Luke Holko takes anti-spastic medicine, by mouth, two to three times per day. Every three months, he receives eight Botox injections in his right knee. At night, Luke must sleep with his foot straight up at 90 degrees and he must wear a brace until he turns 21.
The 7 year old handles the process like pro.
“He’s never really made it a big deal,” said his mother, Nicole Holko. “He’s not a complainer.”
Luke has a permanent scar on the side and back of his head where a bone was taken out and a tube was put in. His brain doesn’t relay signals to his foot to tell him to pick up his toes. He’s also deaf in his left ear.
The problems and complications are a result from an accident on Sept. 2, 2009 at Eastwood Field. Nicole and her husband, Chad – both Bloomfield residents – went to the Mahoning Valley Scrappers doubleheader against the Jamestown Jammers with Luke and Chad’s parents. They sat in Section 106, Row 1, Seats 11, 12, 13 and 14.
“We never sat in the front row, ever,” Nicole said. “The sun was right in our eyes. We even have pictures from that day of Chad shielding his eyes with glasses and a hat on.”
Luke, 4 at the time, sat on Chad’s lap with his back facing home plate. Midway through Game 1, first basemen Ben Carlson dug into the batter’s box looking for a hit. On an 0-2 count, he smashed a curveball down the first base side – a screaming line drive that hit Luke in the back of the head.
“It just happened so quick,” Chad said. “I heard the crack of the bat and next thing you know he’s limp in my lap.
“You couldn’t react. It was a split second.”
A split second that will stick with Nicole forever.
“You’ll never forget the sound of it,” she said. “Leaving his bat and the sound it made when it hit him. Every time I hear a hit or see a foul ball, I cringe.”
Chad immediately got up and ran to the concourse, yelling for a doctor. Attendants from Lane Ambulance took him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Youngstown, where he stayed overnight before being transported by helicopter to Akron Children’s Hospital.
“It was so fast,” Chad said, “but it seemed like it took forever.”
THE WAITING GAME
Luke was in a coma for nine days. He suffered a fractured skull and brain damage that destroyed tissue in the cerebellum and brain stem. It nearly killed him, doctors made that clear.
“Honestly, you think the worst and you really don’t know,” Chad said. “They tell you to prepare for the worst but really nobody has a clue.”
The Holko family spent a whole month at the hospital in Akron before another month of rehab at Cleveland Children’s Hospital. On Halloween, they were back in Akron. In the meantime, their home in northern Trumbull County was being remodeled to accommodate Luke’s recovery and development process. On Nov. 5, Luke was released, but Nicole and him spent three months at her mother’s house. Rest was needed because the most grueling aspect was still to come.
Nicole had to quit her job as a medical assistant because for five months she drove Luke from Bloomfield to Akron five days per week for a six-hour training program.
“He had to learn everything over again,” said Chad, an electronic engineer and volunteer firefighter. “How to swallow, how to sit up. It was a crazy challenge.”
Nicole added, “With the hands-on care in Akron, we were a part of everything watching him. It really made a difference.”
THREE YEARS LATER
Just a few weeks after the accident, Luke was able to speak again. “More” and “no” were the first two words he could annunciate. Today, he’s a math wiz who received all As and Bs in his first-grade year at Maplewood. He’s graduated from occupational, physical and speech therapy classes, though he still sees therapists in school twice per week. Luke receives some extra help with tests because of the 10-second delay he experiences when trying to write or speak.
“He works really hard to keep up with everybody else,” Nicole said.
Though Luke is unable to remember much before the accident, or six months after, he is self-aware of what happened and his condition.
“He knows how he got hurt and why he takes medicine and why when we go out that people notice him,” Nicole said. “He’ll tell you that he got hit with a baseball. He doesn’t remember getting hit or going through therapy.”
Luke is always playing outside with his younger sister, Lilly. They ride scooters and bikes and just run around. This summer, he participated in a basketball camp and plans to be on the middle school team in fourth grade. But baseball is still his favorite sport.
“We’ll play catch in the yard and I just have to take a step back and realize how remarkable of a turnaround he’s made,” Chad said.
His baseball hero is Ben Carlson.
Carlson, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound 21-year-old will never forget the pit in his stomach or the sweat on his brow as he walked down the Akron Children’s Hospital hallway to visit Luke for the first time.
“Very nervous, very anxious, very scared,” Carlson said. “I was deathly afraid of what the family was going to think of me. I knew when I was going in there I wasn’t just facing his family, I’d have to look at little Luke in his hospital bed.”
