Ed Apple remembers the phone call. Of course he remembers the phone call. How could he ever forget?
Ed and Margaret Apple were watching the first Republican debate, way back on Aug. 6, 2015, waiting for their son Edward to come home from an afternoon of fishing in Arkansas.
Ed Apple’s cellphone rang.
“There’s been a wreck,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.
Just like that, everything changed.
Edward Apple would never send out the tennis recruiting video he had put together that very day.
He would not spend the next year with his fellow seniors at Memphis University School.
He would not speak for weeks or walk on his own for months.
For the longest time, it wasn’t certain whether Apple would regain consciousness, or whether he would ever be able to feed and dress himself, or whether he would ever live outside a skilled nursing home.
The Apples got in their car and drove down to Regional One Health and waited for their son to arrive by ambulance. He had a broken collarbone, a fractured cheekbone, a collapsed lung and severe brain injuries.
He was unresponsive. He would remain unresponsive for days that stretched into weeks.
“There were a lot of tubes, a lot of blood; it was hard to recognize him,” Ed Apple said. “I fell to my knees and said, ‘Lord, I want my son. I don’t care what it takes, what condition he is in, or what it requires for the rest of my life or his life. I just want my son.’”
On a sunny day in April, at the MUS tennis center, Edward Apple played a tennis match.
It was doubles, because Apple can’t move like he once could. But it was a real, live, high school tennis match.
“A miracle” is how MUS coach Bill Taylor described it, and it certainly was that. But it was only the latest in a series of miracles, or — depending on how you feel about miracles — in a series of small, human triumphs that remind us of the power of medicine, and community, and church, and hope and unyielding will.
“I would not wish this experience on anybody,” Ed Apple said. “But I also can’t tell you how something so bad has led to so much that is so good.”
And it all began with a fishing trip, or a lobbying effort that preceded a fishing trip, mustered by the Apples’ teenage son.
Edward Apple — a robust, funny and gifted tennis player at MUS — was supposed to be finishing up his summer reading, but he lobbied for permission to go fishing instead. The Apples relented. Edward and a buddy headed for Arkansas. They were on their way home, driving along the Mississippi River levee, when the buddy lost control of his truck.
“I flew out of the windshield,” said Edward Apple, although he doesn’t remember any of it.
The buddy called 911, frantic and disoriented. If it hadn’t been for a flight nurse who took the call, and who had fished in that area herself as a kid, it might have been hours before the boys were even found.
So that is what Ed Apple counts as the first miracle, but if you try to keep up with all of them, you’re going to run out of fingers and toes.
Early on, Ed asked a doctor about his son’s prognosis.
“He’ll need skilled care the rest of his life,” the doctor said.
Said Ed: “I really wanted to punch that guy.”
But that’s the thing about brain injuries. You just never know. Or, as Margaret Apple has learned, “If you’ve seen 100 brain injuries, you’ve seen one.”
He was still unresponsive. He had to be restrained so he wouldn’t pull out his feeding tube.
“We had to pull his hair, pull his leg, pinch his ears to try and get him to say ‘Stop,’” Ed Apple said. “I would physically abuse him to try and get any kind of response. Margaret had to leave the room.”
This went on for weeks. Then, one day, Ed was pushing his son in a wheelchair. He had music playing, the way he always did.
“We were in front of a window, and ‘Free Bird’ was playing,” Ed said. “It was one of his favorite songs. And it was at that moment, when the music really gets wound up, he just started crying. He was feeling it. He was really feeling it. It was like he was fighting to get out of the hole.”
That fight does not look like it does in the movies. Patients don’t just open their eyes and wake up from a coma.
“It’s a scale from 1-15,” Margaret said. “He came into (Regional One) a two, which is ‘You’re out.’ It took him a long time to get to three. Four is a combative stage. He spent about a week doing that. But the challenge with all of it is that you don’t know if your loved one is going to ever get to the next stage. They could just stop and be combative and angry the rest of their lives, or non-verbal the rest of their lives, or not walking. You just don’t know.”
Edward kept making slow progress, even as he suffered physical setbacks. He had infections, and kidney issues, and pneumonia. He appeared to be in pain all the time, but didn’t have the words to explain what was wrong. He slept with a plastic tub because he threw up so much. The doctors diagnosed him with Crohn’s disease after he lost 65 pounds.
“Each minute seemed like an eternity,” Ed said. “Every second felt like an hour.”
But there were glorious moments, like the day in late October when Edward’s sister, Lizzie, came to visit from college.
“So happy, so happy, so happy,” Edward said, when Lizzie walked into the room.
