The Chrysler 300 veered across two lanes, darted off I-75, shot through the brush, rammed into a tree and flipped on its side — right in front of a picture of Jesus, a billboard on the northbound side of the highway.
Gregory Piscopink, 16, climbed up and out of the car, past his father, who was trapped in the passenger’s seat. Somehow, miraculously, Gregory walked away unscathed.
His father, Greg Piscopink, had suffered multiple broken bones. His aorta was torn and there was bleeding in his brain. The car had collapsed around him. People stopped and tried to help, ripping apart the car, pulling out cushions, trying to free him.
“Mom, mom, we just got into an accident,” Gregory said on his cellphone.
“What do you mean?” his mom, Jennifer, asked. “Are you OK?”
“What about Dad?” she remembers asking.
“Dad’s not OK,” he said.
It was early evening on Aug.15. Jennifer made it to the scene from their home in Grand Blanc in under 10 minutes. Her husband, Greg, was still trapped in the car.
Greg was an assistant football coach at Birmingham Brother Rice. Gregory was the Brother Rice starting quarterback, and they were coming home from practice.
“Those are my boys!” Jennifer remembers screaming, running to the scene. “Those are my boys.”
“Ma’am, you gotta come with us,” somebody said.
“No, my husband.”
“He’s still in the car,” somebody said. “We still haven’t gotten him out.”
“Is he alive?” she asked.
“We don’t know.”
They forced Jennifer and her son into an ambulance.
“I was sweating profusely,” she said. “I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t move. I just kept focusing on the back windows of the ambulance. I said, ‘Please God. Don’t stop the traffic. Please don’t stop the traffic.’ I was so thankful for every car that went by. If they stopped the traffic, he was dead.”
Those cars never stopped; and for this, above all else, she is thankful beyond words.
Thankful for good health
Greg Piscopink was pulled from the car using the Jaws of Life, a hydraulic rescue tool that helps speed up vehicle extraction. He was taken to Genesys Regional Medical Center in Grand Blanc and was in critical condition. He had nine broken ribs and his left arm was shattered from his shoulder to elbow. His left foot was broken and his right foot dislocated. His lower left leg was broken in multiple spots. His right femur was cracked, his right hip socket demolished, his pelvis broken. The bones in his face were broken in two places, his jaw in three spots.
Greg, a history teacher at Detroit Renaissance, had smashed his head and there was a minor bleed in his brain.
But the most serious, life-threatening injury was in his chest. There was a tear in his aorta, the main artery that carries blood away from his heart to the rest of his body
“We weren’t there an hour,” Jennifer said. “They were like, his aorta is torn; it’s a race against time. They told me that 95 percent of people who have a torn aorta don’t make it to the hospital alive.”
Greg, 44, had several factors going in his favor. He didn’t smoke and was in great shape. A former football player at Farmington Hills Harrison and Grand Valley State, he was known for his toughness and determination. While at GVSU, he cracked a vertebra in his neck and kept playing. They discovered it after the game.
After the crash, Greg was airlifted from Grand Blanc to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Jennifer drove to Detroit and beat the helicopter by about 5 minutes. When she walked into the waiting room, there were 65 people waiting for her, including the entire Brother Rice coaching staff, players and friends.
For the support of the football team and the entire Brother Rice family, she is thankful beyond words.
Thankful for being ‘Right by Jesus’
Jennifer received more than 100 messages on Facebook.
One man said he saw the accident, went to a church and lit a candle.
“I had hundreds of people private messaging me through Facebook, just reaching out to me,” she said. “It went on and on and on and on. Hundreds, who care and love us. Can we help you? Can we do this? Can we do that?”
Three strangers found her through Facebook and told her they had witnessed the accident.
“They said the car was going about 75 miles an hour in the center lane and the next thing you know, it went — vvrrrruup — off the road, through the brush and up the trees,” she said.
Gregory, a junior at Brother Rice, was driving the car home from practice like he always did. His father was in the passenger’s seat with his feet on the dash.
“They were just 1,000 yards past the Clarkston exit and he fell asleep at the wheel,” Jennifer said. “It shot off the highway into the tree line.”
After the accident, some people took videos at the scene, while others tried to save her husband. “When I saw the video and I saw my son, the look on his face, come out of that car, he thought he had killed him,” she said.
A few days later, she walked the accident scene, trying to find her husband’s phone.
“Have you ever driven up I-75 and you see the big Jesus Christ (sign)?” she asked.
“That’s where the accident happened. People ask, ‘where did it happen?’ I say, ‘Right by Jesus.’ ”
For all those people who reached out and tried to help, the Piscopinks are beyond thankful.
