Persevering to Succeed

  • Written by: David Port
  • Photos by: Kerri McDermid and Jeffrey Sylvester

Photo: Justin Weber during welding class at the CDC.

2017 Frederick High grad, Justin Weber, inspires a community with his improbable recovery from a devastating 2016 bike accident

What struck Frederick High School guidance Counselor Kathy Zulauf about this before-and-after storyline was not how different Justin Weber seemed after a near-fatal dirt biking accident in March 2016 left him with a traumatic brain injury, but rather how close to his usual self Weber remained, even as he dealt with a daunting, odds-defying recovery from his injuries.

“He has such an endearing personality to begin with, and he never lost his sense of humor,” says Zulauf, who knew Justin prior to the accident and became close with him and his family while she quarterbacked the effort to get him back on track academically after the accident. “His positive attitude made all the difference in the world in his recovery.”

From a grim initial few weeks when family and friends wondered if Justin would survive at all, to a gloomy early medical prognosis that cast doubt on whether he would ever reclaim his physical and mental capabilities after spending three weeks in a coma, to a stunningly rapid recovery that this past spring saw the 18-year-old graduate on-time with his classmates at Frederick High, the story he has spent the past year-and-a-half writing, with the help of his parents, fellow students, teachers and others like Zulauf, has surprised just about everyone who has witnessed it — except maybe Justin himself.

“I could always see myself [recovering],” he says, despite an Evel Knievel-like litany of injuries that included brain shearing, a fractured skull, broken neck and collarbone, shattered wrist and optical nerve damage in one eye (an issue that continues to cause him vision problems). Enduring all the therapy at Craig Hospital, the renowned rehabilitation facility where he spent much of the spring and summer of 2016, “was hard work, and I had a lot of schoolwork to make up, too.”

“He had to relearn how to walk, talk, sit, stand, swallow — basically everything,” adds Kim Weber, Justin’s mom. “He just would not take ‘You can’t’ for an answer. From day one, he never felt self-pity or sadness or asked, ‘Why me?’”

It Takes a Village

Instead, as soon as he could, Justin got down to the work of recovery. Once he emerged from his coma and after his speech returned about a month-and-a-half later, Justin began rehabbing in earnest at Craig. That included eight hours a day of intensive therapy, supplemented by plenty of academics. Within a month of the accident, Justin was standing again. And continuous improvement came steadily after that.

As grueling as the physical therapy was, keeping pace academically required some heavy lifting, too, not only by Justin but by faculty and staff members at Frederick High School, Craig Hospital and the school district’s Career Development Center (CDC). Zulauf served as academic conduit between them all, working closely with Craig Hospital’s in-house high school teacher, Laura Magnuson, as well as CDC instructors such as Jim Cade and Lauren Hart, and Sarah Moore and Rebecca Zahn at Frederick High.

“They all went above and beyond,” says Kim Weber.

“The staff and teachers at Frederick, the CDC and at Craig, were amazing in their support of Justin, the encouragement they gave him and their willingness to be flexible with his academic work,” echoes Zulauf.

Even with a strong educational support team, Justin says academics were the hardest part of his recovery. “There were math skills that I wasn’t able to do really well, which was kind of frustrating. I received a lot of help, so I got caught up.”

Justin has had a lot of catching up to do outside of high school, too. There was continuing his pursuit of a certificate in welding from Front Range Community College. There was tending to his personal herd of 30 dairy cows, which he keeps at a nearby farm and shows competitively at livestock events around the region. And there was tending to his social life.

Like most high schoolers, Justin had prom on his mind. In the spring of 2016, less than two months removed from what he now calls “my wreck,” Justin left Craig Hospital to attend the Frederick High prom, arriving in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Just the day before, he had walked for the first time by himself since the accident, recounts Kim Weber. But Justin had more on his mind than just walking. He spent a good chunk of prom night out on the dance floor.

Justin’s brief prom night appearance back in Frederick was as inspiring as it was improbable, says Zulauf. “It was a defining moment when he showed up. I think everyone who saw him that night knew nothing was ever going to keep him down.”

Having endured the darkest parental moments contemplating the potential loss of her child, then stood by Justin virtually every day of his recovery, Kim Weber says seeing him walk to collect his high school diploma in May was among her proudest moments. “It was a celebration for me, because I had been there every step of the way. He worked really hard for that.”

“It was a defining moment when he showed up. I think everyone who saw him that night knew nothing was ever going to keep him down.”

- Kathy Zulauf, Counselor, Frederick High School

Photo: Justin Weber returns to his former elementary school, Prairie Ridge, for a 'Grad Walk' with the Frederick High Class of 2017.

A New Normal, a Fresh Chapter

These days, diploma earned, Justin is back to what his mom says is his “normal everyday routine” – keeping his cows show-ready, welding in the metal shop (a passion sparked in him by his father, Jason) and hanging out with friends. While he occasionally has short-term memory lapses and plays mind games on his phone to continue the neurological healing process, Justin is, she says, “back to his old self.”

Yet even Justin admits he has emerged from the wreck and the recovery with a changed outlook. “I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” he says. “I was thankful for stuff, but certain things, like hanging out with friends and family, didn’t mean as much to me as they do now.”

The Weber family is also stronger after the ordeal, says Kim. “Something like this could tear a family apart and we stuck together. Now we’re best friends on top of it all.”

What seemed in dark times like a before/after storyline that would end prematurely and tragically in the spring of 2016 is once again open-ended, with plenty of chapters still to be written. As for the author of that story, Justin Weber, “he knows he has a second chance,” his mother says, “and he’s taking full advantage.”

For Justin, that could mean pursuing passions that he cultivated at St. Vrain’s Career Development Center, owning a dairy farm, or, once he earns his college metal-working certificate, opening his own welding shop. Or maybe it will be both. Whatever course Justin chooses, the “after” in this story should be worth watching.

Related Stories

ST. VRAINNOVATION was produced in-house by the St. Vrain Department of Communications.
Funding for printing and distribution supported by:

© 2017 - St. Vrain Valley Schools