Jon Erik Hartfield has earned himself a fan club.
When he walks into the Greenwood YMCA each morning, he’s shaking hands with many of the people he passes. Plenty of them stop what they’re doing to crack a joke with Jon Erik. But on July 11, his reception was warmer than usual. On that day — the 16th anniversary of the car wreck that put Jon Erik in a coma for months and caused him traumatic brain damage — he walked more than a mile at the Y without the help of his cane.
He was in the front passenger seat of Laura Riddle’s car. The two were dating at the time, and were driving along S.C. 254 near Greenwood High School when a drunken driver’s SUV careened into them. The truck driven by Hoyt Helton hit Jon Erik’s side of the car. Helton died in the wreck and Riddle got out with minor injuries, but Jon Erik didn’t wake up after that wreck for another 10 months and three days.
He spent that time in a coma, bedridden, and when he finally woke up he spent another nearly 3 months being treated on the hospital’s spinal cord and brain injury wing. He started speaking seven months after he woke, and the damage the wreck had done to his brain left him unlikely to regain much motor function.
His dad, Haskell “Hank” Hartfield, remembers rushing to the hospital when he heard what happened to his son.
“I went to the hospital and told them who I was there to see, and they put me in a room to wait a minute and two chaplains walk in,” Hank said. “What am I supposed to think? But I went in to see him and I remember he had this thing installed in his head, attached to his skull, like a gauge — a pressure gauge, and it was all the way on the red line.”
Hank has the timeline of Jon Erik’s recovery etched into his brain. It takes no time for him to recall the exact details of his son’s time in hospital rooms. Traumatic brain injury, Hank said, are words that leave you restless with fear. He didn’t know if his son would ever talk or walk again.
But he also remembers the triumphs.
“I remember going there during the first time they got him out of bed,” he said. “They strapped him into this thing to get him out, and I held two towels wrapped around his legs to help move them.”
The wreck came just nine days after Jon Erik had been accepted to attend the University of South Carolina. The Greenwood High School senior had been eager to start his classes, but instead he was battling to regain motor function and struggling to recover his speech skills. Hank was away for work in North Carolina one day during Jon Erik’s recovery when he got a call from the hospital that his son was speaking for the first time after waking from his coma.
“I told the nurse I would stop everything, I was on my way,” he said. “When I got to the hospital I was with a good friend of mine who had gone up with me, Jim Ballard, and I said to Jon Erik ‘Do you know who this is?’ And he said, you know kind of slowly, ‘That’s mister Jim Ballard.’”
Over time, Jon Erik, now 34, worked with physical therapists and other specialists to regain his strength. He went from being wheelchair-bound to using a walker and eventually a cane. Now he’s been going without his cane for more than three weeks.
He’s a lot more confident in his ability to walk now, but Jon Erik jokingly said every step still comes with its doubts.
“I feel like I’m going to bust my patootie,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been a rough struggle these couple of years, and it looks like it’s going to be rough my whole life.”
There’s not an ounce of despair in that message, though. Jon Erik is doggedly determined to overcome every obstacle, and his dad can’t be any more proud of every accomplishment his son has made. He’s quick to share the videos he took of his son walking without his cane at the YMCA a few weeks ago.
Jon Erik is relentlessly upbeat. While his dad flipped through some photos of his son’s younger days — complete with shoulder-length hair and some lady friends Hank said his son was quite popular with in school — Jon Erik stopped to remember a highlight of his high school days.
“Back then, I drove a black Firebird,” he said with pride. “It was a total chick magnet.”
His positive outlook comes with an intense humility, too. All the perseverance he’s shown in the face of inconceivable pain, he gives all the credit to God. He said God is the reason he made it out of that wreck alive, and that God granted him the success he’s found in recovery.
He’s even sought to save lives with his story. He’s spoken in classrooms, at prom promise events and as a spokesman for the state Highway Patrol’s anti-drunk driving campaigns. He’s shared his story at Leath Correctional and in educational videos shown in mandatory DUI classes.
“I wanted to make this world a better place and tell people that God loves us,” he said. “God saved my life, and he gave me that hospital to go to.”
