A Close Call

By Connor Cavanaugh

“I remember getting into the car, and then everything goes black.”

Elon junior Zach Phillips got into a Dodge Charger with his friend Mark Frattaroli on Sept. 28, 2008, and woke up two months later in UMass Medical Center in Worcester, Mass.

Phillips was along for a car ride with a friend when the vehicle struck a tree at 90 mph, killing the driver and leaving Phillips in critical condition. Emergency respondents had to use a hydraulic mechanism to pry the boys from the mangled car.

Zach Phillips with people supporting him from his high school and hospital.
Courtesy of Zach Phillips.

“I don’t remember anything after getting in the car, and my memory begins again two months after the accident,” says Phillips, who was put in an induced coma while he recovered from his many grueling injuries. Phillips injuries included traumatic brain injury, fractures in his neck and back, in addition to other, less severe bone breaks.

“While I was in the hospital, friends would visit me every couple days which was such an awesome way for them to show their support for me,” says Phillips. “Without all the people around me being so supportive, who knows what could have happened. I’m very grateful to everyone.”

After his injuries healed, Zach was moved out of the intensive care unit, and into rehabilitation. According to his doctors before he began rehabilitation, Zach would not be able to participate in sports again due to the lingering effects of the injuries he sustained. As captain of the wrestling team and football team in high school, this was particularly hard news for Phillips.

“When they first told me I was done with sports, I was devastated,” said Phillips. “However, I learned to use those doubts as motivation during the rehab process.”


An MRI of Phillips’ brain, showing the damage done in the car accident.
Courtesy of Zach Phillips.

As he entered the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Zach showed steady improvement, slowly but surely beginning to recognize his friends and family, as well as walking on his own again.

“I am in the physical condition I am in today because of all the rehab I did and all the amazing doctors who were so patient with me,” says Phillips.

The rehabilitation paid off, as Phillips has made, according to doctors, a one hundred percent recovery, and is technically cleared to play football, wrestling or any other sport.

“I feel so lucky to be in the healthy state I enjoy,” said Phillips, “Doctors told me that people with similar injuries to mine had a ten percent chance of survival, and of those who survive the injuries, ninety-nine percent have significant lasting brain damage, of which I have none. So I certainly feel very lucky to be a medical miracle, if you want to call it that.”

In the summer of 2011, Zach and his older brother, Michael, trained to compete in the Louisville Ironman triathlon in Louisville Ky. The event is gargantuan, featuring a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run (a full marathon), all in one day. “This is, of course, largely thanks to what was achieved while he was recovering at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital,” wrote Michael on the Phillips Brothers Race for Rehab website.

Zach went on to compete in two Boston Marathons, finishing each one.


Zach Phillips participating in the Louisville Ironman triathlon in 2011.
Courtesy of Zach Phillips.

“The Boston Marathon was an amazing event to take part in, and it makes me very proud of my city, especially after the bombings earlier this year,” said Phillips. “It’s an event that the whole city rallies around, and to be able to compete after everything I went through was an amazing feeling.

Phillips friends at Elon had no idea about his past medical history until he told them about the accident.

“I had no clue until he told us about it one day,” says Phillips’s suitemate, junior P.J. Eisler. “It was totally unexpected, and he is lucky to have such good health.”

“It came out of nowhere when he told me,” said former suitemate, junior Justin Marcus. “I truly didn’t believe him at first, until he showed me the pictures and articles on the Internet.”

Indeed, Phillips leads a normal life by most peoples’ standards, and has no lingering effects from the accident almost five years ago. He works out at the gym often, and has no mental impairments that prevent him from taking a full course load at Elon.

Phillips is studying to become a physical therapist in Elon University’s exercise science program, and he feels fully committed to being successful and to help others that are in the situation he was in five years ago.

“If you were to ask me what the biggest thing that contributed to my recovery was, I’d say the support of my friends, family and school,” says Phillips. In addition to being visited by friends in the hospital, his school made a giant poster that everyone signed, wishing him all the best and a speedy recovery.

“After getting basically a second chance at life, I’m committed to being successful and helping others the way I was helped after my accident,” says Phillips.

“The kid is a miracle,” says Eisler. “An absolute miracle.”

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