Family and friends unite to help St. George LDS missionary recover from traumatic brain injury

Creed Leonard faces a tough fight after being hit by a car in Boston on Nov. 30.

St. George • As a former running back, Creed Leonard was used to fighting for an extra foot or yard, but now a different yardstick is used to measure his forward momentum.

Leonard’s progress now is often a matter of mere inches or millimeters. It can be nodding his head, giving an OK sign or mouthing a simple “amen” while praying with his mother.

By any metric, it has been a difficult fight for both him and his family ever since the 20-year-old missionary from St. George and his companion were struck by a car on Nov. 30 while serving a Spanish-speaking mission in Boston for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Chad Waggoner, Creed’s stepfather, said the accident occurred on a rainy evening when his son and his missionary companion were struck by a car at a crosswalk while they were en route to link up with someone who was going to drive them to a teaching appointment.

Creed’s companion suffered several fractures, including a broken pelvis and a broken knee. After surgery in Boston, Waggoner said, he is now back home and recovering in Tucson, Arizona. However, his son’s injuries were much more severe, and he has been hospitalized ever since.

Like the investigation of the accident, which Waggoner said is still ongoing more than three months later, Creed’s prognosis is uncertain. Doctors had to remove a portion of the left side of his skull to treat his hydrocephalus and put a shunt in to drain the fluid from his brain. He is relearning how to walk and talk and the right side of his body barely functions.

Marla Leonard-Waggoner, Creed’s mother, was recuperating from knee surgery at home on Dec. 1 when she received a call at 1 a.m. from the mission president telling her son had been in a terrible accident. Creed’s family caught a flight that same day to Boston to be by his side at Massachusetts General Hospital.

For her part, Marla is no stranger to grief. Her first husband Jason, Creed’s father, died of an asthma attack at age 32 when Creed was 3 years old. Two years ago, she lost her mother.

“On the plane, I kept thinking that Creed has a need of angels in my mom and his dad,” Marla recalled. “I had confidence they were with my son and helping to protect him. I kept thinking if they could just keep him alive until I got there, that my being there would somehow make a difference in how hard he held on.”

(Chad Waggoner) Creed Leonard, right, poses for a photograph with his stepdad, Chad Waggoner.

A fighting chance

Chad and Marla, who met and married 15 years ago, say they want to do everything they can to give Creed a fighting chance to recover from his injuries. By all accounts, Creed has a strong personality and gives his all to any task he undertakes. When Creed was in fifth grade, for example, Chad said he arose every morning at 5:30 to do planks and push-ups to get in shape.

When the church severed its ties with the Boy Scouts of America, his parents said Creed carried on, pressure-washing and repainting all the dugouts at a Little League baseball diamond to earn his Eagle Scout Award. He also was an ace student, earning a near 4.0 GPA in high school, and mentored special-needs students.

Marla remembers Creed’s dedication to football, saying he studied film, attended every workout and did additional workouts on his own. On one occasion, his mother said, he came home frustrated because he couldn’t do as many bench presses as he saw collegiate stars doing at the NFL combine.

“He was so hard on himself,” she said.

As a running back his senior year at Crimson Cliffs High School, Creed rushed for 704 yards and seven touchdowns, and he had dreams of joining the Brigham Young University football team as a walk-on after his mission.

If they can help their son get well enough to channel the determination he showed in football and school, his parents say, they believe Creed’s willpower and abiding faith in God will help him in his battle to heal and recover.

Still, the initial diagnosis wasn’t good. Creed spent much of the first month at Massachusetts General in a coma and on life support in the hospital’s intensive care unit. He didn’t move or talk and would stare blankly ahead.

The neurologist told them there were three phases in Creed’s treatment: first, saving his life; second, getting him stable; and third, entering into rehabilitation.

“He told us, ‘I really don’t know what to expect in phase two because most people with injuries like Creed’s don’t survive phase one,’ " Chad said.

