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Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Gogos, a Homestead wrestler severely injured in a match last month, works with physical therapist Althea Watson at Lutheran’s Rehabilitation Hospital.

Greater joy helps beat odds

After traumatic wrestling accident, local teen is home for Christmas

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Physical therapist Althea Watson had to help Nik Gogos relearn to walk after his wrestling injury. After a month hospitalized, he went home last weekend.
Walking down steps is part of therapy for 15-year-old Nik Gogos.

All journeys are made up of those moments when we are confronted with obstacles.

Some of these can seem immense and nearly insurmountable, maybe even terrifying beyond anything we could imagine.

Others force us to look deep inside ourselves, or maybe even deep inside our loved ones.

These are the moments that can reveal something we maybe never saw before; or they might magnify something that had been there all along.

At only 15 years old, Nik Gogos already knows more than many of us about these moments and the obstacles that life can set in our way.

A little more than a month ago, the Homestead High School freshman was on a wrestling mat with no feeling below his shoulders.

There were serious questions about whether he’d ever walk again, much less be home for the holidays.

But the thought of getting home is what drove him for the next 27 days.

“When I got on the bus that morning, I never thought I wouldn’t be home in a month,” he now says.

Many of us will be celebrating Christmas this morning, and we’ll do so after journeys long and short, big and small.

Some of us probably flew in or out by plane to be where we are. Maybe others took car trips across town. There are a few of us whose journey consisted of nothing more than a shuffle to the coffee machine and a collapse on the couch.

Nik Gogos’ journey home has been long and arduous, at times painful and frustrating, at others surprisingly rewarding, bringing him across the paths of people with immeasurable amounts of compassion.

And his is a journey that begins in one of those moments of terror, with one of those obstacles that for most of us is hard if not impossible to fathom at any age.

It begins with a broken neck.

In an instant

Nov. 23.

Inside the Warsaw Community High School gymnasium, Gogos’ promise as a freshman wrestler on Homestead’s varsity team was on full display.

He’d already won two matches in the 145-pound weight class during the Warsaw Invitational – a meet that involved several teams – and was winning his final match 7-2.

Then it happened.

The Eastside wrestler wrapped his arms around Gogos, lifted him into the air and brought him to the mat in a way that folded his neck.

Gogos’ vision immediately went white.

“I went to get up, and nothing,” he said. “I remember looking at my right wrist, and I couldn’t move it.

“I thought I was never going to move again.”

Coaches and even the people in the crowd that day knew right away something was wrong.

A paramedic and a firefighter who had been watching immediately came down to the mats to attend to him. So too did his mother, Jodi Gogos.

“I heard him yell, ‘I’m paralyzed, Mom. I’m paralyzed,’ ” she said.

While a tumultuous mix of emotions surged within her, Jodi, a speech pathologist, knew she needed to keep calm.

While others attended to her son’s medical needs, she kept talking to him and praying with him. The two recited the Lord’s Prayer in an attempt to keep control amid the commotion around them.

“It definitely helped she wasn’t freaking out,” Nik said. “If she was calm, I could be calm.”

The wrestling move that put him in that spot, with a paramedic and firefighter trying to keep him steady while his mother did all she could to keep his attention focused on her, was deemed illegal by the referee. The Eastside wrestler was disqualified.

The Gogoses waited for an ambulance to arrive. It might have taken 10 minutes, but to them, it seemed like forever.

Will he walk again?

Dr. Loi K. Phuong has been a neurosurgeon for a decade.

On Nov. 23, he was summoned to the Lutheran Hospital ER after being told that there had been a wrestling accident and a boy could not move his arms or legs.

By the time he got to Gogos, the teen was moving his left foot a little as well as his left hand, both good signs.

X-rays were taken and an MRI done, and Phuong determined that Gogos suffered a C4 fracture of his vertebrae and ruptured disc.

The fractured bones were pinching the boy’s spinal cord, and he would need surgery.

Phuong had seen this type of injury before, but never from a wrestling match.

“Mostly from car accidents,” Phuong said.

Doctors replaced the C4 vertebrae and ruptured disc. Nik was put into ICU for a few days before he was transferred to the Lutheran Health Network’s Rehabilitation Hospital.

At some point, Phuong went to speak with Nik and his family, telling them there would be lots of rehab needed.

One thing was going through Nik’s mind, he says.

“Am I going to walk again?”

With neck injuries, you can never be 100 percent certain, Phuong told him. Each person is different, he said.

For Nik, though, there were good signs.

“If you’re young and athletic, it’s in your favor,” Phuong said.

Other characteristics would be needed, too. Characteristics like discipline, mental strength and especially drive.

Nik would show these in spades.

‘We’re family now’

In nearly all species, mothers are infused with an inherent instinct that drives them to protect their young.

Watching her son begin physical therapy, it was all Jodi Gogos could do to not reach out and help him do the things he needed to do on his own.

They were simple things, but things he needed to regain strength to do and that his body had to relearn.

“I’d watch him just try to lift an arm, and I’d see on his face it’s starting to come, and I wish I could do it for him,” Jodi said.

Jodi barely left the hospital during Nik’s stay, doing what she could for him when she was needed.

When he couldn’t go to the bathroom on his own, it was his mother who was there to help. When he couldn’t bathe on his own, she was there.

The few times Jodi did go home for a few minutes, everything there was strange. Weird, she said.

