What does an Alabama skateboarder and entrepreneur do after crushing his skull in a long board accident? He quits his day job to start his dream business of selling surf boards.
Slowly peeling the label on my grande iced vanilla latte, sitting across the table at Starbucks from an attractive, 24-year-old financial advisor, I underestimated the emotional response I would have to the story he was willing to share. In a society where first impressions are everything, many times we are only able to appreciate the tip of the iceberg known as the “human spirit”. After meeting Will Steward, you would never guess that, just under a year ago, a skateboarding accident significantly affected this 23-year-old’s life and appearance.
Will Steward comes across as an endearing and intelligent conversationalist with a zest for life that would rival most dare-devils. He currently works for Raymond James and Associates as a financial consultant, or “financial architect”, as he likes to tell his clients, helping them to design and build their futures. He loves chocolate milk, surfing, cutting grass (I know, right?!), doubles sand volleyball, Taylor Swift, Donato’s pepperoni pizza, and cultivating relationships with people. He doesn’t like shots (or “pointy things that poke him”…. luckily he didn’t realize I was a nurse practitioner until after our interview concluded), camel crickets, Instagram, and self-absorbed people. Will was quick to tell me he loves Mondays. I rolled my eyes and blurted out, “Who says that??” His motto is “attitude is everything” and he is grateful for the opportunities and possibilities that each week holds. He seems like a pretty regular guy, right? But there is so much more beneath the surface of the iceberg.
June 16, 2016 everything changed for Will. During a downhill longboard run (longboards are similar to skateboards for those of us less athletically inclined) Will lost control of his board. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in which he struck the back of his head on the pavement causing multiple frontal, parietal and occipital fractures, as well as a left frontal subdural hematoma and bilateral frontal contusions. The injury caused extensive brain and neurologic damage. In other words, he really scrambled his eggs.
Will was bleeding from his nose, ears, and mouth as Huntsville HEMSI carried him to our nearby level one trauma center. Upon arrival, he was diagnosed with a severe head injury, giving him the worst possible long-term prognosis. After 10 hours in Huntsville Hospital’s Neuro ICU, the pressure in his skull began to rise uncontrollably. Will’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Jason T. Banks later said, “A life-saving operation was an option to try to save his life, but could also allow him to survive in a neurologically devastated state. The possibility that he may never wake up or have a meaningful recovery was imminent.” Dramatic television shows containing this heavy content can be gut-wrenching to watch. But this wasn’t a TV show. This was a 23-year-old son, brother, and friend whose loved ones were all too aware that if he were to somehow miraculously survive, he would likely be mentally impaired for the remainder of his young life.
Take a deep breath and slowly play back your most favorite memory. How old were you? What scents, sounds, and sights do you recall? My favorite, most peaceful memory is frozen in my brain, as if it were painted on an oil canvas. I am lying on the pier at our family lake house in Waterloo, Alabama, surrounded by the people I love the most. I can smell the sweet but pungent river water as the hot sun bounces off my skin. My younger brother is telling a snarky joke and my parents and I are laughing. I was 26. I might have missed this memory if I were in Will’s place. At 23 years old, Will had not yet even begun to live. And his life nearly ended. Until finally he woke up July 3, 2016. His first memory was his Dad saying, “See this on my face?” pointing to his smile. “You’ve been given a gift most people will never get.” A miracle. A blessing. A phenomenon. Whatever word you choose to call it, the merry-go-round of life had decided not to throw Will off.