To give her son the best chance possible, Marla spends every day with him, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

She rents a nearby apartment in Boston, where she is currently living with her daughter Sway and son Cross. Sway is taking a hiatus from her studies at Utah Tech University to help out. Cross, a junior at Crimson Cliffs, is finishing out the school year online. An optometrist in St. George, Chad flies out once or twice a month to reunite with Marla, Creed and the rest of the family.

Miraculous moments, frequent setbacks

Under the care of neurologists and nurses at “Mass General,” along with the loving support of his family, Creed has made progress in fits and starts. Marla remembered the first “miracle moment,” some time in January, when she told Creed to look at her and he rotated one of his eyes in her direction.

“That may not sound like a big deal, but it was the first time he moved his eyes to look at me,” said Marla, who wrote about it in her journal.

Soon thereafter, asked how he was doing, Creed raised his left hand and made the OK gesture and was later able to make the thumbs-up gesture. That was followed by her son mouthing the word “amen” at the conclusion of their nightly prayer together.

On Valentine’s Day, Creed achieved another milestone, saying the prayer on his own. His only miscue, his mother said, was when he confused the holiday with his birthday since he had received a gift that day. He also started reading portions of Dr. Seuss and Berenstein Bear books aloud, although the effort exhausted him. And he smiled when Marla wrote the word “smile” on a bulletin board.

Despite such moments, Creed has experienced some setbacks. He’s had numerous surgeries due to recurring problems with his shunt and the buildup of fluid on his brain. After weeks in the hospital, for instance, he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility where he was learning to walk with assistance and making great progress until he started failing and was shuttled back to the hospital for yet another surgery on the shunt.

Last week, Creed suffered a seizure and has since stopped talking and reading.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” Marla said. “He’s reading and talking and then something happens and you are scared that [a seizure] will happen again.”

The good news, which Marla’s older sister Jenny Moody has chronicled on the Messages for Creed Facebook page she manages, is that her nephew is back in rehab. Assisted by two therapists, she wrote, Creed recently walked the length of the hallway, and he is gaining some movement in his right side.

Moody, who lives in Lubbock, Texas, posts the daily outpourings of love and support the family receives on the site and sends the most inspirational messages to Marla. One of them was a video from an LDS primary class of young children singing “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree,” which has been shared with Creed. She also shared videos of her granddaughter Eowyn with her nephew.

“What is so touching about this is that Creed has always loved little children,” Moody said.

Others have also buoyed the family’s spirits. Melanie Barrick lent a computer to Cross for use in his online classes, and she employs Sway part-time in her Sweet Stuff Bake Shop in a Boston suburb. One of their friends has also started a GoFundMe page to help the family pay for future expenses related to Creed’s long-term rehabilitation and medical care.

Chad and Marla are somewhat uncomfortable with receiving help but realize that there will likely be a lot of unforeseen expenses that insurance will not cover. They also worry people will look at the page and mistakenly conclude the church is not doing anything, saying church leaders have helped out with flights and all kinds of expenses.

Church spokesman Sam Penrod confirmed the church assists missionaries who become ill or are injured.

“Missionary Medical, through DMBA, coordinates and provides supplemental medical coverage for missionaries, beyond a missionary’s own personal health care coverage,” he said. “In the event of a long-term recovery, the Church will work with the missionary’s family and their health insurance provider to evaluate needs with the missionary’s care.”

Living in the Moment

Whatever Creed’s future may hold, Marla said her focus must be on the here and now — on his recovery. She said most progress with traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients occurs within the first two years, which is why she has decided to stay with Creed for the next year or two in Boston, home to some of the world’s best medical care.

Chad said a doctor who has looked at their son’s MRIs and CT scans told them he doesn’t see anything that would prevent him from recovering. Still, Chad added, just what that recovery may look like or how long it may take remains uncertain.

As she continues her hospital vigil, Marla said she tries not to think about what her son was like before the accident or about the future she envisioned for him.

“I am [living] completely in the moment,” she said. “I have to be with Creed and focus on him as he is right now.”

No matter what happens, the Waggoners say their love for their son and faith in God will see them through.