In this space each Wednesday, we highlight Whiz Kids, students in our area who are making a difference by excelling in the classroom or in the community. To call Oakville residents Joe and Cecilia Detwiler whiz kids just doesn’t seem to do them justice. After what has happened throughout the last 10 months of their lives, we might call Joe, who just graduated from and Cecilia, a junior to be at Cor Jesu, miracle kids.
Every year, the Detwiler extended family gathers at a country home in St. James, MO for the July Fourth holiday. The same was true in 2010. On Independence Day, Joe and Cecilia were going to drive to a nearby lake for a swim.
Cecilia said she left her swimsuit in St. James. When Joe drove her to pick it up, the Ford F250 went off the side of the road and and ultimately careened down and struck a tree head-on.
Cecilia said for her it felt like forever as she and her brother were pinned in what was left of the vehicle crushed around them, along with shattered bones and lots of blood. “This shouldn’t be happening,” she thought.
Emergency crews arrived on scene in hazmat suits with two helicopters ready to transport victims. Joe was pulled from the wreckage first, having suffered a traumatic brain injury, a fractured skull and collapsed lungs, among a litany of injuries. But it would take two hours to extricate Cecilia from the wreck because everything below her waist having been crushed.
Their parents had to leave the scene before Cecilia was free, as they needed to make the two-hour drive back to the hospital in St. Louis. Mike and Mary Detwiler’s two youngest children had last rites administered.
“These injuries, you just don’t recover from the injuries they had,” Mary Detwiler said.
Liturgy of the Hours
For weeks, Cecilia’s condition was a day-to-day situation as doctors plotted a plan of action, trying to save her feet from amputation. Within her first eight days in the hospital she had been in surgery four times. For Joe, who was in a medically induced coma, it was months of waiting. Both of them would mark birthdays in the hospital.
It would be September until Cecelia was able to stand up. Joe would need to relearn how to chew, how to speak.
Later that month, doctors removed the tracheotomy tube that had been helping Joe breathe since the accident. “When they took the trach out, they said it was going to be many months before you would talk to your son,” Mike Detwiler said. Syllables, words, then sentences, they were told.
Hours later, a member of the De Smet faculty was saying the evening prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours at Joe’s bedside.
“O God, come to my aid. O Lord, make haste to help me. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” Ronny O’Dwyer started.
“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen,” Joe said, finishing the prayer.
Getting Back On Track
As Joe emerged from his coma, the former wrestling team captain and prospective seminary student who was within moments of losing it all was worried about getting back on track. And to top it off, thanks to an eye injury and his redeveloping speech pattern, he looked and sounded like a pirate, at times.
“One of my biggest worries in the hospital was 'Dad, am I going to graduate on time?'” Joe said. His goals: run a school religious retreat, go to prom and graduate on time.
He left the hospital in late October and resumed school part-time at De Smet in January. “It was big to come back to school. I thought when I came back to school it would all be just like it was before, and I’d be thrown completely back into it, and I didn’t think I’d be ready for that.”
The family credits the De Smet and Cor Jesu communities, which have worked around therapy appointments and continued surgery, even as late as April to repair three of Joe’s brain aneurisms from strokes, to accommodate the Detwiler kids. Cecilia was in and out of school during the current academic year, and is finishing up independent study with plans to be ready to start her full junior year in the fall.
On May 15, Joe made good on his promise to graduate on time, He had already attended multiple proms and had led the school retreat. He’ll attend St. Louis Community College at Meramec in the fall and work toward the seminary.
On May 16, Cecilia walked unassisted for the first time.
All of their hard work in physical therapy, which continues today, has helped put broken bones back together, but there is still emotional healing taking place.
"When I see other kids playing soccer, it hurts me inside,” Cecilia said.
It also hurts when people who should know better, don’t have the maturity to handle what she’s been through.
“Joe’s injuries you can’t see, but her injuries are very visible," Mary said, praising her daughter for having the chutzpah to wear shorts and go to Ted Drewes, only to have someone say "My God those scars are gruesome." “That’s the hardest thing to overcome, believe it or not….not the therapy , not walking, not the pain,” Mary said.
On Sunday, the Detwilers brought family, friends and hospital staff together to belatedly celebrate Joe’s 18th birthday and graduation. It was a pirate-themed party, with everyone dressed to the nines.
Cecilia will take guitar and singing lessons this summer. The Taylor Swift fan will see her idol in concert, with her left leg healed and some work to be done on the right. Doctors tell the family Joe may still have some memory issues and that it will be another year before they know where things will end with Cecilia, but her dad already knows what he’s learned about his kids and the people who have come to the family’s aid over the last ten months.
“Great things came out about great people.”