Family and friends join forces to help St. George’s LDS missionary recover from a traumatic brain injury

St George • As a former running back, Creed Leonard was used to fighting for an extra foot or yard, but a different yardstick is now used to measure his forward drive.

Leonard’s progress is now often just a matter of centimeters or millimeters. He may nod his head, give an OK sign, or say a simple “Amen” while praying with his mother.

By any measure it has been a difficult struggle for him and his family ever since the 20-year-old missionary from St. George and his companion were hit by a car on November 30 while serving a Spanish-speaking mission in Boston for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.

Chad Waggoner, Creed’s stepfather, said the accident happened on a rainy evening when his son and fellow missionary were hit by a car at a crosswalk while they were on their way to meet someone who was driving them to a class wanted.

Creed’s companion sustained multiple fractures, including a fractured pelvis and knee. After the surgery in Boston, Waggoner said he is now home and recovering in Tucson, Arizona. However, his son’s injuries were much more serious and he has been hospitalized ever since.

Like the investigation into the accident, which Waggoner said is ongoing more than three months later, Creed’s prognosis is uncertain. Doctors had to remove part of the left side of his skull to treat his hydrocephalus and insert a shunt to drain the fluid from his brain. He’s learning to walk and talk again, and the right side of his body is barely functioning.

Marla Leonard-Waggoner, Creed’s mother, was recovering from knee surgery at home on December 1 when she received a call at 1 am from the mission president telling her that her son had been in a terrible accident. Creed’s family took a flight to Boston that same day to be by his side at Massachusetts General Hospital.

For her part, Marla is no stranger to grief. Her first husband Jason, Creed’s father, died at the age of 32 from an asthma attack when Creed was 3 years old. Two years ago she lost her mother.

“On the plane, I kept thinking Creed needs angels in my mom and his dad,” Marla recalls. “I had faith that they were with my son and helping to protect him. I kept thinking if they could just keep him alive until I got there that somehow my presence would make a difference in how much he held on.

(Chad Waggoner) Creed Leonard, right, poses for a photo with his stepfather, Chad Waggoner.

A fighting chance

Chad and Marla, who met and married 15 years ago, say they want to do whatever it takes to give Creed a chance to recover from his injuries. By all accounts, Creed has a strong personality and gives his best in every task he takes on. For example, when Creed was in fifth grade, Chad said he got up at 5:30 every morning to do planks and push-ups to get in shape.

When the church severed its ties with the Boy Scouts of America, his parents said that Creed went on, pressure cleaning and repainting all the shelters in a little league baseball diamond, to earn his Eagle Scout Award. He was also a top student, averaging nearly 4.0 in high school, and mentored students with special needs.

Recalling Creed’s involvement in football, Marla says he studied film, attended every practice and did additional workouts on his own. On one occasion, his mother said, he came home frustrated because he couldn’t bench press as many as he’d seen college stars at the NFL Combine.

“He was so hard on himself,” she said.

As a running back his senior year at Crimson Cliffs High School, Creed ran for 704 yards and seven touchdowns, and he dreamed of joining the Brigham Young University football team as a walk-on after his mission.

If they can help their son grow healthy enough to channel the determination he has shown in football and school, his parents believe Creed’s willpower and unwavering belief in God will help him in his struggle for healing and recovery will help.

Nevertheless, the first diagnosis was not good. Chad spent much of the first month at Massachusetts General in a coma and on the hospital’s intensive care unit on life support. He didn’t move, didn’t speak, and just stared blankly ahead.

The neurologist told them there were three phases in Creed’s treatment: first, saving his life; second, to make it stable; and third, entry into rehabilitation.

“He told us, ‘I really don’t know what to expect in phase two because most people with injuries like Creed’s don’t survive phase one,'” Chad said.

