Caleb Cordasco sits inconspicuously in the corner of downtown Flagstaff’s Late for the Train coffee house, confident, comfortable, quiet. Between sips from his mug, the 27-year-old responds to questions with the introspection and reflection of a much older person addressing far deeper concerns. His steady brown eyes reveal a profound sense of knowing from a young man who has journeyed to the outer limits of mental, emotional and physical pain, and is still standing. And that, by all accounts, is a miracle.
New Year’s Eve 2014 in Flagstaff was one of those stormy winter nights that locals remember. By early evening, snow was piling up relentlessly. Six, seven, eight inches, and no sign of stopping.
Caleb, then 23, a gifted rock climber at the top of his game, was at Flagstaff Climbing with friends. He was experiencing an intense push of escalating improvement, moving deliberately past challenges that had stopped him just weeks before.
He had just graduated from Northern Arizona University with a philosophy degree and a minor in Mandarin Chinese. He was ready to be Caleb, to launch into the world with strength, intelligence, purpose and the drive of an elite athlete.
His parents, Billy and Fon Cordasco, were hiking in the Grand Canyon on this night, feeling the exuberance of being alive and carefree with a recent breakthrough in Fon’s battle with cancer. His sister, Katelyn, was embracing sorority life at NAU and absorbing the warmth that comes from dear friends, a close family and the relaxed joy that holidays bring college students on winter break.
It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and Caleb had every reason to celebrate his blessed life. It would be the last climb of the night before he would join the rest of the world to ring in the New Year.
High Above the Ground
Forty-five feet above the ground, Caleb was navigating under the ridge of a lead wall. “I hadn’t seen anyone do it. I had worked all the individual moves on it. It was a very powerful route that required a lot of endurance. I felt so strong on that attempt, passed the place where I normally fall, passed another place I normally fall. I was really focused, but then my arms hit failure. There was this awesome burn. I knew I was going to fall. I let go. It was weird. In that instant, I looked at my knot right away. I watched it in slow motion as it came undone and floated out of my harness.”
An experienced athlete and black belt in martial arts, Caleb knew how to fall. Moving horizontally, he spotted the ground and deliberately flipped himself forward, like a windmill in the air. Instinctively he hit the ground feet first, rolling to his back and tucking his head. His thumb jammed into his wrist.
“There is a very specific dull cold sensation when you hit your spine,” he said. He began frantically hitting his legs, checking for any sensation. There was nothing. His friends grabbed his arms, called 911 and an ambulance rushed him to Flagstaff Medical Center.
Caleb’s uncle, Cody Hartman, got the call from Caleb’s friends. He jumped in his truck, hurrying as best he could over snowy streets to get to the hospital. As FMC staff members were considering what doctor might be available, Cody suggested Dr. Steve Ritland.
Meanwhile, word spread throughout Caleb’s community. Longtime family friend Rachel Diehl received the news from Hannah Doskicz, whose family owns the climbing gym. Rachel alerted her dad, Jerry Diehl, Bomb Squad commander and SWAT team leader for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
“All of our families have been together for quite some time. Our children went to school together. Caleb is like a nephew to me, at the very least,” he said. Understanding the extent of the injuries, Diehl called the cell phone of another family friend, Dr. Ritland.
Surgeons Answer the Call
Dr. Steve Ritland is a top neurosurgeon. Patients with spinal injuries from all over the world fly to Flagstaff for his skilled hands in the operating room. He lives in a remote rural setting on the outskirts of town. And nights like this one remind him of why he owns a snowplow and an SUV, and why he was happy to be home on this New Year’s Eve.
Nonetheless, when the call came in, he didn’t think twice about braving the treacherous blizzard conditions. Within two-and a-half hours, Dr. Ritland was operating on Caleb.
“Caleb had hit hard. He had a compression burst fracture: the vertebral body explodes, the ridge of the body comes apart and pushes the whole central part of the body into the spinal path. The dura around the spinal cord was open; we had to reconstruct that. It’s mostly about getting the bone out of the spinal canal. Some of the nerves were stuck between the leaves of the spinous process. This was the first time I’ve had to split the spinous process to get the nerves untangled. You have to do it gently; simply go in and take your time to make sure the nerves are free, that there’s no compression, nothing to keep them from making the recovery.”
As Dr. Ritland worked through the night, Diehl persistently dialed cell phone numbers of the family members in the Grand Canyon, figuring he might get lucky with the spotty coverage.
Through his training and experience of having to deliver difficult news to the families of his own people following serious shooting and bombing incidents, he learned, “You don’t give a whole lot of bad information on the phone if you can help it.”
Diehl was determined to reach Caleb’s dad, Billy. But it was also important for him to talk to Billy’s cousin, Tim McCullough, who was at Indian Garden, four miles below the South Rim with Caleb’s parents. “Tim needed to be the voice of reason for everybody down there, to keep the family from trying to hike up the canyon in a snowstorm at night.”
Diehl was able to reach them both. He had also seen Caleb’s X-rays. “As a bomb technician, I’m familiar with reading that kind of stuff,” he said. “They were horrible. Looking at them, I felt my heart drop and then when I saw the heels, they were even worse than the back. They were powder.”