It was another breakthrough. About then, Edward started to smile.
And this might be the time to tell you about the people who were supporting the Apples through all of this, who were helping them keep the faith and endure. All the people at MUS. All the people at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. All the people at Regional One, and at the Shepherd Center, and all the friends and teachers and coaches back in Memphis.
“Before all this, when someone would say, ‘I could really feel when people were praying for me, or thinking about me,’ I never thought much of that,” Margaret said. “But it is such a true, tangible feeling that people CARE. It’s just overwhelming. It really, really is.”
Which is not to say that the Apples depended on prayer alone. They threw themselves into the fray.
“We’re jump-in-the-deep-end kind of people,” Ed said. “We took him to church before he was ready to go to church. There’s a little church in downtown Atlanta, and we’d walk him up the stairs, and people were whispering, ‘He shouldn’t be here,’ or, ‘He should be in a wheelchair,’ but I was like, ‘We’re not spending our lives in a wheelchair. We’re getting out of that.’”
Finally, in November of 2015, the Apples were allowed to take Edward for a visit back to Memphis. They stopped at Dreamland BBQ in Birmingham on the way, where they wheeled Edward in for a meal.
“Three guys came up to us and asked if they could pray for our son,” Ed said. “One guy was all tatted up. He had a rainbow and flames on his arm. He asked if they could pray for Edward and of course I said they could. I swear, he started praying for specific things, as if he had Edward’s medical chart in front of him. Then they asked if they could walk with Edward. He wasn’t walking unassisted at the time. But they walked him around the restaurant, and prayed with him, and we got home, and a day later, Edward walked out to the car by himself to sit with his friends.”
Ed Apple counts that as another of the miracles, by the way. I told you that you might lose count.
Gratitude, not regret
At one point, Edward was the No. 6 tennis player in his age group in the South. He was a big, physical kid, with a temper and a forehand and a future as a college scholarship athlete.
The day of the accident, Edward and his father put the finishing touches on a highlight video they planned to send to Clemson, Ole Miss, Wake Forest, Arkansas and Washington & Lee.
They never sent that video. But they have a more meaningful one instead. It is from Jan. 10, 2016, shot at Eldon Roark Tennis Center. Edward is hitting balls with Keith Evans, one of his coaches.
Edward is not running or anything. He is wearing a gait belt so he does not fall down. But he is hitting tennis balls. Five months after the accident, and three months after emerging from a coma, Edward is actually hitting tennis balls.
“From that point forward, he’s made amazing progress,” Ed said. “He audited a class at MUS that semester. He started to drive again last summer. He went back to school for his senior year in August. He’s put in a lot of hard miles. Speech therapy. Physical therapy at Momentum Rehab. Edward has never said a cross word, he has never complained and, even now, he’s so comfortable with who he is and what he’s become. He doesn’t have any hard feelings or regrets.”
In the end, that’s what the April tennis match was about. Edward isn’t close to the player he once was. But it just felt right to play a high school match once again. He worked with Evans and another coach, Tom Stem, to get some timing back. Then he and a teammate, Frederick Danielson, went out and beat a doubles team from Christian Brothers High School.
“We talked about getting him one more match,” said Taylor, the MUS coach. “This way, he could go out on his own terms.”
Ed and Margaret were both there, watching the match unfold. But they were more relaxed than they would have been before the accident. They had spent weeks wondering if their son would ever emerge from a coma. That put a tennis match in its proper place.
The Apples are grateful beyond words for the support they have received. That’s why they agreed to do this piece. But the way they each processed the accident is somewhat different, and the way they make sense of the recovery is, too.
Ed Apple believes in miracles.
“It’s providence,” he said. “All the different parts and all the roles that people played in his recovery, I don’t know how else to explain any of it.”
Margaret Apple is more reluctant to label anything a miracle, if only because of what that means for other patients they met.
“We saw so many people at the Shepherd Center whose lives were changed forever, who did not have an outcome like we had,” she said. “God did not do that to them. I don’t know how to explain it, but I have a hard time not giving other people that same grace.”
The Apples are closer, as a couple and a family, since the accident. Edward has his first job — clearing tables at Brother Juniper’s — and will be headed to Ole Miss in the fall. He runs a little slower than he did before the accident. He speaks a little slower, too. But he is also wiser, and more thoughtful, and more grateful for what he has.
Indeed, since the accident, Edward has been known to send random texts to his mother, saying, simply, “I love my life.”
”He didn’t do that before,” Margaret said. “It’s not because he didn’t love his life. I think he just didn’t know.”