Once-comatose Oak Forest boy on (safer?) road to recovery
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org June 22, 2012 9:54PM
Alex Fitzgerald was hit bt a car along 151st in Oak Forest. He has regular therapy and will need additional surgery. Efforts are underway to improve this road which passes by three schools and a baseball field. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media
How to help
A benefit for Alex Fitzgerald — “Fighting 4 Fitz” — will be from 2 to 7 p.m. July 1 at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W. 115th St. in Merrionette Park. Tickets are $30 for adults and $10 for children ages 6 to 13. The cost includes food, beer, wine, pop, raffles, a silent auction and activities for children. For more information, visit www.fighting4fitz-es2.eventbrite.com.
Updated: July 25, 2012 6:39AM
The gray T-shirt Alex Fitzgerald wore simply said, “Impossible is nothing.”
If not for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish logo on it, one easily could take it as being the 12-year-old’s own personal motto.
The fact he was standing in front of Jack Hille School on 151st Street in Oak Forest one day last week seemed impossible eight weeks ago.
“It’s a miracle for sure,” said his mother, Lisa Fitzgerald. “He had the worst type of injury — 60 (percent) to 70 percent succumb to such injuries.”
As a nurse, she was painfully aware of her son’s condition. She is also amazed that he has recovered so well after being struck by a car April 20 in front of the school. He suffered multiple injuries — a traumatic brain injury, fractures to his face, head, collarbone and leg — and was in a coma for nearly three weeks.
All his bones have healed. The blood clots in his arm have dissolved. In August, he’ll return to Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn for surgery to replace a portion of his skull. In the meantime, he wears a colorful helmet to protect his head.
“He improves every day. He’s doing great. It’s amazing to see the power of prayer,” Lisa Fitzgerald said.
Nearby, an electronic sign at Jack Hille School beats out a simple, heartfelt message in red letters on behalf of the whole community: “Get well soon Alex.”
Alex was able to return to his Oak Forest home June 8, but continues with therapy and hopes to return to the school in a few months for his eighth-grade year.
Before he does, school and city officials say, there will be safety improvements in place in front of the school — at the crosswalks on 151st Street — to prevent another accident.
The push for safety
School officials had tried for more than seven years to get better lighting and traffic control along this stretch, and now it seems like they, too, have accomplished a seemingly impossible feat.
After Alex’s accident — the second in the past two years resulting in students being injured — parents, school and city officials launched a campaign, garnering nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition and more than 160 letters, to secure improvements to this well-traveled and somewhat dark Cook County-maintained roadway.
They want pedestrian signals installed at the crosswalks immediately east and west of the school to stop traffic when pedestrians are crossing.
Oak Forest city administrator Troy Ishler said he has met with ComEd, and streetlights will be brighter by the end of June. Streetlights at Condado Drive and Oxford Drive will be upgraded from 250- to 400-watt lights at the crosswalks. A new light with an extended arm will be installed between Oxford Drive and Hille School, he said.
Cook County Highway Department Supt. John Yonen did a traffic analysis of the entire corridor and said he initially found that pavement markings were faded, some signs were not visible, and lighting was not as bright as it could be — all “short-term fixes,” he said.
Long-term fixes — traffic control devices and changes to the speed limit — are part of the traffic study the county did in the 151st Street corridor while school was still in session, Yonen said.
“We are looking at the entire corridor, studying the best remedies. Signals do not always solve the problem,” he said.
Forest Ridge School District 142 Supt. Margaret Longo said she expects improvements to be in place before students return to school after summer break. She recently received a letter from Yonen, saying he wants to meet with her, Oak Forest Mayor Hank Kuspa and Cook County Commissioner Joan Murphy to discuss the findings of a traffic analysis and recommended improvements.
The school is a popular place for after-school programs and community events.
“A lot of residents in that neighborhood depend on that crosswalk to get to the schools, the park and the ballfields,” Kuspa said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we need improvements here.”
Kuspa said he was on the school board seven or eight years ago when it petitioned the county to improve the crosswalk.
Within a half-mile stretch, there are three schools: the Southwest Cook County Cooperative Association for Special Education, Jack Hille School and Oak Forest High School. The posted speed limit is 35 mph. The only traffic light is at Central Avenue.
“We’re not going to stop until this intersection is safe for all of our kids,” Kuspa said.
“Everyone is coming together,” Longo said. “I never want another child to go through what Alex went through.”
‘How can this be?’
Alex — soon to be 13 — said he remembers attending the school play that Friday night in April, but does not recall leaving the school and getting hit by the car.
Before he arrived at the hospital emergency room, he was in a deep coma, not likely to wake up, his mother said.
“I was in a state of shock and disbelief. ‘How can this be?’ For weeks, I was living it, but I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Throughout this ordeal, Lisa Fitzgerald said, the family kept a constant vigil by Alex’s bedside, gaining strength from God, family, friends and the people of the community — many of whom she does not even know personally.
Alex finally woke up May 8. His speech initially was slow and he had to learn to walk and write again.
Every time his therapists and doctors gave him a goal, he met it, his mom said.
His brain was able to retain and learn new information. She knew Alex was “back” when a visitor blew him a kiss and he “caught” it. And then he “really began talking” on Mother’s Day, she said.
She holds no ill feelings toward the driver of the car — a 26-year-old Oak Forest woman charged with failure to yield to a pedestrian — and urged her to visit Alex in the hospital, which she did.
“It was truly an accident,” Lisa Fitzgerald said, admitting Alex did not look both ways before crossing the street that night.
She never had any qualms about him crossing 151st Street. He did it every day on his way to and from school — but with a crossing guard.
As Alex and his mother stood that one day last week by the crosswalk at 151st Street and Condado Drive, immediately west of the school, a group of younger kids walked by and greeted him with a casual wave and a “Hi, Alex.”
He’s a bit of a celebrity in the area, but according to his mom, he doesn’t realize why he is such a big deal. He just wants his therapy to be over, to get back to school and play sports — although contact sports won’t be allowed for at least a year.
“I can’t say, ‘Why him?’ There has to be a lesson here,” she said.
The street is being fixed, so hopefully, this will not happen again, and even kids who don’t know Alex are being more careful about crossing the street, she said. She hopes to encourage parents whose children have traumatic brain injuries.
“The community really impressed me,” she said. “There were so many little things that meant so much.”
Students had a lemonade stand to raise money, residents tied ribbons on their trees and delivered meals to their home, and churches began prayer chains, she said.
“I knew we had good people here. I didn’t need proof,” Lisa Fitzgerald said. “I’m so relieved and so grateful.”