Overcoming the odds

Once paralyzed, Parkwood senior walks at graduation

by Eren Tataragasi

Zack Martin, now 18, was paralyzed when he was just 4 years old following a head-on collision. On June 9, after 14 years of rehab, he was able to walk across the stage during his graduation from Parkwood High School to receive his diploma. Photo courtesy of Chuck Eaton Photographers

WAXHAW — When Zack Martin was 4 years old he was in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

But after years of intense rehabilitation, with the help of a walker, Zack made it across the stage to receive his diploma as he graduated with the rest of the 2012 Parkwood High School graduating class on June 9.

“Watching him walk across that stage I can’t even put it into words,” said his mom Joanne Martin. “It was just electric in that room that afternoon.”

On Oct. 7, 1998, while Joanne Martin was home, her husband and three sons were on their way to Wednesday night church when another car hit them head-on.

“The sheriff’s deputy said there were no skid marks at the scene, they hit full impact,” Joanne Martin said.

While she didn’t see the wreck, the deputies and doctors at the hospital were able to paint a pretty vivid picture for her after the incident.

“Zach’s head, the seatbelt kept him on the seat, but his head was going forward like it was trying to fly off his body,” she explained. “He had a C1 complete spinal cord injury, which means it’s as high up as it can be and as bad as it can be.”

He was paralyzed from the neck down and just three weeks away from his fifth birthday.

His father, Phil, who had been driving, had a severe gash to his right knee and a sprain to the right ankle.

Ryan, the Martin’s oldest son, was 12 at the time and sitting in the front passenger seat. He suffered two broken ankles, a broken hip and pelvis, a fractured wrist and a bruised knee.

Kyle, who was in the back seat with Zack, had his seatbelt off, but still wrapped around him, and he went underneath Ryan’s seat in the front.

“The deputy said the first time they checked the van they didn’t even see him,” Joanne Martin recalled.

Kyle suffered two broken legs, a lacerated liver, broken ribs and blood at the base of his frame.

Everyone has since recovered fully, except for Zack who still has years of rehab to undergo.

For Joanne Martin, having her entire family injured was her worst nightmare.

“At times it’s been hell on earth,” she said. “It was like the world that I knew before that day fell away. Everything changed in a split second and it was … I think I was just crushed. My heart was just crushed because the dreams that I had for Zack, at that point, looked like they would never come true. That even if he lived through it, we didn’t know what kind of life he’d have, but we’re so thankful he’s here.”

She said through it all, 14 years of physical therapy, Zack has been the epitome of strength and of making the best of a lousy break.

“It’s hard to sum up 14 years of work. He’s just worked incredibly hard and never given up,” Joanne Martin said.

She said his left side now is fully functional, but he still has some difficulties on his right side.

“But he, the way we’ve looked at is God gave him the gift of movement and just like when anyone else gives you a gift, you can unwrap it, enjoy it and use it, or say, ‘I don’t like it’ and throw it away, and he’s taken that gift God has given him and he’s used it to the max,” Joanne Martin said. “He is progressively being healed and it’s a long haul, but it’s been worth it. He looks at it that you can sit around and not do therapy or do it and see how far you can get.”

And his hard work has gotten him through perhaps the toughest years in anyone’s life — high school — and ready to head off to Central Piedmont Community College in the fall.

“It’s been difficult, but that’s what life is,” Zack said. “You take the good with the bad and you keep going. You don’t sit there and whine about it. You just keep going and learn to deal with it.”

Zack said walking across that stage June 9 was an experience he’ll always remember.

“But it’s funny, I wasn’t thinking about it when it was happening so much, I was just thinking about getting across the stage so the person behind me could go,” he said.

Because of his experiences with recovery, Zack has served as spokesperson for numerous organizations and done dozens of interviews with press and TV stations. All of that media exposure has led Zack to pursue public relations when he attends CPCC.

“I did a little research on it and it seems a good fit for what I like to do,” Zack said.

And while he’s moving onto the next chapter of his life and entering adulthood, Zack knows he’s got an uphill road ahead.

“It’s been a long road up to this point and I have my whole life ahead of me, but it’ll be a little more difficult, but it’s always been a little more difficult for me,” Zack said.

But for now, he’s looking forward to enjoying the summer, spending time relaxing before hitting the books again.

“I’m trying not to think about (college) too hard,” he said.

Zack said his mother is working on a book about the family’s experience and he’s looking forward to reading it once it’s finished and gaining a little more insight into how his mom held it together all these years.

“It’s been quite remarkable,” he said. “I can’t really understand everything she had to go through, considering I’m not a parent yet, but she stood by us through thick and thin and pushed us when we needed a push and helped us get through times when we just needed to kind of relax and let things heal a little bit.”

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