New plan for life

Senior recovers after serious injury alters his dreams

Editor’s note: this story won Best News Feature and Overall Best Writer from The Dallas Morning News (2019). 

Inside an ambulance, Eric Epperson’s body tensed as he stood looking over his son. Senior Nick Epperson lay on the small bed, his body seizing uncontrollably. His father watched, helpless. As a retired Marine, this was not his first time in the back of an ambulance, however, this time it was his son.

“I’ve seen people die. I know what it looks like,” Eric said. “I felt like I was watching Nick die.”

Once they arrived at the hospital, the doctors took Nick to the ER, and his family stood in a nearby waiting area for what seemed like an eternity.

“I was terrified they were going to come back and say that he’s dead and there is nothing they can do,”  Eric said

• • •

A few hours earlier, Nick stood overlooking the grounds of the Fort Travis Military Bunker in Galveston with his close friend Hayden Grant. On a previous trip, his dad visited the abandoned bunker and wanted to share the experience with his son. A love for the military was something they shared, and since he was 5, Nick had been planning on following his dad’s footsteps and becoming a Marine. The day of the accident, he was only three days away from going to the Military Entrance Process Station.

While exploring the bunker, Nick and Grant couldn’t help venturing to the roof. When Nick took a moment to tie his shoe, his feet slipped out from under him causing him to fall 30 feet. He landed on his side and his head hit the concrete. Grant was on the other side of a fence, his friend lying unconscious and unreachable.

As a couple was passing by, Grant threw his phone to them. When he was scaling the fence, he instructed the couple to dial 911 and call Nick’s dad. Eric almost didn’t answer the call, but something told him to pick up.

“Eric.. your son fell off of one of the bunkers… he’s hurt… you need to come back now.”

When the ambulance arrived at the bunker, Eric wasn’t far behind. The paramedics had to cut through the same fence that Grant climbed to reach Nick.

• • •

Nick’s fall left him with bruised lungs, a broken back and a brain injury so serious he was in a coma. Days after his fall, visitors started piling in. His grandparents came to see him and help take care of his younger siblings. A couple of friends made the drive, as well as wrestling coach Justin Peña.

All Peña could think when he heard about the accident was, “Why is this happening to him?” Peña quickly asked the booster club to put together a gift basket for Nick and his family and drove to visit him in Galveston.

When Peña visited, Nick was beginning to come out of the coma. He was still not speaking, but he was able to open his eyes. When Peña walked into Nick’s hospital room he saw him hooked up to many machines and wrapped in bandages. But as soon as Nick’s eyes landed on Peña, his face lit up. Realizing that Nick recognized him meant a lot to Peña.

“I had an impact on this kid’s life and that’s what I try and do,” Pena said. “I was like ‘Wow I bring a positive light into his life,’ that’s important to me.”

• • •

Eric was by Nick’s side talking to his son. While Nick wasn’t able to say anything back quite yet, he was awake.

Nick’s hand began reaching towards his dad. Eric’s eyes widened and a smile grew on his face as he leaned into his son’s arms, hugging him for the first time after the accident. After a week of uncertainty, Nick finally reached out for his dad.

Upon waking up completely, Nick found his muscles were weak and he had lost weight. Gaining back his strength was going to be a process. Nick’s time on the wrestling team made it difficult to take things slow. He wanted to get stronger quickly. The exercises they started him off with were simple, such as using his arms to sit up.

After the neurologist met with Nick to determine his plan for the next year, he was given big news. The Marines don’t take cadets that have suffered brain injuries, so Nick’s lifelong dreams were altered in that moment.

• • •

While watching “Supernatural” on his dad’s phone, Nick sat in the back of an ambulance on his way to the iCare Rehabilitation Hospital in Flower Mound where Nick would begin his recovery. But he had no idea there was a crowd waiting for him. People surrounded the back of the ambulance holding balloons and welcome home signs.

“There were so many people. It was crazy,” Nick said. “It made me feel so loved.”

Despite the rainy forecast, upon Nick’s arrival, his dad saw the clouds clear and a rainbow emerge. Not only did the community welcome him home, but multiple fundraisers have supported the Epperson family.

The wrestling team sold bracelets and t-shirts around school with the phrases “fight Nick fight” with “team Nick.” and held a Pack the House donation night at Chick-fil-a. Peña thinks that the more people who show their support, the more Nick will thrive.

In his room at the rehabilitation center, the walls were covered in different signs from people in his life, including some of the wrestlers.

“They all come to see me, it’s been awesome,” Nick said. “They’ve been supportive in every way.”

When Nick heard the recovery could take as long as a year, he was determined to prove them wrong. Even during the beginning stages of recovery, he was ready to be independent. Nick was meant to be in a wheelchair for a week and then use a walker for an additional week, however, after only three days he insisted on walking on his own. While in the rehabilitation hospital Nick was missing an important member of his family. His dog, Phineas, was not able to visit, so Nick waited impatiently for their reunion.

On Oct. 12, Nick was able to go home. He was beyond excited to get out of the “prison” as he calls it.

Even though he was fond of his physical therapist he was eager to sleep in his bed for the first time in months. He said that his dog missed him very much and the feeling was mutual.

“It was amazing. I was just so ready to go home and get back to my normal life,” Nick said. “It was a relief. This is the start, I get to come home, and now I got to get back on track. Where things were before.”

Nick is eager to get back to school. His teachers are sending him coursework, so he can continue his senior year. He has high hopes of returning early in the spring semester, but that is up to the doctor.

“I believe in reason, and this happened for a reason. He’ll find that out later on,” Peña said. “Maybe he’ll be able to help someone else through a hard time. This will make him stronger.”

After graduation Nick plans to attend college. He’s not quite sure which one or what for, but he knows that he isn’t going to mull over his losses. He lost his dream of following in his dad’s footsteps, but he believes that this was God’s plan for him.

His goal of helping others was not taken from him, the accident just redirected him. He now is an aspiring firefighter. Nick looks towards the future and doesn’t think that it is worth worrying about the past.

“It was a lot to take in. I still want to help people,” Nick said.