Editor's Note: Jim Leitner is the Sports Editor at The Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, IA and is a frequent contributor to USA Hockey Magazine and USHL.com. This article originally ran in The Telegraph Herald on October 1, 2016. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his Local Sports and Dubuque Fighting Saints coverage HERE.
The physical therapists at Craig Hospital in suburban Denver had a slight issue with Andrew Kerr’s work ethic when they began working with him.
On most days, the kid simply worked too hard and refused to stop, even when he probably should have.
That insatiable work ethic served Kerr well as a hockey player and beloved teammate with the Dubuque Fighting Saints the past two seasons. It also probably saved his life and resulted in a remarkable recovery from a spinal cord injury he suffered in a swimming accident July 16 on Island Lake near his home in Duluth, Minn.
So, dialing it back didn’t come easy.
“It’s been a long road and a lot has happened, but the worst of it is definitely behind me,” Kerr said. “Getting out of the (intensive care unit) was the first step, and it’s been getting better and better as I go along. Doing the physical therapy work isn’t hard for me. The stuff I had to do in the hospital to get my health back was a lot harder to get through than the physical therapy.
“When I first got here and started moving around, it was really hard to not keep going or go a little further than people were probably comfortable with. They keep telling me it’s a long process, and I understand that. I have to be patient, but I’m so used to pushing myself.”
Kerr’s rehabilitation includes physical and occupational therapy with cutting edge equipment. He also undergoes needle therapy, which finds trigger points in confused and cramped muscles and provides immediate relief.
Although he fortunately avoided paralysis, the injury took him all the way back to ground zero in terms of muscle use. His left leg has returned to full function, and he has gradually regained use in his right side at the world-renowned Craig Hospital.
“Andrew doesn’t remember much about the accident or the first few weeks he was in the hospital, so he doesn’t have the same perspective on how far he’s come as we do,” said Clayton Kerr, Andrew’s father. “It brings us to tears every once in a while, and he’ll look at us and ask ‘Why are you crying?’ We have to remind him that he started at zero and things weren’t looking too good at times. There are just so many hurdles. Just when you clear five or six of them, you realize there are another 40 or so ahead of you.
“It’s phenomenal how far he’s come. We’re incredibly fortunate, and we can’t thank Craig enough. It’s a special place and you see so many people get better quickly here.”
According to the St. Louis County Sherriff’s Office, on the evening of July 16, Kerr and a group of friends were jumping on an inflatable trampoline on Island Lake in Duluth, Minn.
Kerr apparently hit his head, went underwater and didn’t resurface for a few minutes. Friends found him in the dark waters, pulled him to the shore and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation until first responders arrived on the scene.
Kerr, who suffered a broken bone in his neck and an incomplete spinal cord injury, underwent surgery a day later at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth. He also contracted pneumonia, typical for that type of accident, and his medical team worked to clear fluid from his lungs and reduce his temperature.
Doctors performed a tracheotomy and inserted a feeding tube in his stomach and catheter for his bladder. After three weeks in the Duluth hospital, he flew to Denver to begin the rehabilitation process at Craig.
In the last few weeks, he has shed the tubes as well as a bulky neck brace.
“You obviously never want to see anything like this happen to anybody, especially a teammate like Andrew,” said Dallas Gerads, a teammate in Dubuque. “It put a lot of things into perspective and really makes you think about life. It just sucks that something like this happens to guys like Andrew, because he’s such a great guy and he’s always willing to do anything for anybody.
“Of all the guys on our team last year, he was probably the only one who could have survived a terrible accident like that, just because of his attitude and because he always works so hard at everything he does. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s doing as well as he is right now.”
That’s where Kerr’s background as a tough, hard-working hockey player came into play. Kerr starred at Minnesota high school powerhouse Duluth East and served as team captain his senior year before spending a year with Wichita Falls of the North American Hockey League and two more in Dubuque.
Despite a 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame, Kerr became a fan favorite at Mystique Community Ice Center because of his tough, aggressive style and for his willingness to embrace a wide variety of community outreach programs. The Saints nominated him for the prestigious Curt Hammer Award, which recognizes the USHL player who distinguishes himself both on and off the ice by demonstrating outstanding performance skills, pride and determination.
Kerr planned to play at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this season.
“All of the doctors and nurses have told me the fact I was in great shape at the time of the accident and the fact I had good muscle tone and strong, healthy lungs probably saved my life in the first place,” Kerr said. “It was obviously a pretty big deal what happened.
“But my athletic background has made a huge difference in my recovery. I’ve always liked to work out and work out hard. And, honestly, I don’t think this work is as hard as other people might think it is. I’ve been asking for more stuff to do, because I want to get better. As I get stronger, it’s been easier to push myself, and they’ve been giving me more to do. Being patient and having them say ‘No’ at times is harder than the actual work.”
OVERWHELMING SUPPORT FROM ALL CORNERS OF USHL
Less than 24 hours after the accident, support to the Kerr family came pouring in from all directions.
A GoFundMe page to help the family with medical bills and time off work became one of the nation’s top trending fundraising sites when it generated more than $77,000 in the first four days. It has raised $96,000 toward a goal of $100,000.
His older sister, Allyson Kerr, established a Caring Bridge page to provide daily updates on Andrew’s progress. Friends, fans and complete strangers have offered the family countless entries of encouragement on both sites, and Andrew Kerr’s hospital room at Craig features a wall covered with the cards and gifts that arrive on an almost daily basis.
“To be honest, ‘overwhelming’ kind of seems like too small of a word to describe the support we’ve received,” Clayton Kerr said. “And it still keeps coming. I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s meant to my family.”
Because of his condition, Andrew Kerr only began reading the cards and online posts about three or four weeks ago. He recognizes the names attached to many of the cards and gifts, but countless others have come from out of the blue.
