The first sign of hope came about three weeks after Roger and Jadwiga Hermann’s only son nearly died on the soccer field.
Before that day, 9-year-old Alex Hermann had responded to nothing — no sounds, no pinches, no tickling. Fearful an act of Mother Nature had left their son permanently brain dead, the parents watched as he slowly opened his eyes, then followed the doctor’s light — up and down, left to right — a sure sign, the doctor told the trembling parents, that his damaged brain was healing.
Days earlier, Alex had turned his head at a noise in his hospital room.
Then came his first words: “Dada,” he said to his father, hunched over his bed.
Alex smiled for the first time since that day just about a month ago. His sister, Julia, loaded his favorite song on her iPod and took it to him at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. She turned up the volume to “Smoke on the Water,” and Alex, who often mimicked the guitar chords, broke into a grin.
With the help of a physical therapist, he’s learning to write his name, to speak beyond a couple of syllables. Maybe one day, he’ll be able to walk again, the doctors tell his parents. Or perhaps even play the guitar.
But on the afternoon of Aug. 26, as he lay on the Field of Dreams west of Austin with no heartbeat, all the parents could do was pray for Alex to live and wonder how the excitement of their son’s first soccer practice had become an afternoon of terror and heartbreak — all delivered by a single bolt of lightning.
Soccer had been on Alex’s mind for more than a year, and he’d been begging his parents to let him join a local league.
The brown-haired, blue-eyed boy had moved with his family from Chicago to Austin just before school started last year so they could be closer to Roger Hermann’s elderly mother outside San Antonio. Hermann, a 53-year-old electrical engineer, had gotten a job with AT&T, but by the time the family had settled into its new home near Bee Cave, the deadline had passed for Alex to join the Lake Travis Youth Association league.
Alex’s parents instead signed him up for 30-minute weekly guitar lessons that kept their son entertained for the year as he practiced in his room afternoon after afternoon, weekend after weekend.
But playing soccer was never far from his mind.
“It was something he wanted to do,” Roger Hermann said. “To be with the other boys.”
In the days leading up to his first practice, Alex insisted that his mother buy a specific ball from Dick’s Sporting Goods in the Hill Country Galleria near their house. He wanted just the right cleats, socks and shorts.
That afternoon, Jadwiga Hermann laid them out for her son as soon as he arrived home from his second day of fourth grade at Lake Travis Elementary School. She fed him a snack of sliced apples and berries before the Hermanns made their first trip to Field of Dreams, a sprawling complex off Texas 71. It took a few minutes to find the right field.
As soon as they arrived — just before 4:30 p.m. — Alex bounded out of their car with his ball and joined several other boys on the field as Roger and Jadwiga began introducing themselves to the other adults. He was no more than 15 feet away from his parents.
“We were just talking with the coach — just meeting him for the first time — asking if we could help out, what needed to be done,” Roger Hermann said.
In the previous 30 minutes or so, a single thunderstorm had begun forming about 10 to 12 miles to the northwest of the field.
Directly over the Hermanns’ heads, out on the soccer field, danger was lurking, but witnesses dispute signs that the weather was deteriorating.
Then the thumps of children kicking the ball and chatter of parents assigning post-practice snacks were overpowered by a loud crackling sound. It was a pop so close that the parents wondered if there had been gunfire on the field.
The Hermanns said it was the most terrifying sound they had ever heard.
They spun to see their son facedown in the grass. They raced toward him.
Alex’s cleats and cap had been blown off. He had zigzag burns across his legs, belly and chest. His hair was singed. His clothes smoldered.
Roger Hermann thought his son was dead. “His eyes were just wide open, just absolutely wide open, and he wasn’t breathing,” he said.
“Don’t give up!” Jadwiga Hermann yelled to Alex as her husband, who years earlier had a brief CPR course, began trying to save his son.
The couple took turns doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and pumping their son’s chest. Carson Monks, a 19-year-old coach, joined them.
By that time, parents and other coaches had rushed their children off the field to safety. Rain had started falling at the Field of Dreams — first a sprinkle, then heavier. Within minutes, it was pouring.
At their station off RM 620 in Bee Cave, paramedic partners Gil Torres and Edgardo Echevarria heard a huge thunderclap soon after 4:30 p.m.
“That was loud,” Torres remembers saying to Echevarria.
Moments later, a dispatcher radioed for them to respond to the Field of Dreams. Only while they were en route did they learn that 911 callers had reported multiple pediatric patients. They glanced at the computer monitor in their ambulance: “Lightning strike,” it read.
