Jonathan Cermak recognized one of the first responders to the scene of his accident, and remembers imploring him to find an inhaler.
“I’m having an asthma attack,” he managed to say.
The rescuer was stunned. “Kid, you’re busted all to snot.”
Which was true. It wasn’t asthma, but a collapsed right lung. And that wasn’t the worst of Jonathan’s problems. He’d injured his brain in three separate places. The innermost layer of his carotid artery had collapsed. And he’d broken six ribs, a wrist, and most of the large bones south of his waist – his pelvis, the left femur, a tibia and fibula, and both ankles. For days, they pulled pieces of his shattered dashboard from his left knee.
The drunk driver who crossed four lanes of traffic to strike Jonathan head-on?
Treated and released for minor injuries. The courts gave him a year in jail – he served a total of 10 months – and five years’ probation.
Jonathan, however, was left to lead a life of pain and suffering. But he counts Hope Network among the players who helped him come back from the brink of death.
Jonathan spent his early years in Eaton Rapids, the son of a schoolteacher mom and a police officer. He grew up mostly in Portage, where his father Daniel serves as a patrolman today.
Jonathan, 29, comes from a long line of proud men and women who have spent their working lives in law enforcement – father, uncle, aunt and a cousin. And so it became his lifelong dream, one he was well within reach of when the accident changed the bearing on the compass he’d set so many years prior.
Even as a student at Parchment High School, he aspired to be an officer, earning a scholarship to Kalamazoo Valley Community College from a law enforcement organization in that same county.
One of his first jobs as a young adult was as a security officer for a mall near his home. After that, he worked for the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program, helping to coordinate efforts for inmates at a halfway house.
“I’ve just always had a huge interest in law enforcement,” he says.
That dream came to a sickening halt, however, when he was 21, on the evening of Dec. 19, 2002. Jonathan was a freshman at Western Michigan University, and on his way home from work the first eve of winter break. Just a half-mile from home, his 1988 Oldsmobile was struck by a man at the wheel of a newer Chevy S-10 4X4 pickup.
Moments before, Jonathan had signed off with a co-worker with the words “Drive home safe.”
Rescuers had to peel back the roof of his car to extricate Jonathan’s broken body. He spent the next 12 days in a drug-induced coma, and at the outset, it was touch and go.
While his buddies enjoyed Christmas vacation, Jonathan stayed hospitalized well into January, then was transferred to a rehab facility in Vicksburg.
He couldn’t walk. His speech was slurred. His left arm was useless, the result of the damage to his carotid, which in effect had caused a stroke that paralyzed his left side.
In the spring of 2003, he was moved from Kalamazoo County north to Hope Network’s Sojourners facility in Grand Rapids, which provides transitional living services for people with brain or spinal cord injury. He would live there for four months, and it’s where he learned in ways big and small how to battle back.
“I’m six-foot-five and weigh 215 pounds,” he remembers of his stature upon entry into Sojourners some eight years ago, “and this little gal named Olivia, a physical therapist from Africa, I think, became my drill sergeant.”
“She didn’t put up with anything from me. I remember her pointing to a big mat table, and she said, ‘OK, I want you to transfer up to the middle of the table, and then back again into your wheelchair.’”
The pain was excruciating. None of his joints would cooperate. The left arm sagged, and the bones in his lower body cried out in protest. It hurt everywhere.
“I was crying I was so frustrated,” says Jonathan. “I slammed my shoes to the ground and screamed ‘I hate this place.’”
But he didn’t quit. Lemonade from lemons, he told himself.
Little by little – with prodding from Olivia and countless others – Jonathan Cermak walked, even though some wondered if he ever would again. He regained his speech, and he exited with only a cane for assistance.
“Everybody there was just amazing,” he says of his stay at Sojourners. “I met some terrific people along the way.”
Following his release from Sojourners, Jonathan underwent more than three years’ intensive outpatient therapy back in Portage. He’d put college on hold that entire time, but he returned, starting out with just a single class at WMU, and then adding more each semester.
He graduated in 2008 with a degree in Corrections, and along the way, found a wife in Nicole, whom he married in 2006. They have one daughter, Dannica, 5. They share a happy home on the outskirts of Kalamazoo with a dog and three cats.
Nicole is employed in food service. Jonathan – robbed of most the use of his left arm – might never be a police officer. But he is making gains in law enforcement.
Today, he’s a case manager in charge of delivering pre-trial services on behalf of the Calhoun County Sheriff Department in Battle Creek. His caseload numbers around 140. He also helps judges decide on a proper bond for those accused of a crime.
His dream is to one day become a probation officer, working closely with convicted criminals.
When he’s not working, Jonathan pursues his other passion – the outdoors – especially when visiting property his grandparents own in northern Leelanau County.
“Outdoor is my passion,” he says, adding that “My family and my hunting are the two things that mean everything to me. Hunting is really the only think that I have left, that wasn’t taken away from me.”
His comeback story, in fact, has been picked up by three outdoor publications, focusing on his tenacity in the face of injuries that might prompt another young man to sit it out.
But since the accident, he’s resumed hunting everything from geese to turkey to deer. And even with one remaining bad arm, he’s found ways to get the most out of life. That includes a sense of humor, remembering for instance, what it was like when little Dannica was just a tot, and wife Nicole was off to work.
“There I was, taking care of her alone at times,” he says with a smile. “You ever try changing a 2-year-old’s diaper with just one hand?!”