In order to give her son the best possible chance, Marla spends every day from 11 am to 8 pm with him

She rents a nearby apartment in Boston where she currently resides with her daughter Sway and son Cross. Sway takes a break from her studies at Utah Tech University to help out. Cross, a junior at Crimson Cliffs, finishes the school year online. As an optometrist in St. George, Chad flies out once or twice a month to meet up with Marla, Creed and the rest of the family.

Wonderful moments, frequent setbacks

Under the care of the neurologists and nurses at Mass General and the loving support of his family, Creed has progressed in spurts. Marla recalled the first “miracle moment” sometime in January, when she told Creed to look at her, and he rolled one of his eyes toward her.

“That might not sound like a big deal, but it was the first time he moved his eyes to look at me,” said Marla, writing about it in her journal.

Shortly thereafter, Creed asked how he was, raised his left hand and made the OK gesture, and was later able to do the thumbs-up gesture. Afterwards, her son said the word “Amen” at the end of their nightly prayer together.

On Valentine’s Day, Creed reached another milestone by saying the prayer alone. His only mistake, his mother said, was when he mistook the holiday for his birthday, since he’d received a gift that day. He also began reading parts of Dr. Reading aloud to Seuss and Berenstein Bear, even though the effort was exhausting. And he smiled when Marla wrote the word “smile” on a bulletin board.

Despite such moments, Creed has experienced some setbacks. He has had numerous surgeries due to recurring problems with his shunt and fluid buildup in his brain. For example, after weeks in the hospital, he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility where he learned to walk with help and made great strides until he started failing and was taken back to the hospital for another shunt operation.

Creed suffered a seizure last week and has since stopped speaking and reading.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Marla said. “He reads and talks and then something happens and you’re afraid of it [a seizure] will happen again.”

The good news, shared by Marla’s older sister Jenny Moody on the Messages for Creed Facebook page she manages, is that her nephew is back in rehab. Assisted by two therapists, she wrote, Creed was recently walking down the hall and he’s gaining some movement on his right side.

Moody, who lives in Lubbock, Texas, posts the daily outpourings of love and support the family receives on the website and sends the most inspirational messages to Marla. One of these was a video provided to Creed of an LDS elementary school class of young children singing “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree.” She also shared videos of her granddaughter Eowyn with her nephew.

“What’s so touching about it is that Creed has always loved little children,” Moody said.

Others have also boosted the mood of the family. Melanie Barrick has loaned Cross a computer for his online classes, and she employs Sway part-time at her Sweet Stuff Bake Shop in suburban Boston. One of her friends has also started a GoFundMe page to help the family pay for future expenses related to Creed’s long-term rehabilitation and medical care.

Chad and Marla feel a bit uncomfortable about getting help, but realize there will likely be many unforeseen expenses that insurance won’t cover. They also fear people will look to the side and wrongly conclude the church is doing nothing, saying church leaders have helped with flights and all sorts of expenses.

Church spokesman Sam Penrod confirmed that the church helps missionaries who become ill or injured.

“Missionary Medical coordinates and provides additional medical care for missionaries through DMBA beyond a missionary’s personal health insurance,” he said. “In the event of long-term recovery, the Church will work with the missionary’s family and their medical plan to assess needs with the missionary’s care.”

live in the moment

Whatever Creed’s future holds, Marla said her focus needs to be in the here and now — on his recovery. She said most progress in traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients occurs within the first two years, which is why she decided to stay with Creed in Boston for the next year or two, where some of the world’s best medical facilities are at home.

Chad said a doctor who looked at her son’s MRIs and CT scans told them he saw nothing to prevent him from recovering. Still, Chad added, it remains uncertain what that recovery might look like or how long it might last.

As she continues her hospital vigil, Marla said she tries not to think about what her son was like before the accident or the future she envisioned for him.

“I am [living] right now,” she said. “I need to be with Creed and focus on him for who he is right now.”

No matter what, the Wagoners say their love for their son and faith in God will see them through. Family and friends join forces to help St. George’s LDS missionary recover from a traumatic brain injury

Justin Scacco

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