Well-wishers online encourage crash victim in his recovery

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

BY TOM HAYDON Star-Ledger Staff

On Thanksgiving Day weekend, Russ Wardlow's future looked bright.

He was about to complete an economics degree at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Four months earlier, he had been promoted to manager of the clubhouse at the Raritan Valley Country Club, in charge of all food and beverage.

But on Nov. 30, his life changed.

Wardlow left the Hillsborough home of his girlfriend's parent, heading back to the club for late night inventory, his father, Robert Wardlow said. At 11:30 p.m. on Amwell Road in Hillsborough, his car hit a deer that lay on the road after being hit by another vehicle.

Wardlow's 2001 Honda Civic went off the road.

"Police said his car rolled six times, and just before the last time, he was thrown from the car," his father recalled. Russ Wardlow had a lacerated spleen, and suffered facial and shoulder fractures. But the worst injury was to his brain, which was briefly deprived of oxygen, his father said.

A passing driver called police. Rescue workers rushed the 23-year old Woodbridge resident to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where he stayed for three weeks. His parents kept a vigil as a stream of well-wishers dropped by. There were even more telephone calls from people seeking information.

To keep up with all the inquires, Robert Wardlow, who owns a computer consulting service in Woodbridge, put his experience to work and in early December created a Web site, www.getwellruss.com, to give daily updates of his condition. The site also features pictures of his son in the hospital and his wrecked car.

More importantly, the site became an outlet for a torrent of messages. Relatives from the around the world have written to offer their prayers. High school friends and their parents, college friends, co-workers at the country club and many of the club members also logged on to offer their sentiments.

More than 120 people call up the site each weekday.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with your family as Russ makes his recovery. He is a special young man -- extremely hard working, well- mannered, and anxious to do the best job that he can for all of us at RVCC. Just recently, my husband was giving him the 'business' about getting all his papers done for school," wrote one couple who are club members.

"I only met your son a couple times. Every time I saw him he was always smiling. And I bet right now he is doing the same thing. Stay strong and always know a lot of people are praying for your family and Russ," wrote another person.

On Dec. 23, Russ Wardlow was transferred to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in East Orange for treatment of the brain injuries, the most serious consequence of the crash. Messages on the Web site are evidence of the closely watched updates Robert Wardlow writes.

"I was excited to hear about so many positive signs! Russ breathing on his own, the pressure & blood levels, and his temperature staying low, are huge improvements from his first couple of days. He must be a real fighter!!" wrote another person.

William Hoferer, general manager of the club and Russ Wardlow's boss, visits the Web site every day. "It's been wonderful. I print out the updates daily and post it for the staff. This was a terrible tragedy. This is someone who had everything going for him," Hoferer said.

To Robert and George-Anne Wardlow, it had long been obvious that their son was popular. He played varsity tennis in high school and played trumpet in the marching band. He was president of his fraternity at Rutgers and for this school year was carrying a full load of classes and working full time. Still the number of responses was stunning.

"We never realized the number of people he knew. The common thread is they all can't wait to see his smile," the father said.

People who never met the Wardlows have written words of support.

"As I read through the updates, it was like déjavu. My father has gone through a lot of the same things Russ is going through in his recovery," a woman wrote. "(My father) made it through all that and Russ is much younger, and in much better physical shape than my father was when he went through all of his problems. I'm sure Russ will bounce back rather quickly considering all the trauma he's been through," she said.

"We get lots of anecdotal examples," Robert Wardlow said. "It's very encouraging," he said. He and his wife had seen small signs that show their son is improving. He regained some movement in his arms and legs. He can move his eyes.

"Yesterday (Monday) we reached a milestone when he could open his mouth on command," Robert Wardlow said. However, doctors have told them recovery could last six months to a year, and their son's progress could stop suddenly, the father said. "We have no idea what the outcome will be."