Inspirational Newsmaker of the Year: Derrick Redcay continues to fight
By Rich Scarcella
The bright yellow sign hangs in Nick Moore's room at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, serving as his daily motivation and inspiration:
"Life has two rules. Rule No. 1, Never Quit. Rule No. 2, Always Remember Rule No. 1."
The gift came from Derrick Redcay, the 2014 Muhlenberg High School graduate who suffered a rare spinal cord stroke in April that initially left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Since that day nine months ago, Redcay has made terrific progress and has returned to his renovated Muhlenberg Township home. He's able to feed himself and continues to undergo physical therapy that he and his family hope will lead to him being able to walk again.
"I've learned to keep fighting and to keep working hard," Derrick said. "Every day is going to be something new. Never give up. Be strong."
"Redcay Strong" has become a rallying cry not only for Derrick, but for all of Berks County. He's been chosen as the Reading Eagle's Inspirational Newsmaker of the Year.
The 18-year-old Redcay has inspired a professional hockey player, firefighters in Philadelphia, the Muhlenberg community and Moore, a 22-year-old Conrad Weiser graduate who has been left paralyzed after a tumor was removed from his spine.
Redcay met Moore last month at Magee during one of his follow-up visits and offered him encouragement.
"It was really heartwarming," said Wanda Moore, Nick's mother. "Here's somebody with his own struggles taking time to reach out to us. He's got his own trials and tribulations that he deals with every day.
"He gave us a little more hope that there's light at the end of the tunnel. When you're sitting here at this stage at the very beginning, it's hard to see down the road because you're dealing with all the little stuff that keeps happening."
Redcay's troubles began a couple of hours after he arrived at school on April 24. He started to feel numbness in his right hand and then his right foot. By noon, his right side had collapsed, and he was taken to St. Joseph Medical Center in Bern Township.
By 3 p.m., he could feel only his left shoulder and left side and was airlifted to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. By 6 p.m., when his parents arrived at Jefferson, their son was in intensive care, paralyzed and on a ventilator.Derrick had suffered a rare spinal cord stroke one day after he helped the Goodwill Fire Company clean up a fire scene and then served as a pinch runner for Muhlenberg in a home game against Wilson.
He had no symptoms or warning signs.
"Our life changed in an instant," said Deb Redcay, Derrick's mother. "But it's what you do with that change that makes all the difference. We are determined like him. We're taking the change and moving forward with it."
A frequent visitor
Ryan Cruthers didn't know Derrick Redcay or his family when he read of his plight in April. But after he was invited to participate in the Redcay Strong Community Day at FirstEnergy Stadium in June, the Reading Royals forward met Deb; her husband, Brian; and their younger son, Daniel.
A few days later, Cruthers drove to Philadelphia for the first of his many visits with Derrick.
"We just hit it off that day," Cruthers recalled. "I'd go to Philadelphia once a week to see him. Now it's turned into sometimes more than once a week. We talk every single day. It's turned into a friendship more than anything."
Cruthers and Derrick have similar backgrounds and interests. Cruthers' grandfather and uncle were five-star chiefs in the New York City Fire Department. Like Derrick, Cruthers likes baseball and is a fan of the New York Yankees and Derek Jeter.
Cruthers often spends an hour or so visiting Derrick at home and attends some of his therapy sessions at HealthSouth Reading Rehabilitation Hospital.
"I've seen him have maybe one or two bad days since June," Cruthers said. "To have just two bad days with what he's going through is amazing. He knows there are a lot of people watching him, and he wants to prove any doubters wrong."
"All the things he's doing already, he wasn't supposed to do. It's from his hard work and his positive mind."
Cruthers and Derrick have a deal to motivate one another. For every goal that Cruthers scores, Derrick has to eat an orange or a serving of pudding by himself.
"He's pushing me to score more, and I'm pushing him to do things that I know he can do," Cruthers said. "I know he can feed himself, but he doesn't like to because it's hard work for him."
"We're always betting, whether it's a game on TV or something else. If he loses, he has to feed himself or do 10 extra minutes of exercise."
Cruthers wears two Redcay Strong bracelets and occasionally a Redcay Strong cap. Derrick will be the first to let him know if he has a bad game.
"I think about him multiple times a day, whether it's during a game or when I wake up," Cruthers said. "The guy's always on my mind. I'm trying to impress him. I'm trying to do the best I can for him. I know he's trying to do the best he can to get better."
Firefighters reach out
Billy Auty didn't know Derrick or his family until he received word that he was a patient at Jefferson. Someone had contacted then-Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers because Derrick was a volunteer fireman with Goodwill.
Auty is a lieutenant with Engine 20/Ladder 23 in Chinatown, better known as the House of Dragons, the closest firehouse to Jefferson and Magee.
"The first night we went to Jefferson, Derrick was in a bad way," Auty said. "He was definitely hurting physically, but more emotionally. His demeanor wasn't as positive as it was when he left Magee."
"When we left, his mom said that really pumped him up. That really hit me hard because I have two sons. When I got to the elevator with my guys, I was crying."
Auty and other firefighters from his station made regular visits to Magee to see Derrick, even if it was for five or 10 minutes. They brought meals to him, and even had the Philadelphia Police & Fire Pipes & Drums play at a ceremony when Derrick received his Firefighter 1 certification.
When Derrick was discharged from Magee, Auty and others from the House of Dragons gave him a lunch and a plaque that hangs in his den. They made him a permanent member of their company.
"He's resilient," Auty said. "He's constantly positive. Even when he had rough days, he always seemed to look on the bright side of things. He fights every day, whether it's moving one finger or his arm or being able to breathe on his own."
