The boy awoke on his back, unable to move or speak.
He could hear his parents, though. They were nearby. So, with his arms down at his sides, he signaled them with his hands until they stuck a pen in his fingers.
With his eyes at the ceiling and a clipboard by his thigh, he scrawled out in barely legible letters one simple, little phrase.
More words would follow. The boy learned it was Christmas morning, and he scribbled Feliz Navidad. Then he wrote the words pain and breathe.
His father comforted him, saying it would hurt to breathe, at least for a while. And that’s when 15-year-old Noah Barbknecht, a Northrop High School freshman and hunting enthusiast, wrote this:
Pain only makes me stronger.
It’s not entirely clear how Barbknecht ended up in a hospital bed in upstate New York, his ability to walk likely gone forever.
One minute he was on the slopes of Mount Snow in Vermont on Christmas Eve. The next he was lying in the snow, unable to feel his legs, blood coming from his nose and mouth.
What is clear, though, is that he now has a community here in Fort Wayne and strangers from all over the world rallying to his side.
They’re sending prayers and money, words of encouragement and lists of specialists to a family whose life is changed forever. A family who, as each day goes by, is becoming increasingly humbled at how their boy’s story is resonating with so many people.
It’s amazing, said the boy’s father, Jason Barbknecht. There’s no reason for them to care, but they do.
It was supposed to be a fun day of skiing.
The family had gone to New York to visit Noah’s brother, Christopher Barbknecht, 26, who once served in the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard but now serves a unit in Albany.
They packed up and went to Mount Snow in Vermont for the day, where Noah began zipping down the easy level slope upon arrival, his father said.
His father described the slope as a little more difficult than normal, even though it was listed as an easy-level there. The family typically skis in Michigan and Ohio, where Noah traversed some of the more difficult slopes.
Noah’s father described the Mount Snow slope as on par with those.
He had gone down three or four times by the time we went down once, Jason Barbknecht said.
Then, as his father rode the ski lift up the hill and as it rose into the air, he spotted below his son lying motionless in the snow. By the time Jason made it to his boy, the ski patrol was already there.
Right from the get go he was complaining about his back and that he couldn’t feel his legs, Jason said.
Medics rushed Noah to a hospital nearby, and he was then flown to a hospital in Albany, where doctors had grim news for his parents, according to his father.
The doctor described Noah’s injuries as those similar to someone stepping in front of a truck on a freeway or someone who had been in a motorcycle accident.
One of his vertebrae had been broken, along with some ribs, and he had a fractured skull and a collapsed lung.
The doctor said with that vertebrae, people who feel their legs have a 50-50 shot at walking again, Jason said. He said those who don’t feel their legs have a 1 percent chance of walking.
Nobody really knows how the accident happened, Jason said.
Noah, who has skied since he was 11, likes to go fast, according to his father. He may have hit a drainage ditch on the side of the mountain that sent him into some ice, Jason theorized.
But it’s hard to tell.
What the family can tell, though, is that Noah will likely be paralyzed below his chest. They’re holding out hope that he may be able to use his abdominal muscles to twist – but that’s just hope.
Sometimes, he lets his parents know that he can still feel his legs. But when they pinch them while he’s not looking, he offers no reaction.
We haven’t fully explained everything to him, his father said. But as smart as he is, we think he knows what’s going on.
Soon, many more would know what’s going on, and they would find out what type of boy Noah Barbknecht is.
‘Sell my house’
Soon after the accident, Christopher Barbknecht went on the crowd-funding website www.gofundme.com and created a place for donations for his brother.
Christmas Eve Changed My Brother’s Life is the header on the site, which lists nearly $2,000 in donations to the family.
And Jason Barbknecht, who is also part of the 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne, said the family is preparing for a life that will be unlike what they had before.
I have to sell my house, he said. The bathrooms and bedrooms are all upstairs. I’m already thinking of all this.
A Facebook page has also been created where the family is posting constant updates about Noah’s progress, which so far has included lots of movies and rest.
Those websites, though, have given the Barbknechts a window into the generosity of others.
Jason used to chastise his wife, whom he met while they were in the Marine Corps, about giving $25 here or there to people she never met whenever she came across a news story like his son’s.
Now, he can’t believe he did so.
To be on the opposite side of this is pretty amazing, Jason said.
People are calling with the names of specialists who can help, or products that have helped them treat their loved ones who are paralyzed, or just sharing that they know the pain the family is going through.
Northrop, where Noah played football, is beginning to organize a fundraiser for Noah, according to people connected to the football program, and should have something in place in the next day or so.
It’s definitely humbling for that many people to care, Jason continued.
And despite the prognosis from the doctors, Jason said he knows what type of boy he raised.
He’s a boy who he first took hunting at 23 months old, a boy who bagged his first game at 6 years old and a boy who loves to hunt down hogs in places like Tennessee and Texas.
But he’s also a boy who has the patience to fish all day, waiting for nibbles in rivers and lakes for hours on end when none seem in sight, according to his father.
Jason worries that Noah hasn’t grasped the situation fully yet, but he knows his son is someone who can handle any type of adversity, even at 15.
He’s the type of boy who wakes up in a hospital bed, tubes coming into and out of him, and writes a good morning message to his folks, and then wishes them a Merry Christmas.
He’s the type of boy who, when his lungs are pressing down and he’s staring at the ceiling and every breath is painful, doesn’t get angry, but instead writes things like:
Pain only makes me stronger.