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‘We have seen miracles happen’

After crash that paralyzed 17-year-old Nate Clifton, his family expresses hope

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CLAYTON — His doctors at WakeMed think 17-year-old Nate Clifton will never walk again.

His family thinks otherwise.

“We do not believe that,” says his big sister, Samantha Clifton. “We have seen multiple miracles happen.”

“Nate is strong,” she added. “He has been fighting hard. He sat himself up on the side of the bed the other day.”

His doctors concede that her brother is exceeding expectations, Clifton said in an interview on Jan. 9. “They said they had never seen this much progress in a 17-year-old” in such a short time, she said.

On the night of Jan. 2, Nate was heading home — the family lives near Percy Flowers Store — when his 2002 Chevrolet Tahoe ran off the side of Pittman Road, not far from Micro.

Her brother recalls little about the accident, Clifton said. “He thought maybe he fell asleep,” she said. “He doesn’t really know anything. We had to tell him a lot of what happened. He didn’t even know where he had wrecked. He didn’t even know how bad his (SUV) was.”

When Nate ran off the side of the road, he over-corrected, his sister said. “He hit an embankment after he over-corrected, and we believe that the vehicle flipped,” she said.

“It happened in a neighbor’s yard,” Clifton added, “so luckily, he wasn’t there for long by himself. Once they realized that there was an accident, they immediately went outside. They called 911.”

When paramedics arrived, they found Nate partially out of his SUV, and the state trooper, on his report, noted that the teen was likely not wearing his seatbelt. His sister is pretty sure he was.

“They said that he did have his seatbelt on,” Clifton said, referring to the paramedics. “What happened was he unbuckled his seatbelt to try to get himself out, because he was in shock. And that’s why they found him partially ejected out of his vehicle, because he tried to crawl out.”

When her parents arrived at WakeMed, they quickly realized their son’s injuries were serious, Clifton said. “They got greeted at the emergency room doors,” she said. “They immediately knew that this wasn’t a slight accident, that it was something major.”

The injury report was devastating, Clifton said. “He broke his vertebrae, which makes him paralyzed from the chest down,” she said. “He does have full function of his hands and arms and his neck. Other than that, he cannot feel, or his brain cannot coordinate with anything else.”

Surgeons had done what they could, Clifton said. “He had a spinal cord reconstruction,” she said.

“Basically, his spine had shifted over to here,” Clifton said, stacking one fist on top of the other and then moving her top fist to the side. “They moved it back into place for him.”

Though the prognosis is bleak, her brother is making progress, Clifton said. “As of right now, he is a floor patient, not in an ICU anymore,” she said. “He had a ventilator, a breathing tube. He got that pulled out on Sunday.”

Clifton said the accident and the prognosis had changed her brother and his outlook on life. “He doesn’t take anything for granted, and he will tell you he loves you a hundred times now to make sure you know it,” she said. “He’s so humble. It’s unbelievable.”

“I wish I could take his pain away; I wish I could help,” Clifton added. “But I’m trying to be strong, because that’s what he needs; he needs a strong environment of positive people.”

Clifton said her parents, Leon and Susan Clifton, were holding up as best they could. “They’re strong as well, but they have moments where they break down because they don’t want to see their 17-year-old son in this situation,” she said. “But regardless of how the outcome is, they’re going to support him and be there no matter what.”

Clifton thanked her parents’ employers for their support. Susan Clifton is a supervisor with Special Effects Flooring in Clayton. “They told her that she needed to take as much personal time as she could with Nate and be there as much as she could and that when she was ready, she could come back,” Clifton said.

Her father installs fireplaces for a company based in Raleigh. “My dad’s work has kind of been the same, very flexible and very helpful with this situation,” Clifton said.

Since the accident, Clifton figures her brother has had some 200 visitors. “There have been some people that we’ve seen that we don’t even know, but they wanted to reach out and be there and show support for him,” she said.

Most visitors have been family friends, classmates, fellow players on Nate’s football and baseball teams, coaches, “a lot of people that are really close to him,” Clifton said.

At North Johnston High School, where Nate is a junior, students gathered Jan. 6 on the baseball field to pray for her brother, Clifton said.

The school, she said, has been phenomenal. “They sent a giant gift basket for my brother with all of his favorites snacks in there,” Clifton said. “They’re getting his school work ready to send to rehab so he can finish high school like a normal student would be able to.”

In the third row of the parking lot at North Johnston, students have decorated Nate’s parking spot and reserved it for his return, Clifton said. “His number on the baseball team is 12, and they have left his jersey open for him and won’t give it to anybody else,” she said.

The community, she added, has been equally supportive, launching a number of fundraisers to help the family with medical bills. Details of those fundraisers are available on #prayersfornate, a Facebook page that Clifton created to chronicle her brother’s journey.

“I guess I just want this to be a learning experience for the community — that life is short and never take it for granted,” Clifton said. “Luckily, we’re able to have him here with us today, but some families may not be that lucky.”

“It’s sad, and I hope it never happens to anybody,” she added. “But it does happen, so I just want everybody to say, ‘Hey, let me stop, let me look and let me take God in, let me travel with him, let him keep me safe.’ Just keep your eyes open. There are so many things that could happen that we never even think about.”