"He has no give-up, no sense of 'I've had enough.' I know now he's able to feed himself. He wasn't able to do that when he left Magee. We see that and it fires people up. It's a motivating factor not only for me but for the whole station."
Impacting countless people
Back home in Berks County, Derrick's stroke and recovery have impacted countless people.
The Muhlenberg community rallied around him and his family and continues to provide support. They send cards to Derrick and drop off food or other gifts.
"It's a terrible and tragic thing that happened," said Muhlenberg baseball coach Brian Kopetsky.
"But sometimes something good comes out of it. You read about all the bad things. You read a story like this, and you find there are a lot of really good people out there doing a lot of really good things."
Some teams in the Berks Baseball League took up collections for Derrick. One team, Berks Catholic, wore red T-shirts with his name and number on them. Others wore Redcay Strong wristbands and bracelets.
Teachers from every school in the Reading School District, where Deb is employed as a kindergarten teacher at Glenside Elementary School, donated $6,000.
"You say things to a team like, 'Play every game like it's your last because you never know when your last game is going to be,'" Kopetsky said. "When you say things like that, you never think of how life can turn on a moment's notice. Somebody's life can be turned completely upside down like Derrick's was.
"I tell Derrick that he has the ability to change people's lives. He might not know it. He can be a motivational speaker. People are going to want to hear his story."
Hearing his story
People like Nick Moore might need to hear his story.
Moore, a Penn State senior and biochemistry major, was experiencing pain in his back while finishing his degree requirements in the fall at Berks Campus. He didn't know the cause of the pain until doctors at St. Joseph ordered an MRI, which found a tumor on his spine on Oct. 27.
He quickly was flown to Penn State Hershey Medical Center, where doctors decided they did not want to perform surgery on him because they were afraid the tumor was too large and in a difficult location. They decided to treat it with steroids in order to shrink it and get the swelling down.
After a biopsy was done Oct. 30, Moore began to have respiratory distress during the night. Doctors performed emergency surgery on him the next day.
"The pressure that the tumor was putting on the spine was causing him not to breathe," Wanda Moore said. "He had to remove four vertebrae in order to remove the tumor."
"We were told we had to give it time to see what would happen once the swelling went down and the healing of the spinal cord began. The doctor couldn't promise us whether Nick would get any movement. It could be days, months, years or maybe never. We just have to wait and see if it will come back."
Moore was moved to Magee in November after his mother was put in contact with Deb Redcay by a mutual friend. He's had several infections, which have slowed his progress.Moore has received regular visits from his friends at Penn State, Conrad Weiser and Genesius Theatre, but Derrick's brief visit last month deeply affected him.
"I think Derrick was his eye-opening," Wanda Moore said. "I keep showing him Derrick's Facebook page of what he's doing and where he's going. It just gives him a little more inspiration to keep trying harder because he can look to Derrick. He was at the same place as Nick was. Look at him now. Look at him go."
Night at the Royals
Derrick and his family were the guests of the Royals last month at Redcay Strong Night at Santander Arena. Cruthers wheeled him out to center ice to drop the ceremonial first puck. Derrick has called that night the best thing that's happened to him since his stroke.
"It was a good feeling to see everyone stand up and clap," he said. "They knew about my story. Both benches were cheering. Players were tapping their sticks on the ice and on the boards. The referees were clapping."
Derrick has become somewhat of a celebrity in the county and is often recognized. He attended a Muhlenberg soccer game to support Alexis Knarr, his girlfriend. He's been to several Royals games. He's been out to restaurants.
One day in the summer, Brian Redcay was driving a van on Route 61 and was sitting in a left turn lane at a traffic light. A car pulled up in the right lane, and the driver recognized Brian.
"People pulled up next to us and said, 'Hi, Mr. Redcay,' " Brian said. "I looked over and didn't know them. It was a bunch of ladies. Then I heard them yell, 'Oh my gosh, Derrick is in there. Derrick's in the van.' That was sort of funny."
Derrick's recovery has touched the lives of people he never knew. Fleetwood resident David Houck is in his 70s and is the father of Muhlenberg girls soccer coach Dan Houck. He put off heart bypass surgery until last year.
"You gave me the courage to get this done," he told Derrick.
Derrick still has a long road ahead of him. He requires a nurse to be with him during the day and overnight, but he's making steady progress. He can raise his left biceps to his face and feed himself. He's striving to brush his teeth and drink without support.
Therapists are working on strengthening his right arm. During a session last month, he received even more hope while they helped him stretch his hamstrings and lower back.
"I told them that I could feel the muscles in my lower back," he said. "It felt good. I could feel the muscles being stretched."
He'd still like to attend college and pursue a career in firefighting. He had been scheduled to enroll in the University of New Haven in August.
"They told us 95 percent of strokes go to the brain," Brian Redcay said. "In a way we're thankful it didn't go to the brain. Because if it would have put him in a vegetative state or in an incoherent state, that would have killed us.
"We can live with this. He can lead a productive life. We can do stuff as a family. We value and cherish that. It would have been hard to lose his humor, his smile, his wit.
"Derrick spends a lot of time in his den, adjacent to his new bedroom. As he sits there, he's surrounded by signs of encouragement: Cruthers' hockey stick; bats from Philadelphia Phillies Manager Ryne Sandberg and former Reading Phillie Mike Spidale, who gave him hitting lessons; a photo of the 2014 Muhlenberg baseball team signed by the players and coaches; and an autographed photo from President Barack Obama.
There's also a horseshoe that was found by workers excavating the property for the new addition, built by the Forino Co. Derrick can use all the luck he can get, but those who know him say his progress has been a direct result of his support system and his perseverance.
"I've become stronger and realized that stuff can come back," he said. "People say they've seen me come a long way. They say they can see a big change from the beginning. So, yeah, I consider myself an inspiration."