AMBOY – Dustin Stevens celebrated his 27th birthday this week by taking a trip to see his doctor.
Stevens, confined to a wheelchair because of a 2005 car accident in Rock Falls, had to be helped to his family's van.
From the door of his family's Amboy home, down the long, turning, black metal ramp and into the handicap accessible van, Stevens was helped along the way by his mother, Becky Pollard, who has served as his personal nurse and caretaker for the past 9 years.
The trip to the doctor's office, Pollard said, was Stevens' first trip outside since November because he is prone to pneumonia.
Stevens can hear, but he can't can't speak, so his family and doctors aren't sure how well he can see, Pollard said. He has limited control of his body, and must be turned about every 3 hours at night so he doesn't develop sores.
It's Pollard who gets up to reposition her son. She said she hasn't slept a full night in 9 years.
"When you think of a severe accident, there's a black and white," Pollard said from her Amboy home, standing next to Dustin's bed. "I mean, people get injured, and then they get better. Or people get injured and they don't survive. Dustin is the gray area. Dustin survived. Not the Dustin we knew, but that's why I say Dustin has two birthdays.
"He has the one that he was actually born. And then he has the one that, basically, we were given a different Dustin, on Jan. 21, 2005."
Pollard remembers the night of the accident. And so does Dustin's younger brother, 21-year-old Dylan Stevens.
"[I remember] getting woken up at 1 in the morning, mom saying, 'Dustin's been in an accident, we gotta go.' And then we rushed to Rockford," Dylan said. "Just a lot of waiting until we could actually see him."
Dustin spent 5 months in hospitals and rehab facilities – in Rockford and Chicago – where he celebrated his 18th birthday, his mother said.
When he returned home to Amboy, his primary care was taken over by Pollard, who was a nurse before the accident, and a team of six doctors. Stevens' stepfather, Eddie Pollard, works just two blocks from home so he can make it back quickly if he needs to help during the day.
Dylan Stevens and his girlfriend, Dani Kessel, also help with his brother's care when needed.
In that sense – having a close support group – Stevens is lucky, Pollard said, because other families who deal with similar situations might not have a parent or family member with medical experience.
"There's people out there, that this just happened to, and they're just starting this journey we've been on for 9 years," Pollard said.
March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Pollard and Dylan Stevens have been wearing green ribbons that Kessel made. They stress the importance of wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle or a bicycle.
They share Stevens' story with those who will listen. Pollard has connected with other families through a support group on Facebook, where more experienced families lend wisdom and advice.
"This can happen to anyone," she said. "No one is exempt."
Stevens' bedroom used to be the family's living room. The walls have pictures of Stevens before and after the accident, as well as pictures of friends and family. Pollard has a scrapbook that chronicles Stevens' life.
Just more than halfway through the book – next to a page showing him as a smiling student at Amboy High School – is a page with a photograph of the smashed car Stevens was riding in and an article from after the accident.
"You're living your life, and in a moment – the blink of an eye – it can be taken away," Dylan Stevens said. "And this can be your reality."