Mike Fulkerson’s cell phone began ringing — 8:44 a.m. it read on his screen.
On the other end was his wife, Donna, who immediately put Dr. Wallace Neblett on speakerphone. In a calm tone, Neblett, a pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, delivered the grave news. The CT scan of Mike’s 13-year-old son, Zach, unveiled a completely severed pancreas that required immediate surgery.
“I fell to my knees,” Mike said. “Being in medical sales and knowing you can’t live without a pancreas … I never heard of this and I knew how serious it was. For the first time in my whole life I’m thinking I’m going to lose my son, and that was exactly my first thought — I’m going to lose him.”
Almost exactly a year later to the day, Zach sits in the kitchen of the Fulkerson home in Thompson’s Station. A black Kentucky basketball cap covers his golden brown hair and a small cross dangles around his neck as he eagerly talks about fulfilling his lifelong dream.
This week, Zach, now 14 and a month away from his freshman year at Independence High, is one of 1,446 riders at the 31st annual AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn.
“I’ve really grown up around that track and around that event,” Zach said. “It really means a lot to race in it this year.”
It’s an incredible feat considering that last year, for the first time since he was 6, Zach didn’t make the 70-mile trip with his dad and older brother, Nate, to watch the races. Instead, he spent 11 days in the hospital, nine straight without food or water.
Even more remarkable is that it wasn’t a motocross accident that almost killed him — it was a scooter. Last July, while visiting a friend’s sister in Knoxville, Zach and his buddies took their $200 Razor scooters to a skate park. As he jumped off one ramp and onto another half-pike, his scooter hit the ground awkwardly. Zach tumbled over and landed directly onto his handlebar, which had turned vertically and impaled him in the stomach. What Zach and his friends initially thought was a blow to an empty stomach was much worse. The handlebar pushed his pancreas into his lumbar vertebrae, pinching and severing the pancreas.
But this wasn’t discovered until nearly 24 hours later, when the CT scan reached the hands of Neblett, a former chair of the Department of Pediatric Surgery at Vanderbilt Medical Center. Neblett performed a rare surgery that lasted more than four hours. He sutured the portion of the pancreas that was connected to the duodenum, the first section of the small intestine. Then, using a piece of Zach’s intestines, he connected the severed pancreas to the lower end of the duodenum.
“He basically has two pancreases and a re-routed digestive system,” Mike said. “So it is a miracle. That was our saving grace, being at Vanderbilt.”
Neblett assured the Fulkersons that Zach would make a full recovery. He wouldn’t be on medication the rest of his life, and annual checkups wouldn’t be necessary.
But for the next two months, Zach was sidelined at home as pain would come and go. Watching his second child recover from major surgery, Mike wanted to restore some sense of normalcy.
Hopping back on the dirt bike became Zach’s short-term goal — even sooner than expected. At least sooner than the matriarch would have liked, as just a month after the surgery, Zach was in the backyard sputtering along in first and second gear.
“I wanted him to feel like, ‘All right, life is going to resume one of these days,’ ” Mike said. “So I put him on the dirt bike. I videoed it and Mom drives up. Busted. She wanted to kill me.”
So last fall, Zach, who began motocross racing at age 10, took a first big step at Fast Farms MX Park in Altamont, Tenn. During a practice run, he crashed in the back corner. But he popped right back up, got on the bike and sped off again.
“He didn’t fall apart, guts didn’t come spilling out,” Mike said, laughing. “So that was a big test for us and we just kind of started to get back in the flow of riding.”
Then this year his quest to reach the national championship began. He made it through qualifiers in Bowling Green, Ky., and Little Rock, Ark., to reach the South Central Regional just outside of Houston.
There, racing unknowingly with a broken bone just below his left thumb, he finished seventh in his age division, to earn an alternate spot for the national championships. Two weeks ago, he saw his name on the final list of 42 riders to compete in his age division at Loretta’s.
Not a bad comeback story considering a year ago, racing was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Well, not exactly everyone. As they headed up to Vanderbilt for the surgery, Zach’s then-10-year-old sister, Sara-Grace, surprised her father with an innocent question.
“The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘Does that mean Zach is not going to get to race anymore?’ ” Mike said. “I told her, ‘Sara, I don’t care if he ever races again. I just want him home.’ ”
Now, they can have both.