bringing him home in a minimally responsive state and that he was probably never gonna be the Timmy that we knew again.”
As he began to come out of his coma, Timmy started to show signs of life. A big soccer fan, he kicked a ball they placed in front of him from his hospital bed. Every time they played the music from his favorite video game, he would move his thumbs like he was holding the controller.
Then, on a Friday at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, just three weeks after the crash, the world for the Fancos changed again in a matter of moments.
“He had surgery the next day to have that one final screw removed,” Fanco said about the crews keeping his jaw shut. “It was like a five-minute surgery but he came out of anesthesia and was waking up from anesthesia and looked at me and said, ‘Mom.’
“And I hadn’t heard his voice since the accident but the look in his eyes was completely different, like he knew who I was. And for weeks we had just been praying that he would open his eyes and then he started opening his eyes. But it was that stare off in the distance. Like there was no recognition, there was no interaction. But to have him look at me and to know who I was and say, ‘Mom.'”
Fanco called up Anna, who had just been discharged from Mary Free Bed and was on her way home with dad. It was the first time the two had spoken since the accident.
“She had been struggling a lot since the accident ’cause she was the one driving,” Fanco said. “And just to hear him say ‘Anna’ and for her to talk to him and him to be able to talk back, was so healing for her.”
Timmy started rambling off family members’, teammates’ and pet’s names. By the end of the day, he was using sentences. And from there, the steps he took turned into long strides toward recovery.
“We were told by so many doctors and nurses at Helen DeVos and at Mary Free Bed that there is not a medical explanation for the recovery that he has made,” Fanco said.
By the time Timmy was discharged from Mary Free Bed, six weeks after the crash, he was using a walker to move and set on bigger accomplishments. With rods placed in both legs and three-hour physical therapy sessions twice a week at MFB, his mobility began to increase exponentially. He was acting like any other 12-year-old boy.
“He lost almost a third of his lower leg (skin) when they were getting him out of the car just ’cause it was stuck. He thought that was cool once he was awake and they were doing dressing changes ’cause it was open to the bone and the tendon that was left, all the rest of it was missing,” Fanco said. “He figured out he could freak out the nurses by wiggling his toes when they were doing dressing changes and made the tendon jump around. So he had his sister take a video of it. I’m like, that’s so 12-year-old boy right there.”
At home, he was on Timmy time. Often after dark, he would take his mom outside to try the things he once loved. He started dribbling a soccer ball again, riding his bike, jumping on the trampoline. Last week, he crossed the finish line of his first cross-country meet since the accident.
“To see him just take off down that road and cross that finish line,” Fanco said through tears. “We didn’t know if we’d ever see him cross the finish line again.”
That finish was just the start of what’s to come. On Sunday, Timmy will lace up to run the Grand Rapids Half Marathon, 13.1 miles, alongside his mom, just four months after the accident that should’ve killed him.
“The goal is just to finish. But he’s gonna be my running buddy again and we’re gonna do a hard thing,” Fanco said. “And I’m really looking forward to seeing him cross that finish line.”
The Fancos run for Team World Vision, which works to help make clean water accessible to people everywhere. Timmy is trying to earn his Legacy jersey this year, which marks $10,000 in donations and clean water for 200 kids. He’s $1,900 away from reaching the goal. You can donate online.
Hard things seem relative when comparing 13.1 miles to the marathon the Fancos seem to be in the middle of.
“We didn’t know if Timmy was gonna live and if he lived, we didn’t know if he was ever gonna be Timmy again,” Fanco said. “I cry every day, easily at least once a day, usually more about the miracle that he is.”