CHS student makes strides in recovery, plans for graduation

In August, 17-year-old Claremont High School student Alexander “Al” Harris was on the cusp of achieving his long-held goal of becoming a professional motocross racer.

In July, he placed 14th out of a field of 42 of the best riders in the nation at the 2018 Loretta Lynn’s AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship race in Tennessee. His next step would be his professional debut August 19 at the Transworld Motocross Terra Firma race at Glen Helen Raceway in Devore, California.

It was the culmination of a lifetime of training. The Harrises—mother and father Peggy and Ken, and older sister Shannon—are all motorcycle enthusiasts. So too is their large extended family, which includes Peggy’s seven siblings and their children. The close-knit group has spent countless long weekends traversing California’s desert outback on dirt bikes.

Al was a natural. He rode his first motorcycle at four. Ever since, going fast on two wheels was his obsession. And on August 19, his dream was in front of him.

The race began unremarkably, but midway through his third lap, something went wrong.

“He went off the jump and he was right in front of Ken and I,” his mother Peggy said. “He was so close, it was literally 50 feet in front of us. His foot got caught, it tore him off the bike, and he went over the handlebars. He said he thought, ‘Oh man, something’s going to hurt,’ because he’s broken bones before.”

With his eyes shut, he hit the ground but nothing hurt, his mother recalled.

“And he thought, ‘Am I passed out? No, I’m awake. Oh man, this isn’t good.’ So he knew he was paralyzed, right away,” she said.

Understandably reticent to recall specific details about the crash, Al did share some of his first thoughts.

“I was just thinking to myself, ‘This is really weird,’” he said. “I don’t know. It was pretty weird.”

He was rushed by ambulance to Loma Linda Medical Center. Al’s C5 vertebra was shattered, he had sustained a spinal cord injury and had a lacerated liver. The emergency surgery to clear out pieces of his shattered vertebra, scheduled for three hours, ended up taking six.

The neurosurgeon said she hoped Al would be able to shrug his shoulders after the surgery. It was as much optimism as she could muster.

“It was terrifying,” Ms. Harris said. It seemed unreal that her son might be facing the prospect of living the rest of his life as an incomplete quadriplegic. The surgeon cautioned her to be prepared.

Alexander also had multiple fractures in his back, but the surgeon was unable to address them for fear of disturbing his damaged liver.

Like virtually every other motocross rider, Al was no stranger to the emergency room. He’d broken both wrists, his scapula and collarbone in an accident in 2016. Last year he broke his arm in another crash, but this one was different.

“I didn’t like to think about it,” Al said about the possibility of suffering such a serious injury over the years. “It’s always there, but you just kind of threw it off like, ‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen.’”

He spent five days in Loma Linda’s intensive care unit before being transferred to Pomona’s rehabilitation facility, Casa Colina, for five weeks of inpatient therapy. On September 28 he was cleared to go home. He’s tackled his outpatient five-day-a-week rehab at Casa Colina with characteristic gusto.

“He’s just always been an ‘I can do it’ kid,” his mom shared.

That mindset has now been applied to his recovery.

“Since he’s been here it’s just been leaps and bounds,” said Casa Colina occupational therapist Suzanne Goya, who has been working closely with Al. “He’s your star client. You want all your spinal cord clients to be that way. He’s motivated.”

The family met with his Casa Colina team last week. “It’s amazing,” Ms. Harris said with delight. “We never know what can happen, but right now the prognosis looks really good, and that he’ll likely get back most if not all of his faculties. It’s crazy, crazy!”

It will take at least year for Al’s body to heal. After that, his medical team will assess where he’s at and where he might realistically expect to end up. 

For now, it’s the small victories that buoy the Harris family. Last week Al tied his shoes and brushed his teeth, and he’s recently been feeding himself. “He’s getting stronger,” said his mother, fighting back tears.

This year’s Christmas will be celebrated with extra gratitude, Ms. Harris said. “Totally, totally, totally,” she said. “With the changes that have occurred over the last month, you just think, ‘There’s hope. There is hope he’s going to walk again.’”

Al has made it clear he wants to ride again. What that means—recreationally or competitively—was a question he wasn’t yet ready to tackle.

“I definitely want to do that,” he said. “But I don’t know yet. I’m still thinking.”

At 2:30 p.m. this Saturday, December 16, he’ll be back on the track, when he returns to the site of his crash, Glen Helen Raceway, where he will start the Kyle Yarnell Memorial Team Race. Proceeds, as well as those from raffles and auctions, will be donated to help defer Al’s medical costs.

He’s always had goals, and he’s now set his sights on another. Claremont High School graduation is at 4:45 p.m. on June 15, 2019, and Al plans to stride across the stage.

“Being how far it is from now, it looks pretty good,” he said. “It looks like it’ll be possible to do that. I feel confident I’ll be able to.”

—Mick Rhodes


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