By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, email@example.com
Don’t ever tell Lucas Grounds he can’t do something. He’ll move heaven and earth to prove you wrong.
That’s evident as the 16-year-old drives up in a massive 1996 Buick Roadmaster station wagon, pulls a wheelchair frame out of the front seat, pops on the wheels, then slowly shifts himself out of the low-riding wagon into the chair. All on his own.
He maneuvers the wheelchair over a rocky driveway, popping a wheelie as he rides toward the garage of a house under construction near his family’s home. This will be his house, all materials and labor donated by friends and family who believe in this young man.
Those wheelies have backfired a couple of times – sending him tumbling backward, but he just chuckles at the memory.
Lucas is not reckless by any means. He is smart, stubborn and determined – traits that have proven invaluable since his life was upended one year ago.
It was Dec. 10, 2020. The seven-time national champion motocross racer had just signed a contract to go pro at 15. He was riding his dirt bike along a rural Indiana bridge when he hit a slick spot, spun out and struck a pole.
The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
FOCUSED ON RECOVERY
One year later, Lucas is tinkering with dirt bikes, sprint cars and remote-control cars in the garage of his family’s rural Martinsville home and planning his next race.
That’s right, Lucas is racing again. This time in a specially adapted sprint car that he operates with hand controls.
He tells his parents that he dealt with the accident that day on the bridge, and he decided in that moment it was not going to define his life.
True to his word, the high school junior has been upbeat and focused ever since – through his long recovery at Riley Hospital for Children, through intense inpatient rehab and through every obstacle in his path.
“Look at him go,” says Justin Grounds, Lucas’ father. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m in awe of him every day.”
Justin and Shanda Grounds were high school sweethearts who grew up racing four-wheelers. Lucas is the eldest of their four kids, and they knew at a young age that he was going to do big things.
He tried out his first dirt bike at the age of 3 and never looked back, Shanda said. As he grew and gained experience as a racer, he also gained a team of sponsors and friends who believed in him and his talent.
That same team, now called Magna1 Motorsports, continues to sponsor him on the sprint car circuit, now that he is back on track and competing again.
How hard was it for his parents to support his decision to get back into racing?
“Justin and I made the decision early on that if he was not going to let this emotionally affect him, we weren’t going to stop him from living his life,” Shanda said. “If we would have let him do it before, we’re going to let him do it now.”
NO TIME FOR TEARS
To hear them tell it, Lucas has not had a bad day since the accident. Shanda still remembers the fears and tears she experienced early in Lucas’ recovery. And she remembers that the therapists and nurses in Riley’s inpatient rehab unit were a lifeline.
“I met those people in what was the worst time of my life. Something a parent never wants to experience, but the entire time we were there, he did not have one bad day. He still hasn’t,” she said. “It blows my mind, but I’m glad for it.”
Lucas was determined from the get-go. He advanced so quickly that his physical and occupational therapists had to constantly come up with new goals for him.
OT Whitney Kozlowski is one of his biggest fans.
“I am so incredibly proud of Lucas’ progress since his discharge, and I must say I’m not surprised at all. His positive attitude, motivation and determination to live each day to the fullest have really set him up for success,” she said.
Their son’s attitude notwithstanding, Shanda and Justin give the compliment right back to the Riley team.
“The care he received in physical therapy and occupational therapy was amazing,” Shanda said, describing the environment as positive and encouraging with an emphasis on building skills.
“They had goals for him that I believed at first were going to be very lofty,” she said.
She soon realized that they were right to push.
“They are there to help you learn your new normal, to help you realize this is not the end of your life, this is something different and new,” she said. “They knew he was going to be driven, and they wanted to push him as far as they could before he came home.”
HE WANTS TO RIDE AGAIN
Justin echoes his wife’s sentiments, describing how Lucas’ therapists were instrumental in getting their son back on the road to recovery.
And now, he said, “Lucas gets around so well. He lives about as normal a life as one could, given his situation. There’s almost nothing he hasn’t been able to do outside of racing the dirt bike.”
And he hasn’t given up on that dream yet.
Someday, he says, he will ride again.
He competed in his first sprint car race over the summer, about five months after he got out of the hospital. He placed third in one race and fourth in another. Not bad, you might think. But Lucas is used to winning.
“I didn’t win, so I wasn’t as happy, but it wasn’t terrible. It was fun,” he said, “something new and exciting to do.”
He is hoping to do better in a race this weekend.
An excellent mechanic and welder, Lucas wants to study engineering at Purdue University. Between school and daily therapy, he stays busy, but he also picks up extra money by working on bikes for his friends and designing racing graphics.
He proudly takes visitors on a tour of the home being built for him, thanks to the generosity of his team, headed by Chris Landers, as well as Sunco Construction and a host of subcontractors and suppliers.
When the home is complete early next year, Lucas and his family will move in, but when he reaches adulthood, it will be his house, Shanda said, and they will move back to their home next door or build another on an adjacent lot.
“It’s awesome that everyone has come together to do this for me,” Lucas said, as he showed where his bedroom and handicapped-accessible bathroom with a large shower will be.
He has been heavily involved in the design of the home, selecting the cabinets, flooring, paint colors, etc. Eventually, a chair lift will be installed so he can access the upstairs, but everything he needs will be on the main level.
“NOTHING HAS SLOWED ME DOWN”
If you ask him how he has stayed so positive, even during the dark days after the accident, he just shrugs.
“I don’t know, I still do everything I used to do,” he said. “Nothing has slowed me down.”
He participated in a wheelchair training program called Skills on Wheels through Riley after he was discharged and plans to return next year as a peer mentor, helping other kids learn to maneuver their chairs over curbs, up ramps and around obstacles. The upbeat attitude the teen shares will be a bonus.
“He has always loved helping people,” his mom said. “If you told him today you wanted to learn how to ride this bike, he’d teach you. When Whitney saw how fast he was progressing in a wheelchair, she looked up advanced skills. She knew it would be a great fit for him to help with Skills on Wheels and to give kids confidence. It’s been awesome to watch.”
Like the proud father he is, Justin can’t help but smile when he talks about his son.
“People in a wheelchair might think they can’t do something, but Lucas thinks, ‘I can probably do that. I might need some help, but I’ll figure it out.’”
That’s what his therapists witnessed as well.
“Lucas continues to inspire me to make the most of each day, just like he does,” Kozlowski said.
Lucas may have been upbeat in the hospital, but Shanda admits to having some low moments. That’s when she would pray the hardest.
“God really provided me with a sense of peace about Lucas, so I don’t get worked up too much.”
She has gained perspective in the past year as well.
“It’s bad luck that he got hurt, but he’s touched so many lives and he’s taking it so well,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe it’s a blessing?”
“A blessing in disguise. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Teen’s spirit unbroken after accident leaves him paralyzed - #Lucas912Strong defines this 15-year-old champion dirt bike racer who is home again after treatment, rehab at Riley.