by Eric Stearley
Northfield High School Assistant Principal Max VanCleave is back at work after four and a half months of surgeries, recovery, and physical therapy following an automobile accident last October that nearly took his life.
“It feels good,” said VanCleave. “I received a very warm welcome as I came in.”
“We’re so lucky this man’s alive,” said Superintendent Sandra Weaver as she passed by his office.
VanCleave finished physical therapy near the end of January, ahead of schedule.
“That made me feel good, but it’s not about how tough I am, it’s about how God has assisted me and walked me through all this,” he was sure to note.
The accident and long recovery was a humbling experience for VanCleave. He noted how we take a lot for granted, like being able to walk, tie our shoes, and just to be alive. He wanted to be sure that everyone knew about the extensive support he was offered by the Northfield staff, the great job they did filling in for him, support offered through cards and kind words, and donation buckets put out by the athletic director during sporting events to help with his medical bills, which exceeded $1 million. He talked about the quality people he has the honor of working with on a daily basis more than he talked about his accident and injuries, but that’s just the kind of guy Max is – gracious. The remarkable odds he beat, however, cannot be ignored.
On the morning of Oct. 2, VanCleave left home earlier than usual for his morning commute from Muncie. He was scheduled to talk with Northfield teachers about a statewide bullying prevention initiative. Patchy fog covered I-69 that morning as he entered Grant County.
“All of a sudden, it became very dense at the Fairmont exit and I couldn’t see anything, so I slowed up a bit,” said VanCleave.
In the lane ahead of him, a woman’s car hood flew up, making it impossible for her to see. She stopped in the lane; the dense fog made it impossible for VanCleave to see her car. He doesn’t know how fast he was going when his Honda Civic struck her car.
“I broke every bone in my chest, my sternum, punctured lungs,” said VanCleave. “They intubated me there on the road to keep me alive, because my lungs had collapsed.”
In addition, VanCleave’s spleen and liver were lacerated and his femur was broken. He was rushed to Marion General Hospital.
“I was awake all the way as I remember,” said VanCleave. “I remember them wheeling me into Marion General. In some respects, it was more than I want to remember, but I guess it was just my drive to stay alive and stay awake, because I didn’t think I was going to make it, to be honest with you.”
Medical records would later reveal that the doctors at Marion General Hospital shared this concern. In addition to causing the accident, the fog made it impossible for a helicopter to transport him to Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne. After doctors induced a coma, VanCleave was driven by ambulance to Fort Wayne.
“I was organizing some bills the other day and the notes from Marion General to Lutheran,” said VanCleave. “It said, ‘possible death’ in the notes in the sidebar, so it was like, ‘wow, they didn’t think I was going to make it either.”
He isn’t sure how long he was unconscious, but he thinks it was between seven and 10 days. When he awoke, he said he was overwhelmed with all the banners, cards, and people surrounding him.
“It makes you feel like you’ve lived right and made a mark on the world,” he said.
In addition to repairing VanCleave’s internal organs and rebuilding his ribcage with metal straps, they put screws in his hip, knowing that it was a temporary fix that might fail down the road. This eventuality came all too soon.
“I was just about to end therapy and, low and behold, I stepped over the tub and my screws broke,” said VanCleave.
Doctors replaced his hip in mid-December. He was released from the hospital before Christmas and able to spend the holidays with family.
Tragedy would strike one last time, as his father passed away Jan. 16.
“Losing my father was very difficult,” said VanCleave. “It was kind of odd how things played out, that he was able to see me heal right before he passed. I think it was part of God’s plan. I’ll never know.”
VanCleave’s extended absence left a void in the school’s management for much of the school year. The district split the assistant principal duties between two Northfield teachers, Jon Higgins and Todd Eltzroth. Since early October, each has split time between teaching classes and acting as interim assistant principal.
“Todd has an administrator’s license and Jon is working on one, so it gave them an opportunity to see if, realistically, that’s what they want,” said VanCleave. “It couldn’t have been in better hands.”
The job he was away from is not an easy one. In addition to overseeing the safety and discipline of the student body, Van Cleave has a hand in managing the Northfield staff, substitute teachers, transportation of students, the student and teacher handbooks, and student work permits. He says that having two teachers, who were familiar with the school, fill in as assistant principal was a big help in making sure things ran smoothly.
“The key element is the family unity here and how everybody works together to help the team out,” said VanCleave. “It’s just an exceptional group of people to work with on a daily basis and for the most part, we get a majority of parents’ support.”
During VanCleave’s recovery, his own two children, Carson, 8, and Zach, 16, had offer their own support, picking up household duties as their father recovered.
“It helped everyone learn some responsibility and work together,” said VanCleave. “Zach would help with laundry more. Carson would ensure that he helped. He straightened up some things in the back yard.”
He recalled directing Zach as he worked to replace a showerhead, and how Zach was excited to do that for his dad. He also knows that it was painful for his sons.
“It’s kind of tough to see dad, their role model, all broken up,” he said. “My oldest is a lot like me and didn’t want to talk about it a whole lot. My youngest would get a little antsy and walk around. It was hard on those boys and tough on everybody. I never had to see my dad torn up like that, but my brother was very helpful through the whole process. They have a great, supportive family at home.”
On Feb. 17, VanCleave drove to work for the first time since his accident. He has yet to replace his car. He’s not sure whether the car he was driving at the time of the accident added to his injuries or saved his life. He later found out that the engine mounts in his Honda Civic are designed to break, dropping the engine to the ground instead of being pushed back toward the driver.
“I gave my larger car to my son to ensure his safety,” said VanCleave. “Maybe I would have been better off in my big 2012 Chevy Impala, or maybe I would have been killed. Who knows. As a father, you try to protect your kids, you know. I never thought it would happen to me.”
He says he doesn’t have much lasting pain, though his breathing is not as deep as it used to be because of the metal strapping. He looks forward to getting back in shape, running, biking, and lifting weights like he used to. During a recent visit with a one of the doctors in charge of his operations, he was again reminded how lucky he is to be alive, mobile, and cleared to start working out again.
“When I went back to Lutheran the other day it was very humbling to see the guy that put you back together,” said VanCleave. “He was also glad to see me, and I think it was kind of a gracious moment for all of us. To see them pull up pictures of what was broken, [the doctor] said, ‘you know, you shouldn’t have made it.’”
As he eases back into his duties as assistant principal, he is reminded daily that keeping the school running in his absence was a team effort. In character, he is very grateful to his coworkers for picking up the slack in his time of need.
“It’s not about me, it’s about this being a great place, a great community,” he said. “As hard as it’s been, I couldn’t ask for a better conclusion.”