By SUSAN SCHELL, Staff Writer
Sterling Sybrandt's eyes gleam with a fierce determination as he splashes through the water toward the edge of the pool. He musters every ounce of strength, stretches out his arm and tags the side of the pool.
"You beat me," says his physical therapist, Bev Sutter. "But I think you cheated," she adds, teasing her young student.
"Nope," Sterling says. "I won fair and square."
It is Sterling's first day of swimming pool therapy, and he has thoroughly charmed his teacher.
"This reminds me of why I do this," she said.
Each day poses a new challenge for Sterling, who is recovering from severe head injuries he sustained after falling face-first off of a rope swing.
Watching him dip and bob in the swimming pool, it is hard to believe that less than two months ago, Sterling lay in a coma in the intensive care unit at U.C. Davis.
He still has nerve damage on the left side of his face, and a slight paralysis in the right side of his body.
Sterling undergoes some form of physical therapy every day. Weekends are "fun therapy" days, according to his mother, Betsy. "Over the weekend we try to do fun things that involve exercise, like hiking or walking on the beach."
According to Sutter, who works at Coast Physical Therapy where Sterling receives treatment, the swimming pool therapy helps strengthen the limbs and helps patients with their balance.
"The water offers resistance, so they have to work harder," she said.
Sutter leads Sterling through a variety of exercises, walking forward, backwards and sideways across the pool, focusing on his weaker right side.
The tenacious 10-year-old has made an astonishing recovery since the accident on March 1.
Sterling was at a neighbor's house playing on a tire swing roped to a tall tree. As he swung out over a ravine, he lost his grip and fell approximately 20-30 feet to the ground. The impact knocked him unconscious and he lapsed into a coma.
He was diagnosed with a "shear injury," which occurs when the brain shifts forward and backward in a high-speed traumatic injury. His left eardrum was perforated, his sinus cavity was fractured and he suffered multiple fractures at the base of his skull.
His parents kept a vigil by his side at the pediatric trauma center at U.C. Davis. They were worried Sterling would be paralyzed.
"I went into shock," Betsy said. "You just don't ever know what to do in these situations."
"His face was swollen like a bowling ball, and his skin was bright magenta, purple, yellow and green, clear up to his eyebrows."
Sterling was on life support systems and suffered a bout of pneumonia while comatose. But the Sybrandt's never gave up hope for their son.
"He would open one eye and focus, then he would grab our hands," Betsy said. "The hospital personnel said it was just a muscle reflex, but we knew it was more than that. We knew it was Sterling.
"The staff just made the rounds every once in a while, we were by his side all the time. We observed him constantly. We could tell when he was awake and when he was knocked out by drugs."
During the ordeal, Sterling's father Ray told The Pilot point blank, "He's not going to die. He's going to wake up. We just don't know when."
Sterling was in a coma for eight days. Then one Saturday some old family friends came to visit, along with Sterling's brother Royal. Sterling opened his eyes, reached out and grabbed hold of the toy a friend was holding.
"Sterling was back," said Betsy.
On March 20, he was released from the hospital. He was still being fed through a nasal tube, but removed it himself when he got home.
"He's been self-diagnosing the whole time," Betsy said with a laugh.
"He hasn't been bed-ridden since he's been home. We had him on a walker, but he only used it for two days, then put it away. He was like, I'm done with this, it's time to move on.' "
After hearing about the accident, the community stepped up with fundraisers to help the Sybrandt family through their financial hardship. A city that bestowed a plethora of donations on the citizens of New York City after the September 11 attacks were certainly not going to forsake one of their own.
School students set up donation booths and held car washes and raffles. An account at Washington Mutual was opened to accept donations in Sterling's name.
Senior citizens launched a "Seniors for Sterling" campaign spearheaded by Jan Norwood, co-host of "Seniors Today" on KBSC-TV. During her TV show, Norwood urged seniors in the area to donate at least one dollar to Sterling's account.
Today (April 20) Azalea Middle School teacher Susan Hanscam's seventh grade leadership class will have a car wash to benefit Sterling in Ray's Food Place parking lot from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"We've been trying to have the car wash for some time now, but we keep getting rained out," said Hanscam. "I think this will be a nice weekend."
But whatever the weather may be, the sun is shining for Sterling Sybrandt.