Surgery took seven hours and Dr. Ritland knew he would be operating on Caleb again. The nerve roots were bruised, but intact. He was able to take the pressure off the nerves, build a protective cage around the L2 vertebrae and stabilize the broken back.
“That was the game changer,” said McCullough of Dr. Ritland’s immediate response to Caleb’s injuries. “When Steve Ritland got the call, he didn’t even bat an eye,” said Diehl. “He’s got a 100-pound brain and a 1,000-pound heart.”
Through the night, in conversations facilitated by Diehl, Dr. Ritland was on the phone with Billy, who found a knoll in the Grand Canyon during the snowstorm where he could get cell phone reception and talk to the surgeon.
Caleb’s friends, sister Katelyn, uncles Cody Hartman and Tim Cordasco, and Diehl remained vigilant at the hospital. “It was so hard to see your big brother, who is so powerful and strong, be so helpless,” said Katelyn.
As dawn cast its first rays of warmth on the snow-blanketed New Year’s Day in the Northland, layers of time glistened under ice crystals in the Grand Canyon. The surreal splendor and peace of the morning was not lost to Billy and Fon, who were determined to stay in the moment of what Billy calls “the most beautiful place on Earth.”
The couple made fresh tracks in the climb out of the canyon. “We knew Caleb was in the best, most capable hands. I said to Fon, “‘We need to take our time and keep our strength, so let’s absorb what’s all around, we are going to need it.’”
They arrived at FMC that afternoon.
At the hospital, there was the matter of Caleb’s heels. The calcaneus bones were crushed. He says his feet were like “gravelly sand.”
“Nobody thought Caleb would walk again,” said his grandmother, Sandy Vanlandingham,“but nobody quit on him.”
According to Google, the calcaneus is the largest of the tarsal bones in the foot. It is often compared to a hardboiled egg because it has a thin, hard shell on the outside and softer, spongy bone on the inside. When the outer shell is broken, the bone tends to collapse and become fragmented. For this reason, calcaneal fractures are severe injuries.
Dr. Stephen Knecht of Northern Arizona Orthopaedics received the call from Annette Avery, whose late husband, Nate Avery, was a prominent neurosurgeon in town.
“Both calcanea were broken,” he said. “All at once, you have the combined emotions of, ‘Oh my gosh, this is not only a very bad injury, but a huge challenge,’ and you have a feeling of sadness that this healthy young person’s life has just changed, probably forever.”
Dr. Knecht approached the situation as if Caleb might need those feet again. Carefully, slowly, he pieced the shattered bones, ligaments and tendons back together like a puzzle, trying to restore normal shape and alignment. He, too, knew there would be more surgeries following this one, which lasted five hours.
“I felt like I did my best, but you know there’s a long road to recovery and you carefully dole out the reality that this was the first hurdle.”
Moon-Walking at Mountain Valley Rehab Hospital
With many more hurdles to come, Caleb was moved to Mountain Valley Rehabilitation Hospital in Prescott.
“We noticed day by day that any potential you could tap into as a physical therapist, Caleb was willing to go the mile with you,” said Mountain Valley CEO Judy Baum. “You have to be extremely hard working to overcome the trauma he suffered.”
Recovery had become a full-time job for Caleb. “There are times when you feel very unhuman, like a meat sack,” he said. “The pain is so blinding it almost changes your vision. I couldn’t feel my legs, but I could feel sensations like lightning or bees inside them.”
Within a week, the nerves in Caleb’s legs were showing signs of recovery. Jessica Clark was Caleb’s primary physical therapist. “With his current condition, he couldn’t bear any weight through his legs. His spinal cord injury affected his core control as well. He couldn’t get in and out of bed or practice standing.”
But, Clark was excited to try something new. “I wanted to have him be upright, moving and feeling like he’s walking again. It’s so hard for people when something that you’ve always done has been taken away.”
Mountain Valley had a new piece of equipment Clark hadn’t used before, called the Lite Gait. It’s designed to help the body remember how to walk. Caleb could be harnessed in a vertical position and the machine would take away his body weight. Lite Gait would advance him forward, moving his legs in a walking motion, with his feet just above the ground.
“It was like he was moon-walking through the hallways,” she said. “He was pretty excited.”
When Caleb left Mountain Valley, he was able to get in and out of a chair and bed on his own, and get around in a wheelchair. “With every new ability, you wonder if that is the new normal,” he said.
“I’ll never forget his attitude. He was always grateful for everything,” said Clark.
“I call him an old soul, wise beyond his years,” said Baum. “Despite the trauma in himself, he cared for other patients and reached out to others.”
Key Steps in Recovery
After several months, Caleb was ready to leave Prescott and continue his physical therapy at Core Balance back in Flagstaff. His primary therapist would be Leonard Wood, a strong, kind man with a calming presence who had met Caleb at FMC shortly after the fall.
“Before I left Mountain Valley, Leonard came down there to see me, which was clearly above and beyond his job duties,” said Caleb. “That was really important to me because I knew he was there to assess where I was in recovery and make the transition go smoothly.”
