South Charlotte

Luck was on his side after cycle accident

It was just a five-minute ride. Down the street and back.

Ethan Sherrard, 22, had only ridden the dirt bike a couple of times since he bought it two months before. His mountain bike had broken, and the 1988 Kawasaki KDX 200 on Craigslist cost the same as a new mountain bike.

So on the afternoon of Nov. 19, when he went to visit his friend Ryan Jurrius, who was storing the motorcycle for him, the Providence High graduate - now a senior at Clemson University in South Carolina - decided to take it out for a quick spin.

No need for a helmet, he thought.

It was a rural, empty road in the nearby town of Seneca, one Sherrard hadn't been down before.

He went 15 mph. Then 25, 35.

About 40 mph, his tires' grip on the road grew precarious. The knobby tires operate better when there's dirt for them to catch onto, so Sherrard drove the bike onto the right-side embankment, hoping to slow it down and regain control.

But within seconds, he flipped off the dirt bike and fell in a ditch, crumpling to the gritty ground.

Sherrard lay there five minutes, not moving. With sharp pains in his back and neck, he couldn't sit up.

"My breathing was shallow and my ribs were hurting. Every time I took a breath, it burned down my whole (right) side," said Sherrard.

He knew the chances of seeing a car on the rural road were slim to none but he tried to yell for help anyway.

He could barely make a sound.

My lungs are damaged, Sherrard thought.

An Eagle Scout, Sherrard had learned some survival axioms: Stay calm. Keep your heart rate down. Try to make yourself visible.

He felt for his phone and realized he'd left it charging in his car.

"Although I knew I shouldn't move (for fear of internal bleeding) at that time, I felt straight survival instinct," said Sherrard.

Using adrenaline-born strength and only one side of his body, he slowly slid along on his stomach across the ditch and onto the side of the road.

It was 10 or 15 minutes before the first car drove by. It was Jurrius who'd gotten worried when Sherrard hadn't returned from his quick ride.

Jurrius asked if they should call an ambulance and wait for it to arrive, but if Sherrard had internal bleeding, that could be too late.

He hoisted Sherrard, who couldn't sit up in the front seat, into the truck bed and took off.

Jurrius then used his smartphone to find and call Oconee Medical Center to tell them they were coming.

From the truck bed, Sherrard saw waves of trees whipping by him. "I thought, 'Finally, I'm getting help,'" he said. "Laying in the road in the middle of nowhere, injured like that, is unbelievably frightening. ... You feel really, really helpless."

When they got to the hospital, staff ran to the truck to load Sherrard on a stretcher. Jurrius used his phone to take a picture of Sherrard in the truck bed. With his face covered in blood - some fresh, some forming a ruddy crust - Sherrard looked dead.

The hospital called Sherrard's parents but didn't give any details.

"It was a long ride, not knowing what we were going to face when we got down there," said Sherrard's mother, Leslie, 50.

They didn't even know their son had bought a dirt bike.

Leslie and Pete Sherrard, 52, arrived to find their son had broken his neck, several vertebrae in his back and the ribs at the front and back of his right side, which caused his right lung to collapse.

The doctors made no promises.

The hospital transported Sherrard to a larger hospital, Greenville Memorial, in Greenville, S.C., which had a skilled neurosurgeon.

Sherrard's parents and his younger brother, Brennan, 20, a sophomore at Appalachian State University, stayed at the hospital for 10 days while he underwent a risky surgery on his spine. The procedure could cause paralysis if there were complications.

The family spent Thanksgiving in a hospital room but, believe it or not, it was a great one, Leslie Sherrard said.

"His surgery was the day before, and the night before (Thanksgiving) we knew everything worked," said Pete Sherrard. "They'd stabilized the vertebrae with screws and bars and rebuilt his back.

"Once they did that, the risk of paralysis was gone."

Sherrard's recovery at home in the Sardis Plantation neighborhood off N.C. 51 wasn't easy. The painkillers weren't as strong as those in Greenville Memorial and the neck brace and hard plastic body brace Sherrard was given made every movement a struggle.

That first week it was a big deal for him to prop himself up for 15 minutes a day.

"One second you're the most athletic and you can do anything in the world ... hiking, living outdoors, going to the lake, playing Frisbee ... and the next second, you can't sit up," said Sherrard.

"Every drink of water, to go to the bathroom, basic care - they all increased his pain," said Leslie Sherrard, who had to spend all day, every day, helping her son.

But neighbors, family and friends made the recovery bearable.

An eighth-grade math teacher at Community House Middle School, Leslie Sherrard wasn't able to work for a couple of weeks. Her co-workers rearranged their schedules to cover her classes.

Family friends brought them at least two weeks worth of home-cooked meals.

And little by little, Ethan Sherrard started to improve.

Things were different when Sherrard returned to campus about a week ago. He is 25 pounds lighter, has a one-inch scar over his right eye and is still encased in a neck and body brace.

For one, he'd planned to spend his final semester studying abroad in Australia. Although he can now walk and drive, he wouldn't have the medical care he'd need abroad.

Sherrard got "Incompletes" for all the classes he wasn't able to finish last semester, so he's busy trying to complete projects and exams before his new classes really kick in.

But he's keeping a good attitude and is planning to sell the dirt bike.

The body brace will come off at the end of January. The neck brace will come off in February.

"My parents asked me before Christmas what I wanted," said Sherrard. "I said 'I don't want anything.' Just being able to walk is (a gift)."

Still on track to graduate in May with a degree from Clemson's School of Public Health, Sherrard currently is interviewing for health care administration jobs at area hospitals. If they ask him to talk about how he's overcome adversity, he says he'll know exactly what to say.

Sherrard chalks up his rescue on that rural seldom traveled road and his body's miraculously quick recovery with no long-term injuries to good - well, amazing - luck.

So in the last few weeks, he's bought a few lottery tickets.

"We'll see how that luck plays out," he says.