Ben Hildebrant returned to classes Monday morning at West Hall High School, nearly three months after a diving accident left him partially paralyzed.
"It’s exciting. I’m a little nervous, but I can’t wait," said the 16-year-old junior, moments before steering his wheelchair into his first-period class, Spanish I.
Once he entered class, however, he parked his wheelchair near the teacher’s desk and then, with the help of his cane, walked steadily to his desk across the room.
"Bienvenidos," one student said, referring to the Spanish word for "welcome."
Before the school day, Hildebrant, his teachers and father Loren Hildebrant met with Cathi Dugger, a physical therapist at the Atlanta-based Shepherd Center, which treats patients with spinal cord injuries.
Dugger gave details about the teenager’s injury and rehabilitation. She said he now is writing left-handed and could use textbooks at home and school to lighten his load.
"Other than that, he’s good to go," she said.
Those in the meeting spent a few minutes celebrating the student’s return.
"We’ve been praying like crazy," said counselor Terri Ryan.
Science teacher Joel Aquino said, "It’s amazing, the ability of the body to heal."
"And the Creator to heal him, as well," said Hildebrant’s father, pastor of Flat Creek Baptist Church in West Hall.
The teen, a member of the Spartan football team, broke his C-5 vertebra in August in an accident at a friend’s pool, leaving him paralyzed on his right side.
He was released Friday from the Shepherd Center.
"He graduated from the day program with four other patients, and he was the only one to walk out" under his own power, Hildebrant’s father said.
The teen entered the school Monday morning using a cane and was quickly hugged by the principal, Jackie Adams.
Hildebrant will use a wheelchair to get around school hallways between classes, but he’ll otherwise use a cane as much as possible.
"At the end of the day, you’ll be happy to see your chair, because you’ll be tired," Dugger told the boy during the school meeting.
She added a few words of caution. "... Take it easy. Safety is a big issue."
Dugger also said that students who don’t know Hildebrant and aren’t aware of the accident might draw some inaccurate conclusions.
"When kids come back to school in a (wheelchair), other students might think that something mental happened to them," Dugger said. "They need to know (Hildebrant’s) the same guy. He just walks funny now."
She also asked teachers to encourage Hildebrant to use his right hand, which "does need to get stronger."
To mark the youth’s return, the school’s International and Community Service students and Health Occupations Students of America and Career Technical Instruction Service Club members, along with LifeSouth Community Blood Center, held a blood drive.
The event took place all day Monday, including an evening segment open to the public.
After giving blood, donors received snacks and T-shirts that read "I gave in honor of Ben Hildebrant."
Loren Hildebrant said that his son will receive six to eight more weeks of physical therapy at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, and will undergo a six-month evaluation at the Shepherd Center.
"He can’t even talk about driving for a year," he said, adding that his son was three days’ shy of seeking his driver’s license when the accident happened.
Hildebrant said the whole experience has affected his attitude as a minister.
"It changes what you see as a priority. Arguments over the color of carpeting or should we have padded pews or benches seem very insignificant or silly," he said.
He added that his congregation has been supportive of him and his family.
"They continue to love us, support us and pray for us," Hildebrant said.