On September 5, 2008, during a preseason football game in the fall of his junior year in high school, Zack McLeod intercepted a pass and returned it 35 yards for his first varsity touchdown. Three uneventful plays later Zack was in on a gang tackle on the far side of the field. He got up slowly and then proceeded to stumble and fall after breaking the next huddle. Concerned, the coach walked up to him and asked, “Zack, are you all right?” Zack replied, “I’m fine, coach!” and then immediately collapsed at the coach’s feet.
Zack was immediately airlifted to the Boston Medical Center Trauma Unit where he arrived unconscious. Zack’s parents, Pat & Tammy McLeod, who were not at the scrimmage, were notified. They raced through Boston traffic and were rushed by hospital personnel into a room where Zack was lying on a hospital bed—catatonic and intubated.
The brain surgeon explained that a direct blow to the head had caused an acute internal brain bleed (subdural hematoma) which required an immediate brain surgery (craniotomy) that would release the pressure on the brain by removing a portion of the skull cap, draining the accumulated blood, and reattaching the skull cap. He explained that the procedure could result in anything from death to full recovery. The McLeod’s signed the papers, held and kissed Zack, and said goodbye.
A few hours later the surgeon informed the McLeods that they had done what they needed to do and that all they could do was wait. For the first three days Zack’s brain continued to swell, but the intensive care doctors and nurses were able to manage the intracranial pressure. Early on the fourth day, the pressure became so great that Zack was beginning to shut down. Surgeons notified the McLeods that unless they operated again Zack would likely die. They performed a second brain surgery (a craniectomy) removing the same portion of Zack’s skull cap and this time inserting it into his abdomen in order to keep the skull tissues alive (so that it could be reattached later). This procedure released the pressure on his brain and gave it unlimited space to swell.
Zack remained in intensive care for five weeks losing 50 pounds and battling a pneumonia that required two minor and one major lung surgery. When he finally stabilized they transferred Zack to an acute rehabilitation hospital—Spaulding Rehab Hospital—where he stayed for four months and learned to swallow, sit, stand, walk, and shower. Zack was readmitted to Boston Medical a few days before Thanksgiving in order to undergo a third brain surgery (cranioplasty) that involved reattaching his skull cap.
In February of 2009 Zack was finally released from the rehab hospital barely able to speak or walk. He has spent the past four years in a residential neuro-rehabilitation school, the May Center, where he regained very minimal speech,and short-term memory, and the ability to walk, run and throw balls again. He is not expected to ever go back to school or be able to live alone.
Despite his disability, and in part because of it, Zack has some truly remarkable qualities. Zack’s joy, his deep love and enjoyment of God, and his steady caring heart toward others have inspired the world around him. While in the rehab hospital one mother commented that her child would not go to sleep at night until Zack showed up to say goodnight, as he always did with many of the patients in the hospital. Wherever he goes his joy, caring heart, and uncanny ability to notice people leaves smiling faces in his wake.
The year of his injury his football team broke every huddle yelling, “Zack!” His teammates and coach made frequent trips to the hospital to visit Zack. They dedicated their season to Zack and, in storybook fashion, Zack wound up making his first public appearance out of the hospital at the halftime of their championship game. Zack’s presence inspired a second half rally that led his team to their first conference championship in his school’s history. A year after the injury, when Zack could walk again, the players voted him a captain, and Zack was out on the field every game for the coin toss. Their continued dedication to Zack was largely due to the way they had known Zack to deeply love others.
Just days before his injury, Zack was in a conversation with his dad, reflecting on how they took care of disabled children in South Africa. Zack still had a heavy heart for those kids. His father said that part of Zack “just wanted to drop out of school and adopt disabled orphans.” In the conversation, Zack said, “Dad, this sounds weird, but I wonder if God would ever have me become like one of them.” His father replied, “Just know that if ever anything happened to you and you did become like one of them that we would love you just like we loved those kids this summer.”
The family continually maintains Zack’s Caringbridge site, which has over 350,000 visits to date.
Zack’s Current Condition
Zack doesn’t have the same physical capabilities he once did. He has limited mobility, tone in his right arm and leg, expressive aphasia (understands what you are saying but can’t respond clearly or quickly), and he remains unable to communicate much through the spoken word. He doesn’t initiate, and he processes things very slowly. Regaining previous capabilities has been a challenge for Zack, and he works hard each day to improve. His personality, however, remains unchanged, and Zack is very spiritually and emotionally stable despite a physical alteration that has changed his life.
After spending over 4 years at a neurorehabilitation center and full-time care home on the south shore, Zack recently moved to a full-time adult care home in Brookline, MA. During the day, Zack splits his time between a separate daytime care facility and his high school, BB&N, where he assists in the athletic training room and equipment room. His other daytime activities include occupational, physical, and speech therapy and rowing on the Charles River. He values visits from friends and family on evenings and weekends. Click here to learn how to schedule a visit with Zack.