Thankful for community
Gregory sat in a chair in the intensive care unit, staring at his father. He struggled with grief, wondering what his father was going to say when he woke up. Would he be mad?
Would he hate him forever? But his father couldn’t talk. He was heavily sedated and his jaw was wired shut.
Greg underwent nine major surgeries in less than two weeks.
“Greg was so sedated,” Jennifer said, “and on so many drugs, that he was non-responsive for almost three weeks.”
They weren’t sure if it was a medically induced coma or if he slipped into it on his own.
“They told me he would be in critical care for at least three months,” Jennifer said. “If Greg had been 10 years older or out of shape, they told me that 75 percent of the time, with these types of injuries, they don’t make it out of critical care.”
Surgeons put a stent in his heart to fix the aorta, and Jennifer chronicled every step of their journey on Facebook.
“This is my ROCK and I need him!” she wrote in an Aug.16 post. “I love him soooo much it hurts! Pray he can recover and be the amazing person he is!”
As the doctors performed several surgeries to piece his body back together — on his feet, his pelvis, his arm, his legs, his jaw — there were countless complications. His lung collapsed, and he developed pneumonia. His blood pressure skyrocketed and he was given a feeding tube.
He was so heavily drugged that most of the time he was totally out of it. But occasionally, he would squeeze his wife’s hand. That was his only form of communication.
“Greg has always been one bad ass man so look out he is full of steel soon!!!!” Jennifer wrote on Facebook. “Thank you again for the outpouring prayers and support!!! Will update again very soon! We are WARRIORS (the whole football team is with us). Greg Piscopink we love you beyond words!”
Hundreds of friends and family were following on Facebook. They sent her encouragement and love and offered to help, even when Greg couldn’t accept many visitors.
For all of those messages, in the midst of an endless nightmare, Jennifer is thankful beyond words.
Thankful for Brother Rice
What about Gregory?
What should he do about football?
“Gregory missed five days of practice,” Brother Rice coach Adam Korzeniewski said. “I don’t know if this is the right or wrong thing, but at some point, you are sitting in a room, staring at your dad, and maybe it’s best that you get back. It had to happen for his own good.”
Gregory returned to practice and started the first game of the season at quarterback, while his dad was still in a coma. He dedicated the game to his father, threw a couple of touchdown passes and the Warriors beat Detroit Jesuit, 28-0. After the game, down on the field, the game ball was given to the Piscopink family, as Gregory wiped tears from his eyes.
The Brother Rice players held hands, circling around Jennifer, Gregory and his sister Lauren, and they all prayed.
“I think school and football have helped Gregory keep his head above water,” Jennifer said. “ ‘I’m going to do this for my dad. I’m going to make him proud of (me) and I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep pushing.’ ”
While Jennifer spent nights at the hospital, sleeping in a chair, Gregory stayed at teammates’ houses to be closer to Brother Rice. Football gave him an outlet, and this team gave him unconditional support.
Football also gave Jennifer a momentary relief. On game days, Jennifer left the hospital and went to her son’s games — the only time all week that she got some fresh air.
“It showed me why Brother Rice is Brother Rice,” Korzeniewski said. “You deal with adversity and that’s part of the message of the school. I’m grateful that if it had to happen, they had that community, in addition to everybody else, to be there for them.”
For all these coaches and players, the Piscopink family is beyond grateful.
Thankful for all the baby steps
Five teams of doctors worked on Greg because his injuries were so complex.
When a surgeon fixed his left arm, there were so many pins that the X-ray looked like a miniature ladder had stuck to his arm.
Doctors did brain tests on Aug.20. “And we have lotsa [sic] activity!!! That is good news!” Jennifer wrote on Facebook.
The story spread. Greg’s former students at Renaissance left messages on Facebook about how much he had changed their lives. And a second-grade classroom put together a video wishing him well.
Greg began to open his eyes and respond to commands, blinking once for yes, twice for no.
“He hasn’t been able to move any body parts in 12 days,” Jennifer wrote on Facebook.
“This is another prayer answered! He even winked at me!”
Progress came slowly.
In early September, Greg began to move his shoulders. Jennifer helped him do physical therapy, holding his arms and helping him move them. He couldn’t do it on his own.
“This was very hard for him as he was sweating like he just coached a game on a 100-degree field!” she posted on Facebook.
For all those baby steps, moments of hope and progress, she is thankful beyond words.
Thankful for a sense of humor
For about a month, Greg couldn’t communicate. His mouth was wired shut and he had a tube down his throat.
Jennifer was trying to do everything on her own, battling insurance companies and freaking out about the mounting bills. Greg is a teacher and coach; she works at night cleaning houses and offices. At first, she wasn’t able to work, spending so much time in the hospital. They started a GoFundMe campaign to help pay the bills. More than 500 people have donated.
