Kearns • The sudden rustling of bags of fast food awaken this once-silent home. Doors start to swing open, because everyone is ready to eat. The new elongated dining table, now a few steps away from the original near the kitchen, has seats occupied all around it. It’s about 3:30 p.m. on a weekday afternoon and the smell of McDonald’s fries and burgers instantly overtake the Afatasi household. The other kids are worn out, drained from early morning summer football workouts, or football practice, or basketball practice.
When the sound of the garage door opening rings nearly every afternoon, it means Audrick is home. And like his siblings, cousins and friends inside, he’s totally exhausted, too. Unlike them, though, he hasn’t been able to rest his eyes. They’ve all napped. The McDonald’s isn’t a celebration as much as it is a reward for another day of pushing himself to a limit he can’t really identify anymore. Physical therapy is the one place where, if he’s in a sour mood or questioning why just a few months ago, his life was forever changed, he can put aside the past and zero in on the now.
Some call him Audrick, others call him “Stak,” his middle name. It’s in honor of one of his uncles. It’s what the occupational and physical therapists call the 18-year-old recent high school graduate, onetime Kearns High football star, last year’s Homecoming King. When they need him to explode off a mat, contorting his shoulders as swiftly as he can, they tell Stak that next time he needs a little more power to sit up on his own and hold that position for more control. Those two-hour shifts in therapy four or five days a week are where Stak can envision everything that might be — that maybe, possibly, somewhere down the line, he’ll be able to walk out on his own.
One day last week, in the wake of another grueling session, he came home and took a seven-hour nap. He gave everything he had that day. There was nothing left. So much so that after he woke from his nap, he ate some food and slept another 10 hours, only to feel refreshed the following morning, looking forward to that two-hour time block the next day.
“If you put 100 percent in, you’ll get 100 percent out,” Stak says between bites of his burger. “I work as hard as I can.”
As the family is huddled around the table, downing their respective late lunches, Stak takes a sip from his soda. But he didn’t order fries for himself. Fries, he said, aren’t that satisfying anymore. Not when you have to eat them one at a time. He’s still fine-tuning his motor skills with his fingers. Fries used to be downed in bunches. At a trampoline park on March 15, Stak flung his body high into the air, determined to land a double back-flip. Every attempt prior, he landed flat on his face. This time, he just spun too fast, and when he came back down, nothing would ever be the same.
Rolling with the punches
There’s a saying on a wall in the kitchen inside the Afatasi home. It reads, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
Stak still hates thinking about that day. But he says so with a big smile. He’s not pouting. He rarely does. The moment will always be him motionless on the trampoline thinking he was still tucked when in reality he lay flat and just couldn’t move. Stak came directly down on his neck on the soft part of the trampoline, suffering a major C2 spinal cord injury. The fall paralyzed him. At first, doctors believed it was a complete injury, but eventually sensation and feeling returned to Stak’s legs. It’s now an incomplete C2 spinal cord injury.
They had to drill pins into his head and hang weights from the back of his head to realign the damaged area of the spinal cord. Stak’s father, Skee, said they eventually got to about 80 pounds of pressure. Surgery was also necessary, so they used donated pieces of bone to fix the break and inserted a metal disc in his neck.
From March 15 to April 30, the Afatasi family waited at the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. Stak waited, too. He binged Netflix to the point where he ran out of shows. Like so many, he also was disappointed in the “Game of Thrones” series finale. The Kearns community — and youth football in Utah — rallied for Stak. A hashtag, “#STAKSTRONG,” took off in the football community statewide. There were T-shirts, magnets, stickers and bracelets.
Skee’s phone cover has a large white #STAKSTRONG sticker on the back. There’s a Kearns Cougar magnet on the fridge of the Afatasi house with the words beneath it, too. A GoFundMe page started on March 18 has raised over $15,800 and counting. Donations still roll in periodically. It’s helped with the massive amount of medical bills.
“It’s a big deal to us,” said Grace Afatasi, Stak’s mother.
The Afatasis have had to account for such a dramatic lifestyle change, too. The second-oldest of six, Stak now relies on his younger siblings to help him out on a daily basis around the house. Younger brother Exodus, already a proud 9-year-old offensive lineman, is his go-to guy. At least four days a week, Skee, Grace or one of his siblings drive Stak to Neuroworx in Sandy, a nonprofit therapy center that specializes in outpatient paralysis care. There it’s an hour of occupational therapy and physical therapy to help Stak progress.
“We’re just rolling with the punches,” says Skee.
After various strenuous workouts during one session last week, physical therapists hooked Stak up to a machine overhead that helps lift him from a seated position to a standing one. And there he holds it. He holds for as long as he can until he gets lightheaded and has to sit back down. Skee is right there rooting him on, even broadcasting it on Facebook Live. As Stak stands over and over again, he does his absolute best to hold that position a little while longer than the last. More digital hearts from those tuning in continue to fill up the screen of Skee’s iPhone.
Stak’s staying strong
He’s already been approached about sharing his story, about potentially one day becoming a motivational speaker of sorts. Those who know Stak say only Stak could handle such a brutal life-altering situation the way he is: staring it straight down and working tirelessly with every opportunity he’s given.
“He’s a special type of kid,” said Kearns football coach Matt Rickards, who had Stak as a team captain. “If anybody could find a way to be positive with what he’s going through, it’s him.”
As he’s lying flat on a table, working on his core and flinging all his energy to one side in order to try and sit up, Ashlyn Rittmanic is helping Stak improve, albeit incrementally. She’s one of the many physical therapists who work with Stak on mobility, transitions from lying down to seated, moving from a seated position to his chair. They’re called pop-ups. Stak isn’t a fan. His favorite part about Neuroworx? “Standing,” he said with a grin.
“We’re seeing more progress right now from him,” Rittmanic said. “For his injury-level, he has a lot more function than other people with that same injury. He’s got a lot of return in his core and arms, so we’re trying to maximize his abilities right now.”
There are no specific goals or outlined markers he needs to hit. Stak goes until he’s tired and tells them he needs a break. He doesn’t like to admit it, but he has to. Each day, he efforts to regain movement and function in his lower body. With his injury, he can’t tell when his body is being overworked, can’t tell when his body temperature rises. He doesn’t sweat anymore. In the hospital, Skee and Grace were told to carry around a water bottle to spritz Stak with if he ever looks like he’s overloading himself to help cool him down.
Stak does having something in mind down the line. It’s not too far away. He wants to be able to go on a pioneer trek in August with members of his ward. In the aftermath of his accident, he admits he doesn’t love the attention, but doesn’t see it as harmful in any way. He just wants to be himself. He misses video games and grabbing handfuls of fries. But when he’s nearly done with his burger, he volunteers some inspirational info himself.
“There’s a lot of walking quadriplegics,” he said. He’s met some who have been paralyzed briefly for one time or another and have eventually been able to walk out a door. That gives Stak hope. That’s what he’s striving for. He’s a high school graduate now, and obviously he has more important things to focus on at the moment, but he’s even floated the idea of pursuing a career in physical therapy down the line.
But each night, when Stak Afatasi is in bed, depleted from another day’s work, he shuts his eyes and meditates. He thinks about his feet moving, about the muscles in the legs that used to carry him to crunching tackles moving. He asks them to move with his mind. He does again and again every night until his mind is worn out enough that he slips into a deep sleep.
“Even if it’s in the middle of the night and I wake up, I do it again,” he said. “I do it to fall back asleep.”