KAHULUI - For Nick Balenger, the measurement of physical breakthroughs now comes in small units.
Balenger, a 17-year-old standout pitcher from reigning Virginia baseball champion Lake Braddock Secondary School, is used to counting strikeouts and walks, wins and losses.
For the last three weeks, however, his quantification process has been very different.
Nick Balenger poses with his parents, Sylvie and Steve, on Saturday at Maui Memorial Medical Center.
The Maui News / ROBERT COLLIAS photo
"I woke up at like, 5, and I was moving my legs and jolting them," Balenger said Saturday. "Then later today I was moving them again. See, I'm moving them right now. Oh man, look at all that. Look at all that movement right there."
On July 25, Balenger was on the second day of a family vacation to Maui, his birthplace, when a large wave poured over him at Big Beach. He hit the sand hard and broke his neck, displacing the C4 and C5 vertebrae.
After two surgeries, one of which fused his spine, he had only partial movement above his chest and none below until his breakthrough on Saturday at Maui Memorial Medical Center. He was flown to MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, and a throng of well-wishers lined the streets after his 13-hour journey on a Life Flight air ambulance.
"The hardest part is just not knowing, so getting that little movement was just awesome," Balenger said. "I had to tweet about it earlier. I got a bunch of retweets and favorites."
Balenger was a second-team all-district pick at Lake Braddock, the state champion in Virginia's highest classification, and has had communication with five colleges about playing at that level.
His father, Steve, and mother, Sylvie, made sure at least one of them was bedside throughout the 20 days he was in intensive care. One of those days was his 17th birthday - July 31.
Steve Balenger was less than 10 feet away from Nick when the accident happened. Sylvie and older brother Alex had just left the ocean.
"We were just fooling around and he got over a wave - I was about six or eight feet from him - and he hit and as soon as he hit he went limp and I knew it," Steve Balenger said through tears. "So I went over there, turned him over in about a foot and a half of water and he said, 'Dad, I can't move my legs, I can't feel my legs.' So I got him up into the shore break and it was still breaking on him, so I yelled for help.
"A bunch of people came over, we got him out of the shore and it has been hell in paradise ever since."
Steve Balenger said the family remains "cautiously optimistic," but he has been told that the first year of a spinal-cord injury can cost $150,000 to $500,000 out of pocket.
The doctors can only wait as the swelling in Nick's spinal column subsides before giving a full diagnosis. His father has hope that Nick will walk across the Lake Braddock football field on homecoming night in early October to accept his state-championship ring.
"Nick told me the other day that he plans on walking out of rehab," Sylvie Balenger said.
Steve Balenger said that without help from numerous sources, notably the Four Seasons hotel chain for which his wife works, the situation would have been even worse. Others who assisted the family include the Maui Visitors Bureau, and the MMMC nurses and therapists.
Two high school teammates, who traveled on donated air miles, were among the numerous visitors to Balenger's room. One of the surgeons delivered ice cream and Cherry Coke.
A website set up by an aunt in Virginia - caringbridge.org/visit/nickbalenger - also buoyed Nick's spirits.
"I had, like, woo, 4,000 visits and 300 comments," Balenger said. "I mean, there were people that I never met before (who) went on - it is pretty crazy."
The average stay at MedStar is 20 days. Balenger's senior year begins in September.
"Hopefully I get out of there in 20 days and get back home in time for school to start,"
he said. "Hopefully, I will be walking pretty soon or in some sort of wheelchair. But, yeah, it is going to be cool. With all the support, I will get through it."
A few of his nurses taught him pidgin.
"Try wait," Nick said with a wide grin. "No really, everybody looks out for the best for me. It is real hard saying goodbye to everybody. I made a lot of good friends here, but I never thought I'd be so happy to leave Hawaii. I can't wait to get out of here."
Balenger is a "huge" Washington Nationals fan and happy to hear of their recent trade to pick up catcher Kurt Suzuki, a former Baldwin standout.
"He has got to be pretty good to be on the best team in baseball right now," Balenger said.
Balenger had one clear message for all of his supporters.
"I just want them to know that I am going to keep fighting, getting stronger, big breakthrough with my legs today," he said. "That's awesome and I can only get better at the rehab facility that I am going to. Just let them know that if you ever get injured, you want to get injured here because this is a great ICU unit and they have great therapists and everything here. Hopefully it is just as good at the place I am going to."
Alex Balenger has convinced his parents that the family needs to get tattoos to show their resilience. The body art is to read "Na Koa Ohana" - the strong family.
A visit from a group of Na Koa Ikaika Maui players and front-office staffers also brightened one of Balenger's days in the ICU.
"Man, I never even met any of them," he said. "I never even heard of the team. It was pretty cool, just, like, knowing how the spirit of baseball is, I guess, the support from other teams. I guess they are my favorite minor league team now."
One of the players who made an impression was Keith Kandell, who smiled when told of Balenger's recent movement.
"That's just great news," Kandell said. "When we went there he was able to move his arms a little bit and he was so excited he gave us a high five and shook our hands. His family is probably one of the strongest families I have ever seen. It's just amazing to see the family support. His friends came out, too. I just hope to see that he improves and he will be able to move again and walk again and play baseball again."
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org