NSU coach Don Meyer tells of lessons learned since September accident
By John Papendick, American News Sports Editor
Published on Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Spiritually, Don Meyer is stronger than he has ever been.
Physically, the Northern State men's basketball coach still has some battles ahead. However, the 63-year-old beloved Aberdeen man has made full-court, game-winning strides since his Sept. 5 auto accident. For several days after that accident, Meyer was in a fight for his life.
“I have made great progress,” Meyer said from his room at Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center in Sioux Falls. “The biggest thing everyone needs to know is how much Carmen and I appreciate all the cards, the notes, the phone calls and especially all the prayers. We have so many people helping us out on this deal. God, of course, is going to do it all, but he listens to people praying. I can feel it sometimes. I can feel the prayers of people lift me up. I can't tell you how much that means to me when I'm struggling.”
Meyer said one's “whole life is a preparation for your death. I am more prepared to die now. I am more at peace than I ever have been. But obviously, God had something more in mind for me or I wouldn't have gotten through all that. So he still has things for me to do, and now it is my job to get ready to do those things.”
That is why therapy is so important, said Meyer, who has progressed to the point of dressing himself and preparing himself for the day ahead. He uses a walker to get out of bed and a wheelchair he pushes himself to get to multiple therapy sessions.
“I have to get these sessions in to rebuild my strength,” he said. “I lost a lot of strength, a lot of strength. You lose it quick when you are lying in a hospital bed 24 hours a day.”
Support system: The biggest names in the basketball coaching fraternity at all levels, from professional to middle school, have contacted Meyer and his family to let them know they have been praying for them. But it was two little brothers from Warner who brought Meyer to tears on Monday morning.
“I just got a card from this 4-year-old from Warner and his 6-year-old brother who was one of our basketball campers at Northern,” said Meyer. “It is one thing to get a card from an adult, but it is really something special when two little boys like that tell you they are thinking of you.”
Relearning life's lessons: Meyer and wife, Carmen, could spend days thinking of people to thank, and they would never run out of names. They said the doctors, nurses and staff members at Avera McKennan have been incredible to them and their family.
“One night, one of his ICU nurses spent the night teaching Don how to breathe again,” Carmen said. “Don said that nurse was so patient, so kind and so good to him. Don has said that he has learned a lot of teaching techniques from all these great nurses and technicians.”
“Bill,” said Meyer, quick to add the name of that nurse. “It was like being a baby again. I had to learn everything all over again.”
Meyer knows the names of not only his caregivers, but their families and their pets. For some caregivers, the coach has little assignments, like the young woman in physical therapy who is supposed to bring Meyer two jokes a day.
“No matter what we want to say because of our pride, that spiritual component is so important to a human being,” Meyer said. “The next component is courtesy in dealing with people. We tell our players that all the time, and to do things like pick up trash, say thank you and respect those around them. But this whole experience has reinforced to me how important all those things are. I have made friends here for life. I can't say enough good things about this place and the people here.”
Meyer is also thankful for his basketball team, university and community.
“Everyone would have been so proud of those players on the night of the accident. They were doing all the right things, calling for help, checking up on everyone and rounding up the young guys on our team and keeping everyone together. They were all there for me, keeping me going and keeping me alive. I owe this whole team my life.”
Meyer, known for his keen sense of humor, was quick to add, “Of course, when I am out there yelling at them later this year, they could ask for it back.”
He said he doesn't remember much about the days following the multivehicle accident on Highway 20 in Faulk County. No one else was hurt as the NSU basketball players were driving to an annual team retreat at a hunting lodge.
Sense of humor intact: After multiple surgeries, doctors found carcinoid cancer in Meyer's liver and small bowel. Later, his left leg was amputated below the knee. He now refers to his left leg as “Little Buddy.”
Meyer said when you have part of a limb amputated, you have to learn to touch it, feel it and talk to the part that remains. He has fashioned a game using Little Buddy to talk to his visiting 5-year-old twin grandsons, Aden and Isaac Napier of Franklin, Tenn.
Meyer: Talk to Little Buddy, boys.
Aden: Do you like to get out of bed, Little Buddy?
(Meyer lifts his left knee with his hands so Little Buddy can move up and down to signal yes.)
Isaac: Do you like ice cream, Little Buddy?
(Meyer, clearly enjoying himself as much as his laughing grandsons, repeats his yes signal.)
Program in good hands: Although there have been discussions about Meyer returning to Aberdeen in a couple of weeks, there are no timetables, especially for his return to the sidelines. Northern State starts practice on Wednesday. Veteran head assistant coach Randy Baruth is in charge until Meyer can return.
“I have got complete faith in Randy and our other coaches,” said Meyer. “This will be a good experience for them because this will challenge them and help them grow, especially our younger coaches. Randy has been there, he knows how to coach and our program is in great hands right now. They all will do a great job.
“Right now, I can't put the pressure on myself of saying when I will be back,” Meyer said. “If we truly have a program, it can continue on without me. If it couldn't, then we really don't have a program. Obviously, I want to get back when I can because I love it so much. But you can't rush through these things. We have to do this right. Of course, there will always be little things to fight. That is to be expected when you have this extent of injuries.”
Cancer still on back burner: Meyer continues his battle with some lung problems and amputation infections along with rib injuries and still healing broken bones. He said his cancer is really immaterial at this point.
“Not that I am belittling cancer, but we have got some things we have to take care of first before we address that,” Meyer said. “They have done tests on the cancer, and they think it is slow moving and that they have a great way to treat it (hormone growth shot once a month without side effects).”
Meyer said he has relished the time he has gotten to spend with his family and shoring up his faith.
“I have learned so much about myself and our creator.”
One of those lessons was how to more easily tell people what they mean to him.
“I am just so thankful for everything everybody did for me, especially Carmen,”he said. “Because for a long time, I couldn't do anything for myself.”
Overwhelmed by kindness: Hundreds of people continue to help the Meyers. Both husband and wife say they have been overwhelmed by the acts of kindness shown to them from their friends and neighbors in Aberdeen - not to mention the region, the state and the country.
Meyer has a love of pens, how they write and how they flow. Louisiana State University women's basketball coach Bob Starkey got other basketball coaches from across the country to send Meyer school pens.
“Don will never have to buy another pen,” Carmen said, laughing. “He now has pens galore, including one from North Carolina that plays the school fight song. He just got inundated with pens. Everyone has been so wonderful all over the country.”
Meyer eagerly awaits his return to his home in Aberdeen. He is comforted and a little homesick all at the same time when he watches church services on TV on Sunday mornings at the First Baptist Church in Aberdeen with the Rev. Harold E. Salem.
“I am pretty functional right now,” Meyer said. “But it will still be a long time before I get my prosthesis, probably at least four months. But I can do all my work in a wheelchair and a walker. They will probably do some things in my office at Northern to make it more functional, but my main office is on the floor with the guys. That is where I want to be.”