SYDNEY, N.S. — Just two years ago, James MacNevin was a typical 16-year-old — skateboard in one hand and an attitude in the other.
That all changed more than a year ago on a slippery patch of Highway 125, known locally as Peacekeepers Highway, when a series of events would leave him living with only half a skull.
James was a passenger on Jan. 6, 2011, with two other teens in a car that spun out of control about 6:30 p.m. and collided with an oncoming truck.
While the others in the car suffered only slight injuries, James was raced to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital with a broken arm, a punctured lung and serious head injury to begin a series of procedures that would save his life.
“Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a miracle,” he said during an interview at his home with a sly smile on his face.
His mom Cheryl, who rolled her eyes at that comment, said her son’s positive attitude has been an inspiration to their family.
“My sister-in-law said if you are ever feeling sorry for yourself, go spend time with James,” said Cheryl. “He changes your perspective. He’s not showing off. It is just his attitude about the whole thing.”
The night of the accident, local medical teams worked for hours to stabilize him, before diagnosing him with brain swelling and airlifting him to Halifax for more specialized treatment, including removal of his cranial bone flap.
An eight-hour surgery was followed by a medically induced coma that lasted weeks to help him heal from four separate injuries to his brain.
Surgeries that followed would see the flap that covers half of his skull added and removed due to infection. Eventually it was decided a synthetic one was the best option, but that became infected too.
Now with the entire left side of his skull gone, he waits patiently for the sixth and, he hopes, final procedure.
James doesn’t remember the accident, but his family continues to be inspired by the acts of kindness and professionalism that are helping him work his way past it.
“They said when I get the bone flap in, it is just like a regular head, so I’m pretty pumped about that. But everyone is different.”
He’s looking forward to skateboarding again and twice daily workouts that kept him at a fit 150 pounds and not the 113 he dipped to after the crash.
“The day of the accident we had gotten up at about 5 a.m. and we both went to the gym,” said Cheryl.
“Then we’d come home, he’d get ready for school and me work. He’d go back to the gym that night.”
He skipped the nightly workout the day of his accident.
“If only I (hadn’t), this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
His age is one of the reasons there are expectations for a full recovery.
“Because he was 16 when it happened, the neurosurgeon explained his brain was still growing,” said Cheryl. “His brain learned to adapt and reroute itself. His frontal lobe damaged his rational thinking, his impulse control — all that rerouted.”
For now, having no bone flap means balance is a bit of a problem. He wore a helmet for a time, but he now comfortably makes his way without it.
There was also some difficulty finding his words in the days after he was brought out of his coma.
“It was like a cabinet that fell over,” he said. “I lost all the words that I had. I lost everything and then I had to find them.”
He now speaks perfectly after he “found” and “refiled” his words.
“It took a couple of times and then it stayed in.”
There are still some complications he must deal with every day, though.
“We get nervous as parents because that is just scalp on brain,” Cheryl said. “People come up and hug him. You’ll see James pull back.
“We are very protective over him. I’m sure he is never going to want to hear ‘Watch your head’ again.”
Not hearing those words is followed closely by no longer being under 24-hour surveillance by his family.
“I want to be free, eating what I want,” James said. “It is going to be awesome.”
He’s also looking forward to a return to school.
“It’s weird. Some people don’t survive after something like that, but I did. Why? Our ongoing joke is that I’m meant for big things. I’m going to cure cancer or something.”
He laughs at that notion, adding “there’s no way. Sometimes I think I want to be a doctor, a doctor with a (synthetic) bone flap that puts in bone flaps. That would be crazy.”
A medical checkup is scheduled for this month and he’s hopeful the new bone flap will come soon after.
But if they have to wait, that’s no problem, either. “I’m the first one to admit when you go to outpatients that you are cranky because you are waiting and waiting,” Cheryl said.
“But that night James had his accident the whole emergency room closed for him, one person. You don’t know what goes on behind those doors. They were saving his life and someone with a cold had to wait. If we have to sit in outpatients again, I’ll sit patiently.”
Speaking to some of the people who worked on her son that fateful night, she has come to realize the medical community wasn’t sure he was even going to make it from Sydney to Halifax because of the extent of his injuries.
“I see now what they saw. I didn’t know how rough he was. He looked fine. I didn’t see what was on the inside.” Because he did make it and is now thriving, she is forever thankful to the medical community, from the helicopter pilot who flew her son to Halifax, to the first responders at the scene of the accident and the countless others who supported them through various acts of kindness.