Everybody loves ‘Big Wade’ at Cherokee Bluff High.
Andrew Wade, who goes by the nickname for his 6-foot, 5-inch offensive lineman’s frame, is a gregarious senior who makes friends easy and always has a kind word for everyone he meets.
“Andrew’s got a magnetic personality and the kind of person everyone gravitates to,” Cherokee Bluff football coach Tommy Jones said.
And after a gut-wrenching chain of events that he would later find out had him clinging to life support in the hospital — stemming from what originated as a fluke football-related injury — he counts his blessings everyday that he’s alive and will walk across the stage in May to receive his high school diploma.
“I’m so grateful to be alive,” said the 18-year-old Wade, who plans to attend college next fall. “I know all the glory goes to God for my recovery.”
His family has, in turn, also embraced their middle child’s second lease on life. Wade’s mother, Jessica, and father, Phillip, were hoping for the best but also forced to face the grim reality of preparing for the worst after Andrew’s heart stopped for more than three minutes at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in early December 2020. However, a devoted team of surgeons, doctors, specialists and physical therapists helped him turn the corner during an arduous period after he nearly lost his life.
Now, the family of five in Flowery Branch enjoys every moment together.
They are active members of Christ Place Church.
He’s a throwback music fan of bands like Aerosmith, which he credits his father for instilling in him. And Wade is so adept at video games that he plans to pursue playing ESports in college.
Andrew has also formed an even tighter bond with his older brother, Justin, who attends the University of North Georgia, and their sister, 13-year-old Madison, who attends Cherokee Bluff Middle.
“Our family is so much closer now and we learned not to sweat the small stuff,” Andrew’s mother said.
One of Andrew’s last memories of the night everything took a turn for the worse Nov. 28 was watching television, then becoming gripped with terrible pain in his chest, which his mother recognized as a blood clot. Wade had been stationary for so long in his recovery from three surgeries on a broken leg and was only one day shy of returning to the hospital to be cleared by doctors.
Hours after arriving at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Wade’s condition had deteriorated to the point where they preparing to use life-saving measures, which included an ECMO machine to circulate blood while the heart and lungs have time to recover, after his heart stopped working on its own.
“I was alone in his room pacing and praying, while his father was in traffic trying to get there,” Wade’s mother said.
Wade’s senior year started routinely.
He was excited about taking the field with Cherokee Bluff in the 2020 football season, even though everyone was still leery of ramifications of the COVID-19 virus.
Yet, the season started on time and Andrew got to play 15-20 snaps at right tackle in the win against Johnson.
Everyone knew, the season could be shut down at any moment, due to coronavirus precautions.
So, if that’s how it ended, he was more than satisfied with having his Senior Night experience.
There was only one problem that emerged with Big Wade, which was a routine sprained ankle.
Cherokee Bluff team trainers recommended that he take the following Monday off from practice, which fell on Labor Day.
Wade still showed up that morning to be with his teammates. However, as he was walking down the hill, he slipped on dew-soaked grass and broke his right leg and ankle.
Wade’s mother immediately came to pick up her then 17-year-old son and take him to the hospital. He endured two unsuccessful surgeries in September, due to complications with properly reconnecting tendons and aligning the bone.
Finally, the family opted to go see Dr. Joseph Lamplot at Emory John’s Creek, who successfully remedied the injury with surgery on Oct. 23.
Wade was well on his way to recovery, but longing to be back with his friends at Cherokee Bluff.
Then, just more than one month after his third surgery, the Wade family experienced the ultimate scare.
Wade was rushed to the hospital right away after feeling chest pains.
Upon arrival, he was still alert and communicating, at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
By early the next morning, Wade’s condition has continued to deteriorate. Doctors asked for a meeting with his family to deliver potentially-grim realities.
Medical professionals deployed the ECMO machine and ventilator to keep blood flowing while his body was in such fragile condition.
They said long-term ramifications from being without oxygen for so long would be loss of brain and cognitive function. Doctors also feared that Wade may lose his left leg, which is where the blood clot originated.
However, nobody knew the willpower of young Andrew.
He knew the entire Cherokee Bluff community was praying for him, especially his football family, which he said aided immensely in his recovery.
Throughout the season, the Bears continued to win games, claiming the Region 7-3A championship and a win in their first playoff game in school history.
Jones said the team always kept Wade close to their hearts during all the good times on the field.
“(Andrew) was a rallying point for our team,” Jones said. “He was missed on a day-to-day basis with his infectious personality. The kids all rallied around that whole situation and hoping for his recovery.”
At Wade’s weakest point, doctors enlisted blood-clot busting medication. Over the next nine days, his condition slowly began to improve.
On Day 1, Wade was getting no blood under his body’s own power. By Day 2, it improved to about 25 percent and 60 percent the day after that.
Finally, Andrew would open his eyes on Dec. 9, his mother said.
In all, he was dependant on a ventilator for 10 days, and the heart-lung ECMO machine for five days to keep blood circulating while his organs recovered.
He also had a handful of surgeries on his left leg, along with a bleeding lung (possibly from chest compressions). While hospitalized, it was discovered that Wade had a genetic condition called Factor V Leiden, which is a mutation of one of the clotting factors in the blood. This mutation can increase your chance of developing abnormal blood clots, most commonly in your legs or lungs.
The family was able to finally start taking a sigh of relief, knowing that his condition was looking up.
Unsure what had transpired, Jessica said her son was often frightful because he was in a hospital room and he remained sensitive to loud noises.
Throughout the unspeakable family ordeal, Jessica and Phillip tried to keep life as normal as possible for the other children. Visitors were strictly limited with coronavirus protocols in place.
However, a beautiful moment took place on Dec. 13 when the family shared a visit on Facetime together. His goal all along was to be home by Christmas. After a short stint in physical rehabilitation, that dream came true — a major blessing for a family that had experienced so many terrifying moments in one month.
Everyone was relieved to know their strong-willed big brother had defied almost insurmountable odds in his fight for life.
Slowly, in January, Andrew made it back to school, using a wheelchair at first. He would typically only stay for half a day, due to lagging energy levels.
However, his strength continued to get better day by day.
After a few weeks, the only pain was nagging ankle problems.
But it didn’t take away from his big smile. And everyone was thrilled for their friend to be back where he belonged about friends, teachers and coaches who spent so much time praying for his return to full health.
Wade is doing well in all of his classes and will graduate on time.
He knows every day now is a gift from God.
“I enjoy all the little things in life more than every,” Wade said. “And if someone reaches out and needs something, I want to be there to help.”