After they removed the wires and the tube, his first words still live in family lore.
“I remember one of the first things that he said,” Jennifer said. “I kissed him goodbye one day. And he looked at me and said, ‘Do you wanna make out?’ ”
He tried to move over, to make room for her, even though he could barely scooch.
“It was funny,” she said.
For that sense of humor, for all the people who have donated money, they are thankful beyond words.
Thankful for amazing progress
Gregory didn’t know how his father would react to him. He was carrying around guilt but hiding it from almost everybody.
“It was tough at first,” Gregory said. “He was out for a month. We couldn’t talk to him. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, wondering how he was going to react. The first time I was able to talk to him, he kind of laughed about it. It was a sign of relief, to know he’s not angry at me.”
Greg told his son not to worry about it.
That it was going to be OK.
Day after day, when Gregory saw his father’s improvement, it started to ease the guilt.
Doctors predicted that Greg would have a tracheal tube, or at least a porthole, to help him breathe for four to six months.
“But they removed it completely in 29 days,” Jennifer said, proudly.
Doctors said he would spend three months in critical care.
But he busted out in 33 days.
“Greg has made an amazing recovery so far!” Jennifer wrote on Facebook. “Greg is a miracle…. really and truly… doctors cannot believe he is alive!”
Greg was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan (RIM) in Detroit. Gregory helped him do rehab, holding up a football, forcing his dad to reach for it. “Come on, get there, reach!” he said.
Greg moved slowly, groaning.
“Come on,” Gregory said to his father, like a coach talking to an athlete. “Get there, get there.”
Greg doesn’t remember anything about the accident, nor the people who visited him at Henry Ford. Everything is a blur. “I was out for a long time,” he said.
When he woke up for good, when they were able to adjust his pain medication and his personality returned and he started thinking clearly, he was just so thankful to be alive and to be able to help his son get through this.
He can’t imagine the alternative. What would have happened to his son if he would have died?
“I can’t imagine what my son would have had to go through in his life if that would have happened,” Greg said. “I know people go through tough things. But he never would have been right, in my opinion. I’m super happy that I can be with him and my daughter, same thing.”
Thankful? That doesn’t even come close to describing it.
After two weeks at RIM, Greg was transferred to Maple Manor Rehab Center of Novi.
He still can’t walk. Can’t stand. And there are times when he can’t quite find the right word. But there have been massive amounts of progress.
Three weeks ago, he couldn’t turn over. Now, he can roll over on his own.
“Thankful doesn’t begin to describe it,” Jennifer said. “It’s a miracle. He’s my life. He’s not just my husband, he’s my best friend. When people are together for so long, they tend to lose each other. But we are like two little kids.”
Jennifer has tried to keep life as normal as possible for her children. Lauren went to a school dance, and Gregory went to Michigan State on a recruiting visit.
Then, Gregory led Brother Rice into the state playoffs. Jennifer went to the games and recorded them on Facebook Live and Greg watched on his cellphone. His dream was for Brother Rice to get to the state championships at Ford Field, which will be played this weekend.
“Watching from outside, and seeing the run that Rice was going on, I thought this could be the year when they make a run,” Greg said.
But Birmingham Groves knocked Brother Rice out in the second round.
“It was disappointing because he wanted to take them to Ford Field, so bad,” Jennifer said. “Greg would have been on the sideline for the game. I don’t care if we had to get him there in a hospital bed. I would have made sure he was there.”
Greg’s short-term memory is still an issue, but it’s improving.
“Our goal is, we are not going to another facility, we are going home,” Jennifer said. “I will do whatever it takes to do what I need at home and he can get outpatient therapy.”
Greg has had lots of time to think about what comes next. “I have something to pay back, feel there is still more,” he said. “I think there is still more that I can do and need to do. Maybe, there is something else I need to do. I am excited.”
In the midst of that excitement, there are questions. He can’t quite make sense of it all. “I’ve seen horrible things that have happened to people,” Greg said. “It’s messed up man. But why?”
“Why do bad things happen to people?” Jennifer asked. “Why does he get to live and a month later, 20 people died in a limo accident? Stuff like that.”
“I hear you,” he said.
“What’s his purpose in life now?” she asked.
“I have more to give,” he said, emphatically.
While the accident ravaged his body, the experience has recharged something deep inside. He isn’t quite sure what direction it will take, but there is something incredibly strong in him. An unmistakable passion to help others.
The other day, Jennifer put up a Christmas tree in their family room. She decorated it in the hope that Greg would be coming home soon.
Hope is a powerful thing.
And for that, being thankful doesn’t quite explain it.