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After paralyzing spinal cord injury, Mason-Hale on the mend

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Chris Mason-Hale vividly remembers the football play that changed his life. The scene rolls through his mind with the same detail as the action movies he watches on his portable DVD player at Kernan Hospital.

A senior linebacker for Western Tech in Catonsville, Mason-Hale went for a routine tackle in the final scrimmage of the preseason, Aug. 29 at Northeast.

"It was a dive," Mason-Hale said of the common short-yardage play. "They gave the running back the ball, and he came through the one hole. I'm always the go-to guy because I'll make the hit, and I went for the kill shot. That's when you go outside him, but when I tried to hit him, he popped up and my head flew back."

At that moment, the C-5 vertebra in his neck broke. The bone pushed into his spinal canal and bruised the spinal cord, a paralyzing injury. Two months after the injury occurred, Mason-Hale remains in a wheelchair, but he has some movement and feeling in all four limbs."I remember as soon as I hit him, I couldn't feel anything, so I fell straight to the ground," Mason-Hale said. "When I hit the ground, I could feel everything. All of a sudden, I could feel my arms and I could feel my legs. Nobody came over at first because everybody thought I was going to get up."

Mason-Hale can move his arms, fingers and toes, but he can't walk. His prognosis for getting back onto his feet remains uncertain, but his spirits seem to know no bounds.

"There's no point in being depressed because most of the time, it just hinders your ability," he said. "If you don't think you can, then usually you can't."

He acknowledges having a few "Why me?" thoughts and occasional down moments, but his parents say they never last long. Much of the time, he's cracking jokes, especially on Wednesday movie night, an event Mason-Hale initiated for patients and guests.

"His sense of humor is amazing," Wolverines teammate Bobby Watford said. "I couldn't see how I could be that upbeat. That's why I look up to Chris so much, him being so strong after the accident. It just amazes me because me, I start crying if I get a paper cut and he gets right back up after a major injury and he's all joking around."

Mason-Hale's is the first catastrophic injury in Baltimore County public schools football, which dates to 1967, said Ron Belinko, coordinator of athletics for the county. However, four years ago, Van Brooks Jr. also suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury in a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association football game.

In the past 31 years, 228 prep players have suffered catastrophic cervical spinal cord injuries from which they did not fully recover, according to the Annual Survey of Catastrophic Football Injuries, published by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. There were 10 in 2007, and most occurred while the player was on defense.

Beside his wheelchair on Mason-Hale's bed lie three necessities of life for any 16-year-old - a cell phone, a PlayStation Portable and a DVD player. He can text message with the help of a pointer, and he is still pretty proficient at the PSP games. His next goal is to play his Xbox, but the toggle controls require more dexterity in his fingers than he has.

In 10 weeks, Mason-Hale has come a long way. During two weeks at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, he had surgery twice - to relieve the pressure of the bone fragments on his spinal canal and then to fuse the broken bone to provide more stability in his neck.

He's working to get stronger after losing 50 pounds from his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame, spending extra time at physical and occupational therapy. He keeps up with his studies, too, so he can graduate on time.

"I try to encourage him to think of this as just like another voyage, another adventure," said his mother, Aliecia Mason-Hale. "Everything that he wants to do he can still do. He just has to do it differently. It just may not be as immediate to get the results that you want."

Dr. Henry S. York, Chris Mason-Hale's physician at Kernan, said he can't pinpoint a prognosis because recovery can come over a short time, a long time or not at all.

"We're never going to say never in this circumstance," York said. "Certain things about his injury give us reason to be optimistic, but we can't say for sure.

"We think Chris is going to be very successful because of his great attitude," he added, "and we have the resources and technology to allow him to be independent now."

Mason-Hale likely will go home in early December with his parents and siblings Teddy, 14, and Maya, 12. Their two-story house in Windsor Mill will need extensive remodeling to accommodate a wheelchair.

As the Mason-Hales contemplate that, the medical bills have begun to arrive. Although his father, Gary Hale, has heath insurance, he said "a big chunk" of the expense will fall on the family. The first bill, from Shock Trauma, was about $138,000.

Parents and coaches at the school are eager to start fundraising for the family, but they are still figuring out what to do and how to do it, athletic director Mike McEwan said. Students already have raised $1,500 by selling blue bracelets with Mason-Hale's name on them.

The family has set up a fund to accept donations. Of course, getting the word out is a priority, and Mason-Hale plans to make his first public appearance at the Wolverines' homecoming game tomorrow at 7 p.m. at CCBC-Catonsville.

"I really want to get out there," he said. "It would be great because it's my birthday."

His teammates are eager to see him on the sideline.

"To have him there, to be with the fans, to be with the team, the last game of the season, senior night. It's a really big thing for him to be there with us," teammate Zack Adcock said.

Wolverines coach Alan Lagon said Mason-Hale's injury has affected the team way beyond just losing perhaps its best player.

"You could tell, especially after the severity of it began to sink in, the kids were reluctant to do some things," Lagon said. "Basically, we told them anything they feel is perfectly natural. We work through our guidance counselors and psychologists and some people had an initial hesitation ... but nobody's had a big, big issue."

Senior Josh Noren stuck with the team despite his doubts.

"I was sort of thinking if I should keep playing or not because [a serious injury] was a real possibility," Noren said. "They teach us how to tackle and keep your head up, but it was a freak accident. Chris did everything right."

Mason-Hale said he would like nothing more than to play football again. Although that probably won't happen, he does believe he can go to college and become a veterinarian as he had planned.

Those who know him are sure he will succeed.

"Adversity defines your character," Lagon said. "Chris has been faced with some serious life-threatening issues, and he responded in a very positive and upbeat fashion, and that's going to define who he is. This is a big traumatic experience ... but he's working his way out. He's meeting that challenge."

The Mason-Hales have set up a fund to handle donations: Christopher Mason-Hale Trust, c/o Mrs. Sonya Mason-Fiorindo, Capital One Bank, 301 Washington Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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