Lisa Lithgow says her son, Jackie, is a walking, talking miracle.
Jackie Lithgow, who turned 23 on Wednesday — and was greeted warmly in the Flyers' practice-facility locker room by the players who he said inspired his recovery from brain trauma — was attending Bloomsburg University when he was assaulted and critically injured while breaking up a fight on Feb. 23, 2014.
Lithgow, then 19, was punched by a Kutztown football player at an off-campus Bloomsburg fraternity party. His head struck the pavement, and he went into a coma for about a month. He suffered serious brain trauma and underwent six operations.
A diehard Flyers fan, he attended one of their practices that November and was pushed into their Voorhees locker room in a wheelchair, barely able to speak. When Lithgow returned to Magee Hospital that day, his therapist noticed a huge difference and a more positive attitude. About a year later, after a long rehabilitation at Magee, he was able to walk into the locker room with some assistance.
Fast-forward to Wednesday. As the players filtered in from the ice, Lithgow hugged Wayne Simmonds, his favorite player, and walked into the locker room on his own power. Lithgow talked excitedly about being back at Bloomsburg and attending classes, about living in an apartment on his own, and about being reunited with the players who have meant so much to him.
"He looks unbelievable. I had to give him a big hug," Simmonds said. "I didn't recognize him for a second."
"What I like to call myself is a better me," Lithgow said, as his proud parents, Lisa and Jim, who live near Carlisle, stood behind him. "I like to see myself as better than I was before my injury. I've learned so much from my injury. I'm more knowledgeable and a better person."
Simmonds, Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux, and Sean Couturier serenaded him with an off-key but sincere version of "Happy Birthday," as Lithgow was presented with a cake.
About a year ago, Lithgow went back to Bloomsburg and was able to take a class.
Mentally, it was very difficult, he said. "I struggled and I wasn't able to handle the capacity of more than one class. Then after that, I took a summer course, and then I went back and took two classes eventually for two semesters, and now, this is my first time taking three courses."
Lithgow, who is majoring in mass communications, went from locker to locker, talking to several Flyers.
"They were a major factor in my recovery," he said. "My parents could tell you. I wore Flyers [gear] throughout the whole recovery."
He said trainer Jim McCrossin gave him Flyers sneakers soon after he was injured.
"I didn't take them off for a year and a half … except to go to bed," he said with a smile. "Getting the shoes and meeting the players for the first time was obviously an inspiration. The only times I would leave Magee would be either for a surgery … or the [Flyers'] Voorhees practice center. They stood me up, and I watched practice, and we called it therapy, which I guess it was, because I was standing up. But it just gave me inspiration to know that if these guys worked hard to get to where they're going now, what's stopping me to get from working hard to where I want to be?"
Hearing that Lithgow believed the Flyers had steered him toward recovery, Simmonds seemed genuinely humbled.
"It humanizes you," he said. "We play a game we love for a living, and it's not always about hockey. It's about other things outside of hockey, and helping people."
Coach Dave Hakstol added, "To see the spirit and toughness of a guy like Jackie … and what he's gone through, it just speaks to who he is as a person – and his family. His mom and dad and family were with him every step of the way."
Lisa Lithgow said her son is "learning what his new strengths are."
Despite being injured at Bloomsburg, Jackie Lithgow was not reluctant about returning to the school, she said.
"He never felt that way," she said.
Lisa Lithgow said it was difficult when her son first returned to school because she was worried about his balance.
"Even doing stairs when he first went back, he was holding onto the rail, and I was just praying that he wouldn't fall," she said. "And he just continues to get better and better and better."
"He wants to ice skate," said Jackie's father, a special-education teacher, "but he's not allowed to. The doc says, 'Listen, you fall on the ice and you slip backwards … .' Any bang on the head would be catastrophic."
Lisa Lithgow said she found a diagnosis that people with injuries similar to her son's stayed in a vegetative state 90 percent of the time. "We went up and down for nine months," she said, referring to the emotional roller-coaster surrounding each of Jackie's surgeries and other ailments and complications that developed, including battles with meningitis and infection.
Jackie Lithgow beat the odds.