For Owen Looper, the world stood still on Nov. 3, very still.
Owen, 19, of Fairland, was the victim of a violent attack. He was grabbed from behind, picked up, slammed to the ground and beaten. He suffered a broken neck, which left Owen with no feeling or movement below his chest.
The attack caused a traumatic complete fracture of Owen's lower neck of the C6-7 vertebrae. The neurosurgeon likened the injury to the type of injury seen from a high-velocity car crash or a fall from a rooftop.
Owen’s father, retired Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper, John Looper and stepmother Debbie were on a small island near St.Vincent in the Caribbean on their way to a luxury catamaran adventure when the call came telling them of the tragedy.
“Owen was hurt sometime after we landed in St. Lucia and after we took off in a charter plane,” John said. “As soon as we got in the taxi after landing, we were almost to the hotel, and my phone started to blow up. The only way on or off the island was the charter plane…The message I got was, ‘Owen’s hurt. He can’t feel his legs.’”
After calling and learning the details and the seriousness, and after a torturously long wait, the Loopers flew straight back to Tulsa on Sunday as soon as a flight could be arranged to be with their youngest son.
John did get to speak with Owen by phone during that time although his son was heavily drugged from surgery and with pain medications.
“It was as about as bad of news as you can get,” John said, and his frustration as a parent was overwhelming, “There’s nothing that you can do, and it’s a hopeless, helpless feeling.”
As the son of a physician, John said seeing his son for the first time after the tragedy, he expected and was not as traumatized by the needed medical equipment, but the gravity of the situation was startling.
“I was used to seeing stuff like that. Seeing Owen hooked up to all that really wasn’t as impactful to me as the realization of what his future was going to be like,” John said. “At that point, Owen was really upbeat, he did have a lot of drugs in him, but he was very positive. I can tell you since then, reality has hit him square. He’s not as chipper as he was those first few days after his injury.”
Reality and rehabilitation
In the first few days after his injury, Owen underwent surgery immediately on Nov. 4 to place hardware to stabilize his neck from the front. More surgery followed on Nov. 9 to stabilize his neck from the back, an excruciatingly painful procedure requiring the surgeon to work through more ligaments and muscle. Owen remained in ICU until Nov. 15 and stayed in the hospital until he was transferred to Denver Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado for 12 weeks of spinal cord rehabilitation.
The family is able to stay nearby in family housing provided by the hospital.
“They didn’t get perfect alignment in Joplin…a couple of weeks later the piece of cadaver bone they put between C6 and C7 started to collapse, and C7 started to degrade or get worse which allowed his head to start tilting forward, and they convinced him it was necessary for his future well being and pain relief to have the surgery done to get a proper alignment, so he did. It was a 12-hour surgery,” John said.
The surgery fused several neck and spinal vertebrae and placed more rods in Owen’s back connected to older rods he had placed as a teen for Scoliosis to help stabilize his spine and neck.
“It still allows him rotation of his head, and to still move his head from side to side, and tilt it,” John said.
Owen has limited use of his arms and is expected to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“He can’t use his fingers. He can feel in his fingers, like if you touch him,” John said. “There are motor nerves and sensory nerves, so he can feel, but he doesn’t have the motor nerves that react from his brain telling them to move. He’s got the sensory which is a good sign that he may get the other back.”
Therapists will be working with Owen in Colorado to strengthen his muscles with the main goal to help him be able to transfer himself to and from his wheelchair. He is in the difficult process of weaning from the pain medications that were necessary to get him through surgery and beginning the rehabilitation process.
Owen’s paralysis and the physical consequences also leave him more susceptible to infection, pneumonia and other health issues.
“Unless medial science comes up with something that’s probably going to be the max that he gets use of for now,” John said. “I’ve come to terms with that.”
Owen’s parents divorced when he was eight, and he lived at times with either parent in Fairland and Broken Arrow. He returned to live in Fairland during his junior year of high school.
Before his injury, Owen loved being outdoors, fishing and working on his truck. He graduated from Fairland High School in May 2017, then attended Northeastern Tech’s diesel mechanics program.
John has all the parental guilt most parents have, wondering if the choices he made factored into the difficulties in his son’s life, but he says at the time of the attack, Owen was in the process of following his own life’s passions.
“He was in the middle of doing a pretty good job with it,” John said. “I’m not really sure what his dream is, but he was crazy ate up with diesel trucks. He had a knack for drawing, like motorcycles and trucks and things like that. He enjoyed doing that kind of stuff and four-wheeling, and he was kind of an outdoorsy type kid.”
Path to recovery
At the rehabilitation hospital, another young man with the same injury came to visit Owen this week. John believes seeking connection with others in the same situation is critical to Owen’s recovery both mentally and physically.
“This young guy’s injury was two years ago, a C6-7 complete, like Owen, and he rolled into his room. He started talking to Owen and telling him his story and asking what Owen’s story was, and letting him know his hands and fingers were just exactly like Owen’s are now. He could not make his fingers work, but two years later through lots and lots of non-stop hard work and therapy, he has nearly 100 percent use of his fingers now,” John said. “Owen had a deep hearted moment at one point, and he has promised his Mom that he would eat, because he hasn’t been eating, and he promised he would get back in the chair today and get back in the therapy.”
John said a top neurosurgeon, a leading expert in spinal cord injury, came to the hospital to speak to the parents and spinal cord injury patients.
“He started his presentation saying, ‘The main question I get is, will I get better?’ and his answer is, ‘Everybody who has a spinal cord injury gets better to a certain degree, based on many factors, but nobody, there’s not a single spinal cord injury person that ever gets better enough.’ You never get back to where you were before. That hit home to everybody,” John said. “He indicated diet is a big part in this, your mental state, how positive you are, which goes to how hard you’re going to work in your therapy and then once you plateau and you’re maxed out on your improvement, now what?”
John said the expert told them even with medical science, stem cell therapy and promising research there is never going to be a 100 percent fix, and so Owen and his family are all processing this reality as they move forward.
Owen’s mother, Jennifer Delamatter, and his stepfather Rex, are working to remodel and rebuild an attached garage on their home into an apartment to accommodate Owen’s wheelchair and his new needs.
“Every day we’re working on getting him more and more time in the chair,” John said. “It’s a complicated process to move forward.”
Being in Colorado has made it difficult for family and friends to visit Owen, but he is able to have contact by phone and Facebook by using a mounted phone and a stylus attached to his hand with an elastic band.
“My major concern with Owen right now is his mindset,” John said. “It’s going to take time and time again positive reinforcement from people to him that he’s going to be able to do this.”
The family has insurance and has covered Owen’s treatment. Through the generosity of other state employees, Owen’s mother is able to stay by his side for now, but the family will incur other expenses. Friends have set up a GoFundMe account, and John said the donations coming in are being used for Owen’s future needs and to buy lumber and construction materials for Owen’s apartment.
To follow Owen’s progress, and send him messages of encouragement, a Facebook page and blog has been set up, ‘Owen’s Journey.’ Donations for Owen may be made at https:www.gofundme.com/owens-recovery-journey.