At the bottom of a jagged rock face on the edge of the New Mexico wilderness, a Boy Scout wearing a GoPro camera called out hand and foot holds for two of his friends ascending the sheer terrain above. Then, 25 feet in the air with no harness or rope, the rock gripped in Trevor Hickman’s right hand gave way, and his body followed.
The first object Trevor’s body hit during the free fall was a pine tree. Then he tumbled head-first into the rocks and down the sheer rock face.
The recording of the fall is the only reason why Trevor’s family knows what happened on June 27. Everything between that morning and mid-July is missing from Trevor’s memory. He suffered a traumatic brain injury from the fall.
“We liked climbing. We were climbing as much as we could,” Trevor recalled on Monday from his family’s living room in Jefferson.
Trevor was traveling with Boy Scout Troop 1066, which was scheduled to arrive at Philmont Scout Ranch — a high-adventure camp in New Mexico — the next day. Trevor’s dad, Tracy, was leading a group of scouts on a short hike, when a member of the troop ran and told him that Trevor had fallen.
Trevor was slipping in and out of consciousness when Tracy arrived at his son’s side, but he and the Scouts were afraid to move him in case his neck was broken.
“I felt like I was going to pass out; that I was going to collapse. I was so overwhelmed,” Tracy said. He began to pray amid the uncertainty that his youngest child would survive.
Paramedics evacuated Trevor by helicopter to a trauma center in Albuquerque. There, he was admitted to the neurological Intensive Care Unit, where he was medically sedated for 12 days and remained for the next month. After he was stabilized, the family flew Trevor to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore to be closer to home.
Trevor, now a junior at St. John’s Catholic Prep, is lucky to be alive.
“Physically, he’s recovered,” said his mother, Lisa.
The longer journey, however, will be the invisible injuries to his brain. His frontal lobe, which affects memory and impulse control, was damaged by the fall, and a stroke during the accident temporarily paralyzed the right side of his body and required physical therapy to correct.
Six and a half months after the fall, though, Trevor is walking, talking and seeking to get his driver’s license reinstated by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
“Recovery can take years with a brain injury, and we’ve seen real dramatic improvements,” Tracy said.
A new lease on life
On Tuesday, Trevor starts a semester full of college requirements along with his peers at St. John’s.
While he has a difficult road ahead, the family is hopeful that Trevor will reach his dream of studying engineering at a school such as Virginia Tech, even if it is not at the pace and schedule they had once envisioned.
“After what we’ve been through, and Trevor’s been through in the last 6½ months, anything feels possible,” Tracy said.
Some parts of life have changed. Trevor had to give up playing lacrosse, which he had participated in since kindergarten. Instead, he will be helping as an assistant coach for the school team this spring. His doctors have also advised him to not participate in the long jump, which was one of his main track events.
While Trevor has made remarkable physical improvements, the cost of an injury such as his can easily reach $1 million or more.
“There’s a huge bill attached to that, and it ultimately falls on the injured person and their family,” Tracy said.
The Hickmans are still receiving bills from the University of New Mexico Hospital trauma unit and Kennedy Krieger Institute and are working through what costs will be covered by their insurance. But, it is the support from their church, schools, friends and even acquaintances that has shocked the family.
Money from “Trevor Strong” T-shirt sales and fundraisers, prepared meals and prayers have streamed into their household.
St. John Regional Catholic School, where Trevor attended elementary school, also recently presented the family with a $14,500 check. The school applied for the money from the Community Foundation of Frederick County, which sets aside grants for families that have experienced trauma, said Sheila Evers, who is the school’s director of advancement.
Lisa said she hopes to have all the bills by the middle of the year and an understanding of how much their insurance will cover.
But, more importantly for the family, is to start paying it forward to others, Tracy said.
“When these things happen, you have a new outlook on life,” Tracy said.