- ESPN staff writer
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Graduated from Central Michigan
All John Keller wanted when he got to his parents’ house in Canton, Ohio, was some Raising Cane’s chicken and one of his mom’s hamburgers.
Normal things a college kid usually takes for granted — spending time with family and gathering around the dinner table for mom’s cooking — were now treasured by Keller, who was released from the Hurley Medical Center nearly a month after being shot in the chest near campus at Central Michigan University.
Keller, a 6-foot-1 sophomore quarterback for the Chippewas, had lost 25 pounds since entering the hospital. The idea of a home-cooked meal sounded like a five-course dinner at a Michelin star restaurant.
A month ago, his parents, Ray and Maria, were unsure if their son would ever return home. That they were able to share the small moments together and that he could indulge in the food of his choice, his parents by his side, was nothing short of a miracle.
“It was a nightmare,” Ray said. “The last month was a nightmare.”
Ray and Maria received a call early in the morning on April 24 notifying them that their son had been shot. Keller had been at a party in Deerfield Village Apartments when he and another student were wounded after a fight broke out. The Isabella County Sheriff’s Office arrested Kenneth Thomas of Farmington Hills, Michigan, in connection with the shooting.
Nothing prepares a parent for that phone call. The Kellers couldn’t comprehend what they were hearing.
The voice on the other end of the line was telling them their 21-year-old son was being transported to a local hospital, so the Kellers got dressed and made the four-hour drive to be with him as fast as they could.
“When we got that news, my heart fell out of my chest,” Ray said. “It was an instant nightmare and it was hard to breathe. Being a college student, you think something silly might happen, but when you’re in Mount Pleasant at Central Michigan and you hear your son got shot, that was so hard to comprehend.
“How does that even happen?”
It was an anxiety-ridden drive. What would happen? What state would John be in when they arrived? Would they ever talk to their son again?
Fortunately for the family, doctors and surgeons were able to save his life. They removed the bullet from his chest, repaired his pulmonary artery that had been hit by the bullet, closed up a hole in his lung and cleaned out the entrance wound.
Keller was on a ventilator for 10 days while laying on a RotoProne bed, which allows doctors and nurses to flip patients upside down to give relief to lungs with severe fluids and help the lungs expand. Seeing their son with ventilator tubes coming out of his mouth, strapped to a bed while heavily medicated and sedated, was overwhelming for his parents. They stayed by his side as long as the doctors and nurses would allow while trying to stay positive.
The unknown was frightening, though.
“Things we’ve seen as parents, you never want to see in the hospital,” Ray said. “Luckily John probably won’t remember a lot of it, but as parents, we saw things you never want to see.”
It wasn’t until two weeks after he was admitted to the hospital that the Kellers actually felt some relief. Keller had the ventilator tubes removed and gradually tried to accomplish small tasks. First, it was trying to hold down food and function normally.
Then it moved to eating on his own and having conversations. After everything he had been through, all Keller could think about was his family and what they had endured.
He said he doesn’t remember some of the procedures and parts of his hospital stay, but he remembers becoming coherent and hoping his parents were OK.
“It was emotional for me, and there was never a time where I didn’t think it was going to work but the whole process more or less was just really hard to believe,” Keller said. “Knowing I went through this and survived and knowing my family saw the whole thing … I’m just glad to be here.”
In one of the first conversations he had with his parents, Keller told them he was going to make it, everything would be OK, and they shouldn’t worry any more.
They went from praying that their son was alive to celebrating small victories each step along the way. Keller was able to do some breathing exercises, some respiratory work, then physical therapy and eventually some cautious walking.
He had his tubes and IVs removed, and the doctors told the family that Keller would be able to leave the hospital room in which they had spent the last four weeks agonizing.
“Me and his mother haven’t had a chance to decompress, I’m still kind of in a panic mode,” Ray said. “My wife said, ‘Besides the day you were born, this is the best day of my life.’ She said we get him all over again and we get the opportunity to have a life with our son, because, for some time, we weren’t sure that was going to be the case.”
Keller still has a long road to recovery that involves physical therapy, working with a thoracic surgeon and monitoring his body’s progress as he continues to heal, but he’s on the right track. And as surreal as the initial phone call was for his parents, it’s similarly surreal that he’s now home and safe by their side.
He doesn’t know what’s next in terms of football. He needs to get through physical therapy first, and then is looking forward to rejoining the team, although he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to get back on the field. He’s already come a long way.
“It’s crazy to think where it started and knowing that my family and my coaches went through seeing this whole process,” Keller said. “The big thing for me was just to stay positive, and there wasn’t a point throughout the whole process where I ever doubted I was going to make it. I really believed in my whole heart that everything was going to be all right, and I think that played a big role in taking me where I’m at and me being home right now.”
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