“I saw that Caleb was able to move his legs,” said Wood. “He still had six to eight weeks before he could put weight on his feet, but he was getting closer. We started to work on tall kneeling, a good way to start gaining hip strength and prepare for walking.”
When Dr. Knecht cleared Caleb to put weight on his feet, he took his first steps at home using a walker to get from his wheelchair to the sofa.
“It was a private moment with my family, and so painful on my feet. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it, but it also made me realize how much work was ahead.”
Wood continued to assist as Caleb progressed. “The first time he did the six-minute walk [a PT assessment that determines how far a patient can go in six minutes], it was huge. He got excited about walking outside. He went about 100 feet.”
The Heart of an Athlete
Caleb also connected with personal trainer Ryan Whited of Paragon Athletics, a sponsored athlete he knew before the accident.
“Caleb is an athlete. When someone becomes injured, even to the extent Caleb did, they remain an athlete. Appealing to that during recovery is a psychological boost. Even as impaired as he was, he still had an athlete’s heart to push deeper than most people can.”
Caleb trained with Whited three times a week for more than a year. “I’d have him mainly on the floor doing exercises like walking a medicine ball on the wall with his feet to build strength proprioception, the body’s ability to locate itself in space. It’s the body/brain connection.”
With Whited’s help, Caleb started climbing again. “He had to be careful. Falling wasn’t an option.”
Looking back, Whited gets emotional when he recalls the first time Caleb stood up on his own.
“Working with Caleb changed me. I’m very passionate about what I do and having the opportunity to affect someone’s life is such an honor.”
Venturing Out on a New Path
Today, Caleb walks. There are no obvious signs of injury. But after these four years, he says his life is barely recognizable. He graduated college, experienced a life-altering accident, suffered constant pain and completely lost his independence. He also lost his mom, Fon, but not before she saw him walk.
“I think it’s important to note that Caleb attributes much of his strength and endurance to his mom,” said college friend Sammie Carel. “She showed him how to fight and heal, and I can’t imagine him going through his accident without her.”
“Fon was with him constantly, even while she was going through chemotherapy, she was by his side, decorating his room with beautiful scenes of mountains and waterfalls, and positive sayings,” said Billy. “Our mantra was ‘everything is temporary; nothing is permanent.’”
“That whole family is so amazingly strong,” says Flagstaff Athletic Club personal trainer and family friend Roxanne Hrinko. “Caleb is where he is today because of his perseverance – it’s the drive that was bred into him – also because of his family and friends who encouraged him and the prayers he received.”
Through the entire process, Caleb was rarely alone. “I am beyond grateful,” he says of the mountain of support. Those in the healing business say that’s what makes the difference.
“Our results show how important family and a community of support is in recovery and this experience changed my life,” said Baum. “I saw how strong a family they were and how amazingly positive they were through a lot of difficult times. Hope and optimism were the strongest and most consistent emotions in Caleb’s room through every step.”
“To see a community of people come together and how Caleb’s family operated provided me with something special,” said Dr. Knecht. “Observing that family helped me see the value in trying to build that level of optimism and support into my own life and into my family. It’s wonderful to have role models like them.”
Caleb’s aunt, Anne Cordasco, calls Caleb’s recovery a story of strength. “No one’s denying that it wasn’t awful, but in a lot of ways it was spectacularly beautiful. The love of the community was unreal. There are just times when you can’t even put it into words.”
“The doctors, therapists, everyone became the best of who they are,” said Billy, who is the president and general manager of Babbitt Ranches. “People showed up at our house with food, they walked our dog, local builder Mike Tulloss even came in and retrofitted our home to accommodate Caleb. They were all extraordinary at the moment they needed to be extraordinary. That’s what we’re all so proud of: to be part of this amazing community.”
To see Caleb in a downtown Flagstaff coffee shop, you’d never guess all the places his journey has taken him since Dec. 31, 2014, even to Spain’s famous trail, El Camino de Santiago, and a meditation retreat in Austria.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Caleb and the character this experience forged inside of him,” said Caleb’s dad, Billy. “Caleb’s compassion and empathy for others is extraordinary. I look forward to watching that over the years to see how he shares that with others.” This New Year finds Caleb with his feet on the ground and moving in a new direction. He is starting his second semester of law school at Arizona State University.
“One of the things I definitely became very aware of through my mom being sick and during my injury, a lot of times when things happen to people they become unsure how to relate to their own pain and suffering. That can get lost to them. I’ve learned it’s important for each person to embrace what’s happened to them. It’s okay to make it your own. It’s okay to feel the full spectrum of emotions, without comparing yourself to other people.”
Four years, five surgeries and more than 24 hours of operations later, Caleb continues to adjust to his changed body. The young man with the old soul is on a path that many believe will lead him to do great things, in spite of and perhaps because of all he’s been through.
Although he can’t jump, all those who know him have no doubt he will take huge leaps to make the world a better place.
By Bonnie Stevens, QCBN
Photo caption (Page 1)
During his recovery, Caleb Cordasco got himself back into the climbing gym, using his upper body strength to pull himself out of the wheelchair.