When he thinks back to the man who drank and drove and changed his life forever with that decision, Jon Erik holds no resentment. He said God forgave everyone on this Earth, so he felt an obligation to forgive Helton. For his dad, it’s been a joy to see his son come so far.
“Survival is sticking with your family and taking care of your family,” Hank said. “It can get rough, but you can’t give up.”
Jon Erik is far from giving up, especially if his trainer, former Greenwood High School coach David Walton has anything to say about it.
Every day Jon Erik gets dropped off at the Greenwood YMCA at about 8:30 a.m., and starts his routine. Step-ups, leg-presses, squats, a variety of core workouts and, of course, walking. Coach walks alongside Jon Erik around the gymnasium floor. It took Jon Erik more than four minutes to do one lap around the gym his first time. Now he’s got a personal best of one minute, 46 seconds without using his cane.
“It was a joke, I used to tease him saying ‘What are you doing with that cane? I don’t want to see you with that thing,’” Coach said. “Well eventually he did start leaving it at the front desk, and now he’s gotten to where he’s not bringing it at all.”
They started working together in January or February of last year. Coach had been working at the Y for a while, but when he first met Jon Erik and heard his story, he said he felt as if God was pushing him to take this on.
In his years of coaching, he had worked with students who were recovering from injuries, but nothing like what Jon Erik experienced. The typical workouts that his student athletes would go through aren’t right for Jon Erik; muscle gain isn’t what he needs, Coach said.
“The doctors, when they released him, said the best thing we could do for him is repetitive movements,” he said. “You’re rerouting the neurons, retraining his brain to bypass the damage and rebuild the connections for his motor functions.”
His workout routine focuses on doing simple, repetitive motions. Three reps of 50 step-ups give Jon Erik practice planting his feet forward, and has reduced how much his legs wobble when he walks, Coach said. When they walk around the gym, he has Jon Erik straddle the paint lines on the floor because it improves his coordination.
Some parts of the workout routine are to compensate for physical challenges Jon Erik still faces. When he does leg-presses, Coach wraps a thick elastic band around the spot under Jon Erik’s right foot. His right leg is shorter than his left by a small amount, but the elastic band makes up for it, keeping him from overextending his knee.
“There’s some things like that I’ve had to learn, some tricks along the way,” Coach said as Jon Erik finished his leg-presses Thursday.
“Yeah, and I’m paying for them,” Jon Erik replied, laughing as he wiped sweat from his forehead.
Every step of the way, Jon Erik is smiling and joking. He lets out exaggerated groans whenever Coach pushes him to do another rep. He wonders aloud if Coach is torturing him, and when Walton stepped away for a moment he jokingly asked about finding a hiding place so he could avoid the next workout. Despite his sarcastic complaints, Walton said Jon Erik is determined to keep working and recovering more and more of his mobility.
“He’s been through so much, and he just gets back up again and again,” Walton said.
Part of that, though, comes from his coach’s insistence and encouragement. Walton texts Jon Erik often to check on him and pump him up, even on days where Walton can’t make it to their workout session. He keeps telling Jon Erik that the goal, in the end, is to turn his cane into nothing but a coat rack. What started as single reps of each workout has turned into two or three reps apiece, along with about half a mile of walking a day without his cane — an accomplishment Jon Erik said feels like a victory.
“When other people could have given up on Jon Erik, Coach didn’t,” said Jan Rushton, director over fitness and wellness at the Y. “This is a special place, and there’s a lot of love and a lot of determination that a lot of people don’t know about in here.”
On the anniversary of the wreck, instead of doing the normal workout, Coach wanted to try something different. He wanted to help Jon Erik laugh in the face of that wreck. They just walked that day, kept doing laps around the gym all without his cane, and before long Jon Erik had completed more than a mile on his own two feet.
The accomplishment went up on the whiteboard at the Y, and everyone who heard stopped to congratulate him. Hank took video of his son’s confident, cane-free steps and the celebrations of the staff as he showed off the latest accomplishment of his recovery. Ever the proud dad, Hank took to Facebook with the video, along with a picture he took of his son walking out of the Y that morning.
“It’s been a remarkable road,” he said.