Early reports said three children on the field had been struck by lightning that day, but Alex was hurt the worst. The others were treated and soon released.
By that time, police and other first responders had shown up and had taken over doing CPR. Torres and Echevarria tended to Alex for several minutes until STAR Flight could touch down on the field, then helped load him onto the helicopter.
At one point, a first responder yelled, “I have a pulse!”
Standing helpless and drenched on the field, Roger Hermann heard his wife screaming, “Don’t let him die!”
The Hermanns did not know in those frantic moments that most people struck by lightning survive.
Studies have shown that although strikes frequently leave victims disabled for life, only about 10 to 30 percent die.
“Just like getting hit by a truck, there is a huge range of what the injuries could be,” said Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, a professor emerita of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has worked extensively with the National Weather Service to educate the public about the effects of lightning strikes. “It might be a glancing blow, or you can end up with a direct hit and major problems.”
Often, the ability to survive and recover depends on whether the victim suffered a cardiac arrest, she and other experts said. Cooper said she did not know how often a lightning strike stops a person’s heart but estimated that 5 to 10 percent suffer a cardiac arrest.
Alex’s heart did stop. Although he received CPR, his brain still suffered from a lack of oxygen, leaving it badly injured.
Doctors said that it is unclear how much Alex will recover from his injuries but that he could need long-term care and rehabilitation.
That possibility, the Hermanns said, and the cost of the medical bills led them to sue the Lake Travis Youth Association for $10 million within three weeks of the strike, a decision that confused and angered some in their community.
The lawsuit contends that the league “failed to comply with the basic safety principles on weather safety when lightning is in the area, specifically when children are participating in sports (soccer) on an open field.”
Much of the litigation is likely to focus on the weather conditions and whether anyone could have predicted the danger.
Meteorologists say it is possible that the sun could have been shining over the field — or just a few clouds could have been overhead — when the lightning struck Alex. At the same time, though, the storm was inside a 10-mile radius that experts deem unsafe for outside activity because of the lightning threat.
“It was a very typical summer afternoon,” KVUE-TV meteorologist Mark Murray said. The area was under no weather watches or warnings, and the “garden variety Texas thunderstorm” was one of several relatively small cells that had popped up across the region, he said.
The storm formed near the Pennybacker Bridge along Loop 360 just after 4 p.m. By 4:19 p.m., it was producing lightning, but those bolts weren’t yet reaching the ground. By then, the storm was marching to the west-southwest, closing in on the Field of Dreams.
Murray said it was probably no more than a couple of miles away when it delivered the bolt that hit Alex.
The league has an insurance policy, but civil litigation experts say that generally such companies won’t release that money through a settlement without a lawsuit pressing them to do so.
Roger Hermann said, “We think that is the purpose of insurance, to cover for things that are not foreseen.”
He said he also worries that the family’s policy will fall far short of covering the care Alex will need. For instance, he said, it will cover only 30 days of post-hospital physical therapy. Doctors have estimated Alex will need two years of it.
“To tell you the truth, we aren’t the youngest two in the world,” Roger Hermann said. “We hope that Alex will get to the point where he can take care of himself, but that’s not at all certain. … At the time when we pass on, we want to know he will be taken care of.”
Austin lawyer Bob Dorsett, who represents the league, said, “To me, (the suit) is a necessary evil that nobody really wants to see happen — certainly the community doesn’t like seeing it; I doubt the Hermanns like participating in it — but when you have such a catastrophic injury, they obviously felt compelled to bring litigation. I know every member of the board wants nothing but the best for Alex.”
Attorney Adam Loewy, who represents the Hermanns, said, “We are confident the insurance companies involved in the lawsuit will do the right thing and help this child.”
On the way to the hospital, Jadwiga Hermann dialed her 15-year-old daughter to tell her what happened.
At home and doing her math homework, Julia Wezio looked at the clock — it was 5:15 p.m. — and at first thought her mother was calling to tell her that they’d gotten caught in a rainstorm. Then she made out a few words her mother was speaking through panic and tears.
“At first, I thought she said Alex had been bitten by something,” Wezio said.
She and her grandmother hurried to the hospital, and Wezio started texting all 96 contacts in her cellphone that her brother had been hurt at the Field of Dreams and was at the hospital but that she didn’t know what had happened. One of her friends sent a link to a news article.
“That was the moment when I realized that’s what happened. He was at Field of Dreams. He wasn’t bit by something. He was struck by lightning.”
She typed out another text message to her contacts, asking them to stop what they were doing and pray. She thinks that early call for prayer has contributed to her brother’s recovery.
