Posted on January 17, 2023

#SamStrong: A Village Rallies for Teen after his Traumatic Brain Injury

In September, 16-year-old Sam Smalldon was airlifted to Corewell Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital after a car crash.

Sam was driving in his hometown of Holland, when he lost control of his Chevy Cruze, hit several trees and was thrown from the car. The impact was so violent, the car split in two. Sam suffered serious injuries – including multiple skull fractures, broken bones and a severe traumatic brain injury (or TBI).


Life-Saving Care after a TBI

Left in critical condition, Sam had open brain surgery that night. His family wasn’t sure if he would survive. Thanks to the life-saving efforts at Helen DeVos, he made it out of the ICU and was able to transfer to inpatient pediatric rehabilitation at Mary Free Bed two weeks later.

“When Sam came to Mary Free Bed, he was in between a persistent vegetative state and minimally-conscious state,” said Riley Frens, Sam’s speech-language pathologist at Mary Free Bed.

There were signs that Sam was emerging from his coma, and it was the start of a rehabilitation journey that would bring a village together.


Finding Motivation in Therapy

His recovery team grew to nearly 50 Mary Free Bed staff members – including doctors, nurses, nurse techs and therapists. They quickly learned that family, friends and sports were especially motivating in Sam’s therapy sessions.

“Unlike adults, who are often times intrinsically motivated to get back to supporting a family, kids don’t always have those same motivations,” said Penny Adams, Mary Free Bed pediatric occupational therapist and team lead. “Our team specializes in determining what is meaningful to that patient.”

Motivated to get back to what he loved – coupled with the healing strength of therapy dogs and music therapy – Sam began to show slow and steady progress.


Sam’s Village Grows

Beyond our hospital doors, Sam’s greater community of villagers also rallied for his recovery.

A junior at West Ottawa High School, Sam is a well-known student and avid football and baseball player. Support for the teen grew on the sidelines of his recovery. Sam’s widespread team of classmates, teachers and community members rooted for him from afar, showing their #SamStrong support at games and school.

Sam’s inpatient room was filled with reminders of support back home – including cards, #SamStrong bracelets, and a teddy bear wearing his jersey. Fueled by his growing village, it took over a month of therapy before Sam could walk and talk again.

And then, he had everyone at hello.


Hitting a Turning Point

Six weeks after arriving at Mary Free Bed, Sam whispered his first words after the accident, saying, “Hi, Mom.” It was a sign of hope and a milestone turning point in his recovery.

“The awareness started coming back and his words started,” said Sam’s mom, Jill Smalldon. “We’ve come all the way to where we are today where he’s making jokes.”

Throughout the journey, Jill kept an engaged community apprised of Sam’s recovery via Facebook. A Go Fund Me fundraiser for Sam’s road to recovery eclipsed its $22,500 goal. What’s more, an abundance of emotional support poured in from West Michigan and beyond.


100 Days of Hard Work

After 100 days of recovering from his brain injury at Mary Free Bed, Sam made miraculous strides and graduated on December 30. He returned home with his family.

“It’s so bittersweet to say goodbye to those who have tirelessly worked to help Sam ‘come back’ to who he is today,” said Jill. “The many impactful people at Mary Free Bed have forever touched our hearts and will continue to be part of our lives forever.”

After inpatient, there is still much work to do on the road to recovery. Sam has a diffuse axonal brain injury, which means he’ll be working intensively to remap his brain to improve his short-term memory and communication. Sam will continue outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapy weekly.

“The combination of how dedicated and how willing he is to work, along with the support he has, are on his side,” said Riley. “It will take one foot in front of the other to improve his memory and goals, but I do see great things for Sam.”


Sam will start schooling remotely until he’s ready to attend school in-person. His West Ottawa High School village is ready and waiting for him to brighten their hallways and classrooms once again.

The Smalldon’s team at Mary Free Bed continues to root for Sam, and will be here for them every strong step of the way.

Watch his story story below.




Sam’s story of recovery was also covered by our friends at:



Teen’s first words after devastating crash lets mom know: ‘You’re going to get your kid back’

‘People are so generous,’ says mom of West Ottawa athlete recovering from crash


13 On Your Side

West Ottawa teen leaving hospital after 100 days of recovery following crash


Ask For Mary: Traumatic Brain Injury Recovery at Mary Free Bed

Mary Free Bed provides a full spectrum of care to support TBI recovery for kids and adults. Services include inpatient stays, outpatient medical care and therapy, and a host of other resources. Both our inpatient and outpatient programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities International.

Learn more about our brain injury services and outcomes here.