Bristow braves 55-day stay at hospital, inspires coaches and teammates
By Donnell Coley
Dunn Daily Record
Ian Bristow nudges a knob on his chair and inches towards the offensive line. A nudge in the other direction takes him closer to the receivers.
It was just last fall that the 17-year-old prep standout didn’t require an electronic wheelchair to perform the perfunctory pregame warmups with his Western Harnett teammates.
Bristow finished 2021 as the Eagles’ leading receiver and even used a 70-yard, game-winning touchdown reception on Sept. 3 to end the program’s 18-game losing streak. The three-sport student-athlete went on to serve leadership roles for both the Western basketball and baseball teams — and with his last final exam of junior year in the rearview, was looking forward to prepping for the closing act of his high school career.
But Bristow never made it back home from school on June 6 — he didn’t even make it to nearby Overhills Elementary where his mother works as a school counselor.
‘Definitely a miracle’
His pickup truck had flipped over multiple times on Docs Road, causing locals to rush in and aide the teen after just being ejected from his vehicle.
“The only thing I remember, really, is telling the (emergency responders), ‘I can’t feel my legs. My girlfriend is gonna be pissed. My mom is gonna pissed,” Bristow said with a smirk during Western’s season opener at South Johnston on Aug. 19.
“I’m definitely a miracle, for sure. It could’ve been a lot worse.”
The seminal sequence of events still seeps into the thoughts of Maria Bristow.
A message moms are never prepared for was suddenly brought to her attention.
“It was the worst phone call a parent could get,” Maria Bristow said, adding that the co-counselor at Overhills immediately drove her to the location of the accident.
“And just looking at the scene just broke my heart, because I didn’t know how my child was. Just looking at the car and looking at everything, I was scared to death.”
A laundry list of body-altering injuries, including a dislodged T-6 vertebrae, four broken ribs, collapsed lungs and paralyzation from the chest down.
The kid who had never broken a bone before now faced his stiffest competition — finding the courage to fight through a lengthy hospital stay.
‘I’m not giving up’
For the next 55 days, the Bristow family called Raleigh’s WakeMed hospital home.
Metal rods were inserted to stabilize the long, 6-foot-2 frame that had been disfigured. Two weeks of intensive care eventually turned into two months of intense therapy.
All the while, a positive outlook kept Bristow from getting discouraged throughout the process.
“It’s not, ‘Why me?’ It’s, ‘Thank you,’” he said.
Bristow’s mother was by his side night and day, providing affection and her own words of encouragement. She saw a frustrated athlete yearning to be back on the field, but reminded him that leading his peers would take on a different look now.
Still, maternal instincts kicked in on multiple occasions, causing some emotional moments early on.
“I was the one that was crying one day and he said, ‘Mom, I’ll be OK. I’m not giving up. But if I don’t walk again, I’ll be the best person in a wheelchair because I’ll be good at it by then,” said Maria Bristow.
The “unbelievable” spirit and fortitude of her determined boy gave way to rapid progression.
Simple hand-eye coordination activities like painting and playing cards, quickly transformed into workouts on the Wii console and virtual reality gaming systems.
Therapy sessions gradually progressed from easy upper body routines to water balloon fights, baseball tosses, fishing trips and even stints at the rec center to try wheelchair basketball and swimming.
Community coming together
Both Bristows agree that a dedicated support system made a huge difference in getting the beloved athlete back to health.
Friends, family, neighbors, first responders and even University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill basketball star Armando Bacot were among the flood of visitors each week.
From Taco Tuesdays to Fourth of July fireworks, Bristow didn’t have to worry about missing out on the normal summer activities his buddies were experiencing.
“All of our little communities really have pulled together and they’ve showed the support — it’s amazing for Ian,” said mother Bristow, who documented each day on the “Support Ian Bristow” Facebook page that has well over 1,300 people following.
Local businesses joined in the cause, designing and promoting personalized merchandise with all proceeds donated to help with medical expenses. Parents also donated two electric wheelchairs for Bristow to use at practice and gamedays.
Western football coach Zach Tenuta and his staff were among the frequent visitors this summer, even bringing by the offensive playbook to help Bristow prepare for his current role.
Upon his release from WakeMed on Aug. 3, it wasn’t long before he was at practice providing motivation and helping with instructions.
“He means everything to this team. … and if it’s something that he wants to do down the road, he’ll be a tremendous football coach — or any sport,” Tenuta said.
“Those kids see what he’s doing and the situation he’s in right now, and how can that not make you want to go harder when you got somebody like that there who wants to be doing what you’re doing right now, but he’s finding a way to contribute and really help us.”
“I love Ian Bristow. He’s a great kid and I’m blessed to have him around me at all times.”
Though he admits to pressing a little too much and being hard on his teammates, Bristow says it’s gratifying to watch them “play through me.”
He isn’t in a position to catch passes from his best friend, Trent Botts, or run routes opposite Bryce Browning this season.
But the uncertainty surrounding his leg mobility in the future doesn’t detract from what life messages can be relayed presently.
“Be grateful. Don’t take nothing for granted. Because it could happen, just like that — it happened to me,” Bristow said.