She used to stand in the kitchen and hear Nik playing guitar in his room. Now, there was an eerie silence.

Her other sons were handling Nik’s injuries in different ways. His twin brother, Kris, struggled. His 9-year-old brother was too young to understand the severity.

Things were not right.

At the hospital, though, people began to visit or make contact, some whom the Gogoses don’t even know or had never met.

Wrestlers and classmates stopped by. Strangers from all over the world who heard the story made contact.

Some had suffered catastrophic injuries and wanted to offer words of encouragement.

Others sent prayers.

“That means everything,” Jodi said.

The Warsaw wrestling team raised $700 for the Gogos family. Others made blue “Gogos Strong” bracelets to sell in an effort to raise funds.

Still others raised money to buy Nik a new guitar.

He still has yet to meet with the Eastside wrestler who injured him, but that might happen someday.

When the topic came up, Jodi said they wanted to keep Nik on a “good path” while he heals.

“I’m not mad at him,” Nik said. “There’s no point in being angry. I really do forgive the kid.”

The nurses and health care workers took to Nik’s infectious sense of humor, strong will and positive outlook.

He liked to tell people who saw him in a wheelchair to not pay attention to it because he was only using it for sympathy.

He was also quick to tell them what happened to him is only temporary.

Before the injury, Nik had already asked his girlfriend, Katelynn Chaffee, to Homestead’s semiformal dance Dec. 7.

The night of the dance, Chaffee showed up at the hospital in a black dress and high-heeled shoes, her hair and nails freshly done. She looked beautiful, Nik said.

Even though he couldn’t walk or sit up very well, Nik was dressed in a suit. A table was set up in his room and the couple ate take-out from Biaggi’s while music played.

Nik had formed a strong connection with the nurse working that night, a man named Russell Gibson.

Gibson walked in at one point, leaned over to Nik and asked: “Do you want to dance with her?”

Nik wondered how, but Gibson told him to pick a song. He chose Nat King Cole’s version of “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” the song his parents danced to during their wedding.

Gibson then got Nik to his feet, held him from behind and faced him toward Chaffee.

When the music played, he supported Nik while the young couple swayed with each other in the dimly lit room.

“They do a beautiful job here,” Jodi said. “The nurses have been phenomenal. We’re family now.”

Making strides

It’s a Thursday, 26 days after the injury.

Nik Gogos is wearing a neck brace while on a treadmill in the small gym of the Rehabilitation Hospital.

Above him hang the straps that used to be attached around his arms and torso when he first started this journey.

He has no need for them now. He can’t walk fast, and maybe he can’t walk far, but he’s supporting his own body weight.

Talking him through his walk, with a hand ready at his back should he need a spot, is Althea Watson, the physical therapist who has been working with Nik from Day One.

She runs the gym at the Rehabilitation Hospital and is also one of the few women in Indiana who is a board-certified neurology specialist.

When they started together, Nik could walk only minuscule distances if at all. Now, he’s walking more than a mile sometimes. He’s walking up and down stairs, down hallways.

Watson is the one who has been pushing Nik, and while these exercises may seem less than exhausting at first glance, he describes them as worse than the dead sprints he and his teammates do in practice.

“She’s the reason I’m walking,” Nik says of Watson.

That same day, Nik has his first taste of the outside world when the hospital staff takes him on a shopping trip to Jefferson Pointe.

Nik eats at Panda Express – one of his favorites – and says it’s more amazing than he could imagine.

There is more good news, too: Doctors clear Nik to finally go home Dec. 20.

His mother is on cloud nine just thinking about what they’ll do when they get home.

She imagines taking him up to his room, finally putting him in his own bed and letting him see his old familiar surroundings.

And of course, the mother in her is still trying to protect him.

While watching Althea guide Nik up a set of stairs 20 feet away, Jodi instinctively reaches out to nothing but air when she sees her son take a small stumble.

Coming home

The Homestead wrestlers were in the midst of a full-on conditioning practice, a grueling day of grappling with a teammate almost nonstop.

Nobody noticed when Nik Gogos came into the gym Friday.

Head coach Nathan DeVaux stopped practice and told the team to come forward. When they saw Nik, the tears began to flow.

“It was very emotional,” Nik said. “The wrestling team, we consider ourselves a family.”

While team members took a knee, Nik talked about the definition of fighting and what it now means in his life.

He talked about the battles he overcame in learning to walk again or even bathing himself.

He talked about his journey that began with a broken neck on a wrestling mat one cold day in November.

The Gogoses are devout Christians, and they believe God has a plan for everybody. They believe this, even if they don’t know exactly what the plan entails.

Jodi has wondered, though.

She mused that maybe God had these big things happen so people could take the time to appreciate the small things.

Or maybe the plan was for Nik’s story to touch others, or maybe it was so that Nik and those he’d met on this journey – the doctors, the nurses, other people recovering in the rehabilitation hospital alongside Nik or all those strangers who reached out – could come across each other.

“I do believe he’s a miracle,” she said of her son.

Nik’s journey is far from over. There are plenty of obstacles ahead.

He’s not entirely healed, and the neck brace he wears is not due to come off for a while. He’s going to be home-schooled for some time as well, until he can return to Homestead.

He still needs extensive physical therapy, and the family is looking at outpatient options right now.

But the first leg is over, one of the biggest obstacles overcome, because today he’s celebrating Christmas like many of us: At home.