When Sam Bellett woke up that dark summer morning, his future couldn’t have been much brighter.
He had just turned 16 and was a week away from starting his junior year in a rigorous academic program at Mandarin High School. He had recently earned a spot on the cross-country team and was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Boy Scouts.
At about 6:15 a.m. Aug. 18, 2011, it all came to an abrupt halt.
Sam was struck by an SUV as he rode his bicycle to cross-country practice. His family was told his injuries were life-threatening. He’d been rushed to TraumaOne at Shands Jacksonville Medical Center.
He would spend about three weeks at Shands Jacksonville and another few months in and out of rehabilitation. And Sam would miss that entire first half of his junior year at school.
The worst of Sam’s physical wounds would mostly heal, but he was warned things would be different.
A young man who didn’t settle for anything was facing a future where he’d be forced to settle for less than his original dreams.
But Sam had different plans.
Sam wasn’t the most athletic person in his family, but he enjoyed spending time outdoors—camping, kayaking and rock climbing. By most accounts though, Sam was an academic, a bookworm. He breezed through mysteries, fantasies and other novels at an early age. He volunteered at the local library. And he was a natural with numbers and science.
Still, there was something about cross-country. During his sophomore year in high school, Sam told his parents he wanted to try out for the team. Jim Schmitt, head cross-country coach at Mandarin High, wasn’t confident Sam would take to the sport easily. Usually, runners started at a young age. But Sam was determined, and Schmitt agreed.
“I was impressed with his willingness to keep coming back out at first, and then he started developing,” Schmitt said.
Sam was so happy that it didn’t bother him to get up early during the end of his summer break to practice with his team. That’s where he was heading that August morning, a week before classes were set to begin. He was struck as he was starting to ride his bicycle across Greenland Road in front of the school.
“I went running out to the light at the front of the school,” Schmitt said. “Sam was lying in the street. His bicycle was crushed. It was a very frightening moment to see someone like that.”
The knock on his mother’s door followed a short time later. Maisie Bellett was home that morning with Sam’s three younger brothers and her 2-week-old daughter.
Maisie and Richard Bellett and other family members rushed to Sam’s side. His parents saw scrapes covering his face, a brace on his neck and tubes helping their son breathe, keeping him alive.
“We sort of broke down at that moment, because you don’t know what to do—you see your child lifeless,” Maisie Bellett said.
They were told Sam had suffered a severe brain injury, his skull was fractured, his left leg was broken and he had numerous internal injuries.
“The instant the brain is injured, the injury starts a whole cascade of other things,” said Joseph J. Tepas III, MD, a University of Florida professor and chief of pediatric surgery at Shands Jacksonville. “Our job is to minimize the likelihood that that cascade will go out of control.”
Because Jacksonville Fire and Rescue personnel quickly recognized the severity of Sam’s head injury and got him to TraumaOne, the region’s only adult and pediatric Level I trauma center, his prognosis looked good. Still, his body needed time to heal.
Sam was put into a medically induced coma. His parents and grandparents took turns by his side while his friends, his coach and the principal all came to the hospital to visit. Sam’s family constantly told Sam he would be just fine, and physicians and nurses gave the same reassurance to the family.
After spending time at Shands Jacksonville and Brooks Rehabilitation, he began what would be months of rehabilitation at home. Meanwhile, the start of Sam’s junior year had come and gone. Classes he would need to graduate were well under way. They weren’t easy classes to begin with, so they certainly wouldn’t be easy to make up.
Sam had been in standard classes in middle school and the start of high school. Near the end of his freshmen year at Mandarin, he told school counselor Peggy Adams he wanted to enroll in the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) program.
It was the most rigorous academic program Mandarin offered. Adams didn’t encourage Sam to enroll. She didn’t think he was ready. He hadn’t even taken the honors classes most of his peers in the program had already finished and now he wanted to take college-level classes. But Sam kept making the request, so eventually Adams relented and he started his first AICE class.
Then there was the accident. And the brain injury.
“There was an unknown with what his mental ability would be, whether he would be able to handle the rigors of this course,” Adams said.
Sam was devastated when he was told he would be returning to standard classes instead of AICE courses.
“I worked so hard to be able to go into it and do it, I just wanted to get back to it,” Sam said.
So while he learned to walk again, while his fractured skull healed and while the swelling in his head subsided, Sam enrolled in virtual classes from home. He even attended homecoming that fall with his girlfriend and other friends.
By the time classes started again at the end of January 2012, Sam was back at Mandarin and back in his AICE classes. He’s set to graduate from Mandarin with his AICE degree in June 2013.
“I knew I learned my lesson: you can’t tell the young man no,” Adams said.
Though Sam is doing well in his classes, studying doesn’t come as easily to him now. And physically, he is still healing. He runs some, but his leg hurts when he runs too much. He’s ridden his bike, but he tires if he’s on it too long. Still, he goofs around with his brothers, plays with his little sister and jokes with his friends at school.
Sam still plans to become an Eagle Scout, though he must first complete a community service project before he turns 18 this summer. Then he will enroll at The Ohio State University, where he plans to study science.
Sam was accepted to the university in January, not that he had any doubt he’d get in. He has shown he has the will to make his dreams come true.
“The name of the game right now is determination, and Sam’s got determination,” Tepas said. “Sam will succeed.”