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Bradley Smith, injured Petaluma baseball star, makes a full recovery


If there ever was someone equipped to handle sports stardom at an early age, it was Bradley Smith.

On a Little League team of preteen and barely teen heroes, Smith stood out, not only as the tallest player on the team, but also one of the best — from the pitching mound and in the batter’s box. As his team of Petaluma National Little League All-Stars captured the admiration of their hometown and the attention of the entire nation with their enthusiasm and play in the Little League World Series of 2012, Smith was one that the national press focused on. He could handle it.

Quiet and unassuming, he took it all in stride, enjoying the game and his teammates if not the limelight. When life threw him a painful curve ball that threatened not only his sports future, but his life, he could handle it.

In a flash on a mild pre-spring day, Feb. 21, 2015, everything changed for the three-sport high school freshman. Smith was riding in an ATV on private property off Petaluma Hill Road with his friends and teammates Brendan O’Neill and Dominic Ayers when the vehicle skidded off the roadway and overturned.

O’Neill and Ayers were thrown clear, but the vehicle rolled over Smith.

In the days, weeks and months to follow, the questions changed from what sports he would excel in, to would he live or die, to would he lose his right arm, to would he ever play sports again and, finally after months of rehibilitation, back to the original question. That full cycle has been accomplished in an amazingly short period of time — less than a year.

That Smith, currently a sophomore at Petaluma High School, is now playing junior varsity basketball and looking forward to baseball in the spring is the result of his own exceptional physical condition, his determination and support from a multitude of people including his family, medical professionals, friends, and a caring Petaluma community.

Smith suffered two broken arms and a broken neck in the accident. The compound fracture to his right arm was so severe that he lost three inches of bone and severed an artery that was eventually repaired with a vein taken from his leg. He underwent seven surgeries within a 48-hour period.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident no one knew how severely Smith was injured, but his friends O’Neill and Ayers knew there was a lot of blood.

O’Neill and Smith have known each other and been teammates since they were pre-schoolers. While Ayers raced for help, O’Neill called 911 and tried to aid and comfort his friend.

“At first I was kind of disoriented, then I saw Bradley and went over and started trying to help him. I couldn’t believe the amount of blood that was running out of him,” O”Neill recalled. “I wrapped my shirt around his arm to try to stop the bleeding. I kept him lying down and kept telling him he was going to be all right.

“The whole thing happened so fast. I was real emotional. I didn’t want to lose my best friend.”

The first order of business when Smith got to the hospital was to save his life. His parents were initially told that doctors were having a difficult time stabilizing him because he had lost so much blood it was tough to reattach the artery. There was also a danger of losing his badly mangled right arm. Smith has little memory of the initial aftermath of the accident and wasn’t aware of the possibility of losing his arm.

“I had no idea I might lose my arm,” he said, although he was told later that he yelled at O’Neill, “I don’t want to lose my arm!”

Today Smith has two long zippers running from his elbows to his wrists on both arms, but he also has complete mobility in both.

His neck surgery to fuse two vertebrae went well, with the only problem being what doctors said might be the loss of about 15 percent of his neck mobility. As Smith and his family went through those anxious first crucial days and the months ahead, the community rallied to support the family.

“It was awesome,” the athlete’s father, Mike Smith said.

Smith’s teammates, friends and coaches flocked to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where he was initially treated, and later to Kaiser after he transferred to that facility.

“You don’t know how much easier it was when people were there,” Smith said. “I hated to be by myself at the hospital.”

It wasn’t only emotional support supplied by the community. A Go-Fund-Me page and other fundraisers helped the family with expenses not covered by insurance, and friends supplied meals and other assistance.

“People I didn’t even know helped,” noted Smith’s mother, Tina. “Everything was taken care of. We didn’t have to do anything except take care of our child.”

Smith’s aunt, Wendy Hunter, took over PR duties, issuing daily, and sometimes hourly, updates online and keeping an anxious community informed of his condition. After he came home, his grandmother, Sharon Hunter, moved in with the family for three months so Tina could go back to work.

Once at home, Smith still faced a long recovery not only physically, but also academically.

“The school part was the tough part,” Smith said. “It is hard to study when you are on pain medication.”

His road back began simply enough with just walking in the hospital. Once he got home, he worked with an occupational therapist. As soon as he was well enough, he began rehabilitation with Rick Susick of Petaluma Valley Physical Therapy Center and physical therapist Kevin White.

He had a long way to go as he endeavored to regain his strength and regain use of his arms that were beginning to build up scar tissue as they healed from their injuries and the operations. It was hard, and at times painful, but Smith took it in stride.

“I just worked as hard as I possibly could on getting back in shape,” he explained.

By the time the Petaluma basketball team held tryouts in November, he was healthy enough to go out for the team, although he acknowledges that all the running was painful. Not only did the 6-foot, 3-inch muscular athlete make the junior varsity team, he became a starter and one of the best players on the team.

He plans to play baseball in the spring, although football remains problematic. Smith is ready to go, but the decision is really one that will be made by his doctors.

That Smith is back on the basketball court is no surprise to O’Neill. “Knowing Bradley, I’m not surprised he played,” his friend said. “He is tough. His recovery has been amazing.”

O’Neill can relate to what Smith endured. In 2012, the then Little League pitcher was hit in the head by a line drive, and had to have a metal plate attached to his skull. Like Smith, he has recovered from his serious injuries and is now a standout jumper for the Petaluma High School track team.

The accident has changed, but not soured the Smiths’ outlook on life.

“It made me realize that we take so much for granted,” said Mike.

“When you’re going through it, you don’t have time to think,” said Tina. “It made me realize that sports are not the end of the world in the big scheme of things. Kids need time just to be kids.”

Smith doesn’t spend any time wondering, “why me?” He knows.

“Because I could survive it,” he said. “Now I try to live my life to the fullest, and I’m just thankful.”