Photography by Wes Jerdon/Westley Leon Studios
On a normal fall day in Cass County, Caiden Baxter and a buddy decided to squeeze in a four-wheeler cruise before heading to the Edwardsburg homecoming game. While riding in a field he was familiar, Caiden encountered a steep drop off. He hit the brakes on instinct, flipped the vehicle and slammed into the ground.
In excruciating pain, Caiden knew immediately that he had broken his back, so he closed his eyes to pray before reaching for his phone to call his mom. When he reached for his phone, he realized there was no feeling in his leg.
He borrowed his friend’s phone to call his mom, who, not recognizing the number, sent him to voicemail. He tried his dad, who did the same. When he called his mom again, his sister realized the numbers were the same, so Lori, his mom, picked up.
“I’m in a cornfield. I’m paralyzed from the waist down. The ambulance is on its way,” Caiden said calmly.
“Who is this?” Lori said.
More than two years later, Caiden laughs at this memory, his wide, toothy grin spreading across high cheekbones as Lori rolls her eyes at the table beside him. Time has healed the pain originally tied to the tragedy, a turning point in the teenager’s life that will forever be the marker that divides “before” and “after.”
Caiden’s parents beat the ambulance to the hospital, where his dad, Carey, works in the trauma center.
“I see shootings, stabbings every single day,” Carey says. “When it was my son, I broke down. I cried so hard, and Lori was strong when I couldn’t be, just because I knew what was coming. She said, ‘clean yourself up. Stop crying.’ Caiden said, ‘dad, don’t worry about it.’ … He already had a plan.”
On Nov. 13, 2016, one day less than one month after being told he would never walk again, Caiden took his first steps.
DETERMINED TO WIN
Caiden has never been one to back down from a challenge. Pre-accident, he played every sport he could, including 13 years of baseball. Today, he spends his entire school day in college classrooms, with some classes at Andrews University’s Math and Science Center, some at Andrews itself and others at Southwestern Michigan College.
This fall, he will begin a premedical degree at the University of Michigan on a full-ride scholarship, with 74 credits already earned.
It is his competitive, studious and determined personality that Lori and Carey say have led Caiden to beating the odds in his recovery.
“We both agreed that if it happened to any one of our other kids in our family, this would have been a totally different story,” Carey says. “If this had to happen, we were blessed that it happened to Caiden.”
That does not mean that Caiden’s journey came without challenges. While being medflighted from Memorial Hospital to a hospital in Indianapolis, Caiden raised his hand to get the EMTs’ attention.
“What’s up, bud?” one shouted over the roar of the helicopter propelle“My knees were burning super bad … worse pain than when I broke my back,” Caiden recalls.
His hospital gown brushed his knees slightly, and Caiden describes the sensation as “excruciating,” like “knives stabbing [his] knees, but they were excited because that meant my spinal cord wasn’t severed.”
This meant there would be a chance that Caiden would eventually no longer be paralyzed.
After surgery, six days without eating and a bad experience at another Indianapolis rehabilitation center, Caiden was transported to Mary Free Bed to start rehab.
Caiden was determined to walk again — and soon.
“[Mary Free Bed] gives you maybe three hours of OTP a day, and he did eight hours a day,” Lori says. “He maximized it. He would say, ‘if there’s any openings in your schedule, I want it.”
In spite of some setbacks — which included being re-hospitalized just before his 16th birthday with his blood pressure at 58/29 and a fever of 105.6 — Caiden kept pushing forward, taking every opportunity he could get to grow stronger faster.
Months after leaving Mary Free Bed, Caiden participated in a program called Project Walk in Carlsbad, California, an intense exercise-based program where he worked with trainers to regain his strength and improve his walking.
While watching his journey through social media, Lori says people reached out to Caiden and said, “I’ve been trying to lose weight for years, and you inspired me.”
LEAN ON ME
Caiden says one of the most difficult parts of his journey has been learning to accept help from others. Classifying himself as a giver, Caiden says he has spent most of his life doing for others.
For example, before Niles resident Bailey Bennett succumbed to cancer at 10 years old, Caiden led the charge in hosting fundraisers, making T-shirts and providing support for Bailey’s older sister, a friend of his.
“I was able to see a lot of that connection with the community and how people were willing to — how they hear a story and want to help,” Caiden says. “[After his accident] I was on the other end of it, so it was really weird for me to be on the receiving end because I’m not good at receiving help.”
Lori reminded Caiden that by allowing others to help him, he was helping them.
“He feels guilty when people still want to do things for him because he feels like he’s in a good place and better off than some people,” Lori says. “But just allowing that person to be blessed themselves by accepting their generosity is huge.”
Caiden has also been able to use his experience to help friends through issues with anxiety and stress. He and his mom stay in touch with a Granger teen who was recently involved in an accident similar to Caiden’s. He enjoys giving advice and helping others, which is a huge part in why he wants to be a doctor.
His biggest advice for anyone facing any kind of challenge is, “connect with other people. Connect with God if you’re able to do that, then just lean on everyone you can.”
Once he embraced help from others, Caiden says he found power in connections.
“I’ve had amazing support with my family, with other individuals,” Caiden says. “Even though I had the first injury [before Ella and Searra], I’ve been able to connect with them through their injuries and been that friend they needed.”
Caiden also joined a wheelchair basketball league, where he met a good friend and now mentor, Feranmi Okanlami. Feranmi was paralyzed in a swimming pool accident and has since earned national recognition for his ability to practice medicine from a wheelchair that helps him stand.
With Feranmi now a doctor at the University of Michigan, the Baxters look forward to Caiden having a big brother figure in Ann Arbor.
“When he got his scholarship, we knew Feranmi was going to be there. It was perfect,” Carey says.
Reflecting on all he has gone through, Caiden credits his family, friends and community for holding him up when he needed extra strength. He looks forward to a career as a doctor, where he will have the opportunity to return the favor.