His accident left him in a coma for nearly 3 weeks at Huntsville Hospital’s Neuro ICU. He has a very vague account of the accident and the weeks following. When I asked him to describe his most terrifying moment in this horrendous ordeal, he smiled and said, “I don’t remember a lot of fear from this. I’m not trying to sound macho, but I only saw more life”. He recalls flirting with nurses and eating full meals early on, even though his doctors told him he wouldn’t have an appetite. His first day in recovery, Will didn’t realize he was a patient. He passed out business cards and even became slightly belligerent with a nurse who wouldn’t bring him his keys and phone so he could go home. To control the swelling in Will’s brain, Dr. Banks of Huntsville Hospital’s Spine and Neuro Center performed a craniectomy to control the massive intracranial pressure. Will had severely fractured his frontal bone which was removed and pieced back together, then placed in a storage freezer until it could be reattached after the swelling had subsided. During the reconstruction, the previously removed craniotomy flap was replaced with titanium screws. At this meeting with Will, my ever present foot-in-mouth personality joked, “Oh, so you have a few screws loose?” Will slowly took my hand and pressed it to his right temple where I could feel a small but definite indentation. He politely said, “I assure you, my screws are fully tightened.” I am rarely at a loss for words, but at that point I became speechless.
Where most of us might shrink into our obscure lives, merely grateful to be alive, Will awoke with a newly invigorated passion to live. Instead of wallowing in self-pity over facing reconstructive procedures, losing his sense of smell, and dropping nearly 40 pounds from his athletic frame, he considered his accident a blessing. Will’s near-death experience encouraged him to create Flatline Surf Company out of his vision for a fearless and persistent pursuit of life. His mission: “All of Flatline’s hand-crafted boards and products carry with them a reminder to use life’s difficulties as an opportunity to overcome adversity through a spirit of adventure.” All Flatline products are made in America. Will has also created the Flatline Foundation at Huntsville Hospital, dedicating 5% of his company’s profits, in addition to other donations and fundraiser proceeds, to traumatic brain injury research, as well as giving back to the Huntsville Hospital employees who were instrumental in saving his life. Although Will’s sheepskin degree comes in the form of a Bachelor’s in Finance from Mississippi State University, no one can argue he’s graduated summa cum laude from the school of hard knocks.
Will struggled after the accident to rebuild his mental and physical deficits. He recalls that his muscles had not relearned the speed to which his brain was asking them to perform. He spent months in rehabilitation facilities and the gym to overcome his obstacles. He jokes, “It’s easier to have ‘will-power’ when Will is in your name”. Will would make a remarkable motivational speaker. For example, my first impression of Will (which as I previously mentioned, in this world, can be everything) was that in our first encounter he was accidentally running 5 minutes late. He apologized, saying, “I went to the wrong Starbucks. Forgive me, I had a brain injury.” I almost spit out my latte because his delivery of the sentence was so funny (and I tend to laugh at inappropriate times). You’d never know it to meet him. Because as I said, we so often only see the tip of the iceberg. Will is articulate and well-spoken. His zeal and passion for life are contagious. After spending 2 short hours with him, I walked away feeling better about life with more happiness and hope for the future in general. Will’s motto is “attitude is everything”. His other motto is to “recover quickly and recover with strength”. People like Will are examples of life winking at us, telling us to shoot for the stars and to be happy when you land on the moon. I asked him, as a motivational speaker what would you tell your audience? He responded, “Life’s biggest blessings come from our biggest challenges. Fly through life. But it’s probably better to do it with a helmet on.”
Writing this story provided many twists and turns for a novice journalist like myself. As my first human interest piece, it became crucial to me that I nail this article… knock it out of the park, so to speak. Will reminded me that the beauty in life is in the imperfections. No one really likes perfection. It’s boring. I’m reminded of the Japanese form of art known as kintsukukuroi that repairs broken pottery with lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold, silver, platinum, copper or bronze. Instead of concealing or hiding the cracks and damage, they accentuate it. This philosophical theory is similar to wabi-sabi (not to be confused with nose-tingling wasabi). Wabi-sabi is a concept that discovers beauty in the imperfections and yet also accepts the natural cycle of life and death. Leonard Cohen tells us, “there is a crack in everything and that is how the light gets in.” Perhaps when Will cracked his skull, he was given a gift, allowing more light to shine through.
Will went on to createFlatline Surf Company to remind people that life’s greatest blessings come from the greatest adversities.
This article was written for and published by Inside Medicine.