Kerr established himself as the kind of player you love to have on your team but strongly dislike when he’s on the opposite bench. So, support from rival communities in the USHL has blown him away.
“I would have never expected any of that,” Andrew Kerr said. “It’s very humbling to see all of the support. To get a letter from a fan in Cedar Rapids who watched me play one time but took the time to write me a letter and wish the best for me means more than they will ever know.
“It’s so awesome to see something like that come from one of our biggest rivals. I can’t believe how nice people I’ve never even met have been to me and my family. We’re so grateful for everything they’ve done for us, and there’s no way we can possibly repay everyone.”
The support for Kerr will continue throughout this season at Mystique Community Ice Center. The Fighting Saints organization will hold a special fund-raising event for him in December. No player will be assigned Kerr’s jersey number this season, but each will wear a No. 3 decal on his helmet.
The Saints made the announcement to rousing applause during a pre-game ceremony at their home opener Friday night. Nearly 800 miles away in suburban Denver, the Kerrs watched the ceremony via video feed, and it brought more tears to their eyes.
REHABILITATION PROGRAM NOT A PROBLEM FOR KERR
Kerr spends at least two hours each of physical and occupational therapy every day and attends recreation classes a few times each week. He meets with a psychiatrist two to three times each week and does needling therapy twice a week.
Craig Hospital specializes in neuro-rehabilitation and research of patients with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. The not-for-profit, free-standing facility has treated more than 31,000 patients since 1956 and averages 300 spinal cord patients each year.
In addition to state-of-the-art equipment and an elite staff, Craig focuses on a positive and caring attitude that permeates the facility. Its philosophy is simple: “Although your life has significantly changed, you still can go back into the world and have a good life, and we will show you how.”
Kerr would prefer a heavier workload but only recently conceded to his therapists’ demands. The conversations certainly weren’t easy at first.
“They’ve been doing this for 60 years, so they know what they’re doing,” Clayton Kerr said. “They told him you can’t work eight hours a day and expect to get better faster. It doesn’t work that way. They appreciate the effort, but you have to realize it’s going to take time, and it’s going to be a lot longer than you want it to be. They told him to just hang in there with them. And it’s gone a lot better since they had that conversation.
“He’s always been a hard worker, and he’s always seen the benefits of working out hard. That’s just his mentality, and it’s hard to change that.”
Every person’s body is different. Every spinal cord reacts differently to trauma.
And a person’s mindset and attitude toward improving plays an integral part in the process.
“The one thing that sticks out to me about Andrew Kerr is what a warrior he is,” Saints head coach and general manager Jason Lammers said. “If there’s anybody who can overcome this or take the time or energy or have the mental makeup to work his way back from an injury like this, it’s him. He’s the ultimate warrior.
“He has always done more than what’s expected of him. That’s why he was such a leader on and off the ice when he was here in Dubuque. And he’s so competitive, he doesn’t want to let anyone or anything beat him.”
Mary Soto, one of Kerr’s physical therapists, said the former Saints defenseman’s athletic background gave him a significant advantage when he started at Craig.
“I have no doubt that Andrew’s previous training has been an asset,” she said. “His good health and strong body provided a basis upon which to build. His strong work ethic is evident in every therapy session, as he is always willing to try any new activity that I might present. He gives his all in every therapy session.
“He clearly has moments of frustration, pain and discomfort, but he is always willing to work through it. His experience in dealing with coaches has given him the insight to seek feedback on his performance, and he will often ask, “What do I need to work on?’”
But his previous athletic background also has its drawbacks.
“Such a strong work ethic is certainly an asset, but I have had to educate him that his body is not the same and that what worked well in athletics is not always appropriate when dealing with neurorecovery,” Soto said. “I have had to remind him that he will need to listen to his body more than ever and that it is OK to back off some of the activities.”
Clayton Kerr said his son had to “start at zero” following the accident, and now he has movement in all of his limbs. His left leg is “just as good as yours or mine,” and his right leg is coming along well.
Kerr’s progress allowed him to move out of a motorized wheelchair and into a manual one. That has allowed the family to expand its perimeter beyond a few blocks, so they can venture out into Denver during their down time from rehab.
“It’s been very encouraging,” Clayton Kerr said. “And it’s been a lot less stressful than a few months ago.”
Within the past few weeks, Kerr began the process of learning to walk again. He started by wearing a harness on a treadmill before graduating to exercises where he supports more of his own weight.
WHAT’S NEXT IN THE REHAB PROCESS?
Kerr’s doctors and therapists have avoided conversations about his long-term prognosis, simply because incomplete spinal cord injuries do not come with a uniform road map to recovery.
Setting expectations too high can only lead to devastating disappointment.
They did tell Kerr he can expect to make the most improvement in his first six months after the accident. Then, up to two years later, he will probably see his progress begin to taper off.
“About the only thing they’ll tell me is how much I’ve recovered already is really, really good and I’ve gotten a lot back a lot faster than most people,” Kerr said. “I just have to keep improving at the rate I’ve been going, so my only real goal right now is to get as well as I can as fast as I can.
“I’d really like to stay here as long as possible, because it’s been such a great experience. The equipment is unbelievable and the people really know what they’re doing. I know it’s a work in progress, but if I could get out of my chair at least some of the time, I’d be really happy.”
Kerr expects to rehab at Craig Hospital on an in-patient basis through the middle of November and hopes to work with the program another month or so on an out-patient basis.
His therapists will continue to work with him as long as he continues to make progress.
And, if all goes well, he could return home to Duluth by Christmas.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 15th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2016-17. 30 or more players from the USHL have been selected in four consecutive NHL Drafts, and more than 400 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.