While she was on her way to the hospital with her grandmother, Alex’s parents were nearing the hospital. The helicopter carrying Alex was landing.
Doctors at Dell Children’s Medical Center quickly assessed him. With his terrified parents in the waiting room, Dr. Anne Mahan was one of the first doctors to treat Alex.
She took one look at him within 20 minutes of his arrival and was unsure he would live. Along with the burns, cardiac arrest and brain damage, she saw signs of kidney injury and possible failure. She said he also was at risk for “cardiovascular collapse,” meaning necessary oxygen did not appear to be reaching body tissue.
“I was extremely worried for him,” she said.
She and other doctors made a decision: Even though they could treat most of his other injuries in Austin, they decided Alex should be flown to Dallas that night, where a critical care unit for children had expertise in treating burns. Within only a few hours, Alex was again loaded back onto a helicopter for a new hospital, where he would remain nearly three weeks.
Early on, after arriving in Dallas, Alex’s condition was unsteady. It changed hour by hour, day by day. Setbacks quickly eclipsed tiny signs of life.
Doctors were uncertain about his brain but continued treating his burns. After about three weeks and once they were satisfied that they had done all they could, they decided Alex could return to Dell Children’s Medical Center.
On Sept. 10, their last night in Dallas, Alex’s parents were told by a neurologist that he was “very concerned” that Alex would never break from what doctors called his “semi-vegetative state.”
“We were thinking the worst,” Roger Hermann said. “That our son was never going to have a quality of life at all. That he’ll never be able to look at the sunset, to feel the temperature. He’ll never be able to pet his dog. All we’ve ever wanted was for our son to have a quality of life.”
Soon after Alex arrived in Austin, more than a dozen doctors and specialists studied his injuries and ailments. His medical chart chronicled them all.
“He had very complex problems,” said Dr. Craig Hurwitz, a palliative medicine specialist who has been involved in Alex’s treatment. “It was unclear whether he could see, whether he could hear, whether he was really in there.”
Alex couldn’t talk and couldn’t move his legs at all, Hurwitz remembered.
Hurwitz, who had never treated a lightning strike victim in 35 years of medicine, and other doctors struggled with what to tell the Hermanns. Each lightning strike is different, and they wondered how much hope to give them.
Alex started occupational therapy and began receiving minor physical therapy to help keep his joints and muscles working.
His parents hoped Alex could hear them, to know they were at his side, but he remained largely unresponsive.
A couple of weeks later, he had a significant operation — a skin graft — to remove healthy skin from his thigh and place it on his burned legs.
The flurry of surgical procedures continued: one to install a feeding tube, another to permanently stabilize his heart.
Along the way, Alex continued showing signs of improvement, including his first words and his first smile at “Smoke on the Water.”
Alex has almost never been without one of his parents at the hospital.
Jadwiga Hermann sits with him throughout the day, then leaves when her husband arrives to help their daughter with homework or shuttle her to after-school activities.
His father has spent all but a handful of nights at the hospital, leaving his son’s bedside with just enough time to shower at the hospital, drive to his South Austin office and arrive at his desk.
Hurwitz remembered visiting Alex’s room on a recent Saturday to find his patient using his arm in an effort to toss a foam ball to his father.
“I was relieved to see it happening,” he said. “It was a clear indication that this young man was recovering.”
He, too, is unsure how much Alex will be able to recover and said his patient still must learn basic developmental skills and muscle coordination.
“It’s been a no less than miraculous improvement,” Hurwitz said.
Those improvements continue day by day, moment by moment. Alex still can’t use his legs, but as of last week, he’s begun wheeling himself down his hospital hall. He’s talking in fragmented sentences, enough to convey basic thoughts and ideas.
With someone helping him guide a pencil, he’s written his name. He’s had help coloring a picture.
Alex’s family and friends have tried to make his hospital room as comfortable as possible. Yet beside his bed, he has IV poles connected to both arms that deliver nutrients and medication. He’s hooked up to a beeping heart monitor.
At the Hermann home, though, his parents have left Alex’s room exactly as it was that afternoon.
Two karate medals are on the wall. Legos are on the floor, next to a plastic airplane. His own artwork hangs on the wall.
In the corner, his guitar sits waiting for the day he will be able to play again.
TODAY IN THE STATESMAN,
TOMORROW ON KVUE
This story is reported in partnership with KVUE-TV. Watch Tony Plohetski’s interview with the parents of Alex Hermann on KVUE News Nightbeat at 10 p.m. Monday