SPRINGFIELD — A Champaign teen critically injured in a weekend crash that killed his friend told his mother he thought he was going to die.
"Ryan has told me what he remembers the most is that he saw the tree coming and he said to himself, 'If we hit that tree, I'm going to die.' The next thing he remembers is he saw a bright light. I'm going to assume it was the fire. The next thing he heard is the boy in the back yelling 'You've got to get me out of here. You've got to help me,'" Amanda Shaffer said.
Since early Saturday morning, Amanda Shaffer has been at the bedside of her son, Ryan Shaffer, in the intensive care unit at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield.
The 15-year-old and Terrence "T.J." Washington, 16, of Mahomet, were passengers in the van that their friend, Austin Dyson, 16, of Mahomet, was driving when it struck a tree head-on on Golf Road in Mahomet about 9:30 p.m. Jan. 27.
The van burst into flames, and Shaffer and Washington were somehow able to escape the wreckage, but Mr. Dyson was not. He died at the scene.
Sheriff's Lt. Ed Ogle said a combination of speed and inexperience likely accounted for the accident. Ogle said Mr. Dyson had been licensed to drive for about 10 days. He had gotten off work from his job at Arby's in Mahomet, and he and Shaffer, who was visiting him for the weekend, went to the Candlewood Estates Mobile Home Park to pick up Washington. The accident happened minutes later.
Washington, a junior at Mahomet-Seymour High School, was taken to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana for his injuries and has since been released. Shaffer is looking at several weeks of hospitalization and months of recovery.
According to his mother and her friend, Becky Patrick of Champaign, Shaffer sustained cervical, rib, pelvic, femur, fibula, elbow, wrist and toe fractures — all on the left side.
"The engine came through the front of the van and hit all of Ryan's left side," Patrick said.
Additionally, his right leg and foot were severely burned, including burns to the bottom of his right foot that reached the bone, his mother said. His spleen, liver and kidney were also damaged and his lungs bruised.
"How this boy is still living, I don't even know," said Patrick, a registered nurse for 19 years. "There's by far a higher power that helped this boy through everything because he should not be living right now."
Amanda Shaffer agrees.
"I think there could have been nothing but the hand of God holding on to my son that night. Two people from the sheriff's office on the scene can't figure out ... how he's here," she said.
Ogle said Washington told a deputy he climbed over the seat Shaffer had been in to get out of the van because he was unable to get out the door nearest him. Shaffer was coherent enough to give paramedics information on himself and his mother.
Amanda Shaffer said as she and her daughter Ashley, 20, were headed to Springfield to see him, her daughter's cell rang. It was Ryan calling from the trauma unit.
"He kept saying, 'Mom, I'm sorry.' It was wonderful," said Shaffer, who said the call she had received before that was from the hospital chaplain telling her Ryan had been injured in an accident and that she should get there right away,
In the time he's been hospitalized — less than a week — Shaffer has had three surgeries: to fix his broken leg, his broken pelvis and to graft cadaver skin on his burned legs and foot. Another surgery is scheduled for early next week to graft his own skin onto the burned areas.
He's being asked to cough to make his lungs work, his mom said, which is painful due to the incision from the pelvic surgery and the broken ribs.
He's heavily medicated with morphine that makes him sleep a lot. Amanda Shaffer praised the hospital staff for the care they're giving her son, including managing his pain.
She said he's in fairly good spirits, and the two of them watched The Food Network on Tuesday night. He was especially excited to get Jell-O on Tuesday, his first food of any kind since before the accident.
"He loves to cook at home. He loves to be in the kitchen with me. He wants to chop and puree and stir," she said.
His other loves are baseball and Xbox gaming, she said.
A baseball player since the age of 5, Shaffer said her son had recently started working out in hopes of playing baseball for Centennial.
"He's real concerned about not being able to play this year," she said.
She's used University of Illinois standout football player Mikel Leshoure, a former neighbor of theirs, as an example of how someone can work his way back from an injury. Leshoure tore his Achilles tendon in August as a rookie running back for the Detroit Lions, forcing him to sit out the entire season.
Amanda Shaffer said she has yet to tell her son about Mr. Dyson's death. A friend who served several tours of duty in Afghanistan cautioned her that the news of his friend's death could hinder Ryan's healing, so she's holding off until he's stronger. She's also not letting him see Facebook, where some people had incorrectly reported her son's death on Saturday.
On Tuesday, Patrick opened the Ryan Shaffer Benefit Fund at Busey Bank to assist her friend, a single parent who works as a dispatcher at Don's Towing in Urbana and struggles to make ends met. Donations can be made at any Busey branch.
Amanda Shaffer said her co-workers have been "amazing." One even fixed her ailing car so she'll be able to get back and forth to Springfield, even though she has yet to return to Champaign.
Centennial Principal Greg Johnson said many students are aware of how badly Ryan Shaffer was hurt.
"Our teachers have talked to them about his situation, and we've offered support through our student services department for kids who might need a little help dealing with the shock of all this," said Johnson, adding that he was in touch with Mahomet-Seymour administrators earlier in the week to share information.
"We continue to think about him and wish him a speedy and full recovery," Johnson said.
Amanda Shaffer said she's grateful for the support.
"You figure out what's important and who's important really, really fast," she said. "My friends and family have been really amazing. Most of my family is in Mattoon. It's just us in Champaign. I call it our village. We've got one of the best villages we could hope for."