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updated: 1/19/2013 3:49 PM

West Chicago teen beginning long road back from brain injuries

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  • Alex Novak, 15, of West Chicago, receives a visit from St. Francis High School varsity football coach Greg Purnell. An August accident left Alex with severe brain injuries.

       Alex Novak, 15, of West Chicago, receives a visit from St. Francis High School varsity football coach Greg Purnell. An August accident left Alex with severe brain injuries.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Alex Novak, 15, of West Chicago, receives a donation from members of the St. John the Baptist School girls basketball team.

       Alex Novak, 15, of West Chicago, receives a donation from members of the St. John the Baptist School girls basketball team.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Step inside the Novak family home in West Chicago and two things immediately wrestle for your attention.

First, there's the Christmas tree, still meant as a symbol of joy even in the middle of January.

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Then, next to the sofa, there's the hospital bed and the maze of buzzing electrical equipment.

On this evening, Alex Novak, 15, is sitting in his wheelchair, wearing his St. Francis High School football jersey and taking his nutrition through a tube because he cannot swallow.

Just five months ago, his life was much different. It was Aug. 18 and Alex was getting ready for his freshman football team's season opener. He had just finished helping his sister, Raquel, pack for college. And now he was riding his bike, just blocks from home, when he was struck by a van.

The accident left him with severe brain injuries. He would spend the next six weeks in a coma.

Months later, he still requires 20 medications. He breathes through a tracheal tube. A vibration vest helps him cough. He is susceptible to respiratory infections. He undergoes treatment for spasms.

His dad, Larry Novak, is a structural engineer who has become well-versed in his son's medical needs.

"We have turned our living room into a hospital room," he says.

Alex and his family face a long and incredibly difficult journey.

But for now, at least, they are not alone.

Helping hands

If you can look beyond the medical equipment, you'll see a photograph on a wall in the Novak house. It's a framed picture of the St. Francis football team, signed by the athletes who wore Alex's jersey number on their helmets for every game this past season.

It's a reminder of what might have been. But it's also a reminder of the kind of kid Alex always has been, the kind of kid whose service and leadership in a wide swath of community groups earned him an award in eighth grade from a local chapter of the American Legion.

Now some of those same groups are paying Alex back for some of his good deeds by launching fundraising campaigns or simply stopping by to support the boy and his family.

"We're doing our best to improve his life as he has always improved the others that have interacted with him," his dad says.

Health insurance is covering costs like round-the-clock nursing care for Alex at home. But there are looming quality-of-life costs. The family is considering a stair lift so Alex can access the home's second floor and a van suited for wheelchairs.

The St. Francis community is eager to help Alex, and school officials plan to sit down with the family to discuss their needs and possibilities for fundraisers, said the school's president, Tom Bendar.

"The family has just really been a model of courage and compassion," he said.

Before heading off for St. Francis, Alex attended St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Winfield. This week, Mike Zierk, coach of that school's seventh-grade girls basketball team, and some of his players presented Alex and his family with a check for roughly $1,500. Several St. Francis coaches were on hand along with Bednar.

Zierk originally hatched a plan to raise funds to replace the aging sound system in the Winfield school's gym and organized a pub crawl to support the cause. But he switched gears once he learned about the accident through his daughter Shannon, a longtime friend of Alex's sister.

He set aside the proceeds of the pub crawl for Alex, then created a program in which parents and fans could contribute money based on how members of his basketball team played last Sunday -- maybe 25 cents for a layup or 50 cents for a steal.

"After the game, people came up to me and just handed me money," Zierk says. "One guy handed me four $100 bills."

Zierk is planning another pub crawl this spring and says he will continue to collect donations for the family at games through Feb. 3. You can call him at (708) 997-2554 if you're interested in pitching in.

"When a man says his goal for his son is just to improve his quality of life going forward … it makes you think twice about what you have," says Zierk, who graduated from St. Francis. "It was an easy decision."

Happy memories

Every year at Christmas, Larry Novak compiles a book of family pictures. Look at them now and they are filled with snapshots of Alex's life before the accident. There's Alex flying a remote-controlled plane, Alex running a half-marathon with his girlfriend, Alex striving for his black belt in karate.

They show a kid who was always doing something, often to help others.

He led classes of 3- to 5-year-olds at the International Martial Arts Association in Aurora, where over the summer he became the youngest student to notch a black belt.

"He had excellent motivational and leadership skills already at his age," said Gillian Hernandez, the association's director who's helping coordinate a kickathon in March to raise money for Alex.

Among his passions, Alex began the process of earning a pilot's license at the DuPage Airport with his eye on becoming an Air Force pilot.

For the past five years, he delivered presentations during DuPage Area Engineers Week. He was three badges and a service project shy of becoming an Eagle Scout. He played the trumpet. And he served as an altar server at St. John the Baptist.

His dad had to build extra shelves in one room in the home to accommodate Alex's Lego designs.

"He was one of those kids who always had something going on, if not double- or triple-booked," Larry Novak says.

'He's a good kid'

The accident in the intersection of Donald Avenue and Prince Crossing Road left Alex with diffuse axonal damage, disrupting pathways in his brain, says his mom, Donna Novak.

Alex's dad and sister were in their driveway when they heard the collision. His mom was delayed in traffic after visiting Alex's grandfather in Chicago.

"When (Raquel) called, screaming in my ear, I was trying to guide her on first aid on what to do," said Donna Novak, a doctor of veterinary medicine at animal clinics in Hanover Park and Oak Park.

"I've learned things I never thought I'd have to learn," Donna Novak says.

The family takes some comfort in the help offered by people like Zierk, in the visit by St. Francis students who came to the house to sing Christmas carols. But there is pain there, too.

"He's a good kid," Larry Novak says. "Bad things shouldn't happen to good kids."

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