LEMONT – Andrew Podczerwinski is working to regain mobility, and his Lemont High School classmates will help him toward that goal this weekend.
Podczerwinski, 16, was injured while tubing with friends last June at Bass Lake. An unexpected storm descended on the group. And as they rushed to dock the boat, 80 mile-per-hour winds caused a tree to collapse on Podczerwinski and his friend, Chase Kobilca.
Kobilca fractured a foot, but Podczerwinski fared much worse. He suffered five fractured ribs, two pelvic fractures, a shoulder fracture, two collapsed lungs and two fractured vertebrae, leaving him unable to walk.
“It happened, and I just kind of moved past it,” Podczerwinski said of the accident. “I feel very positive on the future.”
Lemont High School students will participate in the Walk with Andrew 5K, a fundraiser to benefit Podczerwinski’s family. The noncompetitive event is open to staff, students and community members and will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday at the high school football field.
Podczerwinski has no memory of the days that followed the accident. But during that time, he underwent spinal surgery at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind. Two steel rods and 10 screws were placed in his spine.
After the surgery, he suffered an allergic reaction to the anesthesia. His fever skyrocketed to 105 degrees, and he almost died and had to be kept on breathing tubes for several days.
Podczerwinski’s neurosurgeon told his parents he would never walk again.
Two weeks later, he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for a two-month stay. While in rehab, Podczerwinski learned that his spinal cord was not completely severed during the accident, changing his prognosis and giving him and his family the hope that someday he might walk again.
Podczerwinski returned to school Sept. 17 after spending weeks pursuing his coursework while at the Rehab Institute with the help of two on-site tutors.
“He was so anxious to get back to school, to get back to some normalcy,” said Andrea Heinz, who is Podczerwinski’s guidance counselor at Lemont High School.
Despite his unusual circumstances, Podczerwinski has maintained honor student status and is on track to graduate on time.
Podczerwinski is in a wheelchair and attending physical therapy at New Steps in Willow Springs five days each week, working to regain motor and sensory function in his lower extremities. He also works out almost daily.
Before the accident, Podczerwinski was on the Lemont High School wrestling team and enjoyed weightlifting. His neurosurgeon told Podczerwinski that his muscle mass prevented the weight of the tree from crushing him when it fell.
He has already built some muscular strength and balance in his lower body. Doctors are optimistic about future improvements, saying he has made surprising progress so far. Podczerwinski work several days a week with trainers at Next Steps Physical Therapy, 8434 Corcoran Road in Willow Springs.
“He was always a positive kid,” said Podczerwinski’s mother, Renata. “To be honest, I had more down days than he did.”
The Podczerwinskis relied on their faith as a way to remain hopeful, Renata said. They are members of St. Cyril and Methodius Roman Catholic Church in Lemont.
Despite Podczerwinski’s upbeat attitude, the cost of his recovery is undeniably high. Andrew and Renata estimate that the medical expenses for his recovery, for which there is no projected timeline, will average $200,000 to $300,000 per year.
But family and friends have come together to help cover Podczerwinski’s medical costs.
Walk with Andrew, an organization devoted to benefiting the Podczerwinski family, hosted a fundraiser with the Lemont Hope and Friendship Foundation on March 16 at the Willowbrook Ballroom. More than 1,000 people attended. And while the final amount raised has not yet been determined, the Podczerwinskis estimate it to be several thousand dollars.
Lemont High School hopes to increase that number significantly this weekend through the Walk with Andrew 5K. School officials hope to collect $10,000.
“He’s not going to let anything stop him,” said Heinz.