Nobody expects something like this to happen – not three months after being drafted in the sixth round out of Missouri State, making more money than he ever had and playing baseball for a living. It’s pressure that a young, single man can never plan for.
“It was one of those things where you can’t blame yourself for what had happened just because it was out of your control,” he said. “It wasn’t intentional by any means. It wasn’t something you could anticipate happening. Certainly I still felt the guilt.”
Fairly quickly though, Carlson was able to relax, let his guard down and feel the warm graces of the Holko family. He was forgiven.
“Sometimes the ballplayers get this bad rap about being young and being party guys,” Nicole said. “He didn’t come off that way. This wasn’t his fault. It was a total accident. Ben was concerned about Luke for the entire time. Some people wouldn’t have been. Some people wouldn’t have wanted to come and talk for a lot of reasons. We’re really happy that we’ve became good friends.
“People would ask us all the time, ‘How can you talk with him? How could you be friends with him? Why aren’t you suing him?’ From the second Luke got hurt, we were worried about Ben. As a mom, I couldn’t imagine being his mother knowing what he was going through. We had no hard feelings. It was completely an accident. It was nobody’s fault. As parents, we felt bad for him knowing what his parents were feeling for him.”
Carlson visits in Ohio once per year, usually around Luke’s birthday – July 20. He hangs out with the entire family, plays wiffleball, fishes on Mosquito Lake and even takes in Scrappers games if they’re in town.
TRANSFORMATION AND REVELATION
While Luke’s physical and mental recovery is progressing positively as each day goes by, Carlson’s spiritual recovery is a story in itself. He batted .228 in 62 games with Mahoning Valley. He was promoted to Lake County in 2010 where hit hit a lowly .171. Carlson was released in spring training of 2011.
He returned home to Kansas, went back to school to finish his degree and played football at Emporia State for two years and graduated last December. Two years ago, he also got married. Him and his wife, Ali, now have a 16-month old boy named Liam.
“I look up to Luke’s parents even more now,” Carlson said. “When that all happened I was single and didn’t have a lot of cares in life. I have much more respect for what his parents had to go through and their perseverance, diligence and everything they had to go through. I’m sure they felt hopeless at times, but just to see their example, I want to be parents like they are.”
Throughout the year, Carlson will Skype and call the Holko family regularly. He, too, has been amazed by Luke’s progress.
“The praise goes to God,” he said. “When you really look at the situation and what happened and the likelihood that Luke would be as healthy as he is now – it’s a medical miracle. Give the hope to God and give Him thanks and praise for truly helping Luke out.”
Carlson is now a devout Christian. Before the accident, religion played little to no role in his life. Chad and Nicole also felt a revelation as their lives had been drastically altered.
“We weren’t believers in the Lord,” Carlson said. “The accident brought us closer to Him. Through those times and those trials, especially for Luke’s family, we’ve grown in our walk with Christ.
“You don’t want to wish that on people, but the Lord uses a horrific act to bring people to Him and serve Him. I truly believe in my heart that’s what He did.”
In early July, Carlson and his family moved from Kansas to Owensboro, Ky., where he will enter the Midwest Center for Theological Studies and train to become a minister.
“I felt the call,” he said.
THANKS FOR THE GIVING
Numerous events, fundraisers and auctions have helped raise money for the Holko family to pay for the seemingly never-ending medical bills. The Scrappers have sponsored a “Luke Holko Night,” while area business have organized spaghetti dinners, golf outings, pledge drives and more. The New York-Penn League even pitched in for the effort. Back in 2009, alone, over $24,000 was raised.
The Scrappers are again raising money for Holko, this time by having an autographed “Mystery Ball” fundraiser on Friday.
“Whether it was a fundraiser or if people thought about Luke or prayed about Luke – everything made a difference,” Nicole said. “I don’t think people can understand how thankful we are. We’ve been blessed enough to have great people help him. There’s been people across the world who prayed for him; we didn’t even know them. It’s powerful stuff. It gives you chills.
“It’s amazing how great this world can be when you get together for a cause.”
She still hears the praises and even still gets the questions. Recently, a little cousin asked her if there was video of the foul ball hitting Luke.
“I said, ‘No, and if there was, I would burn it,” Nicole said.
As for the ball that struck her precious baby boy, it’s whereabouts are unknown.
“I don’t know if somebody picked it up that night or if it went back on the field,” she said. “I have no idea. It’s better that way. Some things are better left unknown.”
What she does know is that Luke is alive, a normal boy and blessed.