Shane Hmiel makes a miraculous turn

January, 25, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Hmiel was cruising through Atlanta recently when another car sped through a red light and nearly hit him. A bit shaken, he muttered aloud to no one in particular that they'd nearly gotten plowed.

"What's the worst that can happen, Dad," said a chipper voice from the back. "I'd get paralyzed?"

The quip came from Hmiel's son, Shane, who indeed is paralyzed after a brutal crash during USAC qualifying at Terre Haute, Ind., on Oct. 9. Shane was initially given a 10 percent chance to live, Steve said. Doctors told the Hmiel family he would never walk again or breathe on his own. They advised the family to build ramps at their home and secure a permanent place for Shane in a nursing home.

"People pray for miracles," Steve said. "Shane just might be one. He died four times. He wasn't supposed to ever move his fingers again. He wasn't supposed to ever move his arms again. He wasn't ever supposed to move his toes or his feet again. He has done all of those things."

When Steve says Shane died, he is not using figurative speech. He flatlined four times while in intensive care in Indianapolis.

"His mother was standing there when he died one time," Steve said Monday during NASCAR's annual media tour. "That was just horrible. He had a thing called advanced respiratory distress syndrome. One in three people survive that [condition] if they're not injured. One in 10 survives when they're injured as badly as Shane. It was horrible to watch him every day."

Shane doesn't remember the accident -- he only knows what people tell him. He studied the damage to his racing helmet and, without warning, was shown video of the wreck. He wasn't prepared.

"He's amazed by the fact that he's still here," said Steve, the managing director at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. "He looks at that as a blessing and at the same time a great challenge. He thinks God did that for a reason. He overcame a lot prior to this accident in his personal life, and he's proud of himself for that. And he hopes to overcome this, as well, and become an example to people that you can come back from life's setbacks."

If nothing else, Shane Hmiel is resilient. I consider him indomitable.

He was banned from NASCAR for life in 2006 after failing three drug tests. He got clean and humble, and went to work rebuilding his life. He had found a home in USAC and was enjoying a budding television career as a host for the racing program "Three Wide Life."

He was at peace with his mistakes and was making his way. He used the drug setback as a teaching point for others. Then the wreck happened, just as opportunities at higher racing levels began to sprout.

"There was a book someone wrote once, 'At First You Cry …' " Steve said of the toll the accident has taken on the family. "My wife has not been home since the accident. She's a really good, strong woman, stronger than I am. And Shane is just like her. Very strong. So strong."

Part of Shane's strength, Steve said, comes from the outpouring from the racing community and its staunchly loyal fan base. More than 25,000 people follow his recovery on the Shane Hmiel Road to Recovery Facebook page. He has received more than 4,500 get-well cards and more calls than he can count.

I have called him many times. His voice mail is always full.

For now, the Hmiels are in wait-and-see mode. Shane spends eight hours daily in exhausting rehab at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, "working very hard and doing a nice job," Steve said.

Shane didn't sever his spinal cord in the accident, but rather bruised it. That is good, because there is hope for recovery. But it also prompts limitless unknowns.

"If you break your spinal cord, below that area is not going to work. It's just not," Steve said. "He didn't break his spinal cord. So it's like, 'How's this going to work out?' In some ways it's harder, because you don't know what to expect.

"If you're paralyzed, you know, OK, I have to learn to get around and have to work hard to return and become a productive member of society. With Shane it's like, 'How far is this going to go?'"

Doctors have no way to predict that, Steve said. But little by little, Shane gives them reason to hope. He has passed all cognitive tests for brain function. Now it's about getting his muscles to fire. He first moved a finger. Then three fingers. Then a hand. Then an arm.

"It's amazing," Steve said. "But you always wonder, is this going to work tomorrow? Will he be as good as he was when he went to sleep? You have to wonder."

Sometimes, Steve struggles to cope with his son's plight -- a father weeping for his son -- and Shane will ease over with words of encouragement.

"He's like, 'Look man, I'm fine with it, I've raced my whole life. I did everything I wanted to do. I raced against your cars. I won the Hoosier Hundred. I'll still be involved in racing even if I'm in a wheelchair. I'm fine with it,'" Steve said. "He's disarmingly straight up sometimes."


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