Cave Country Canoes’ employee ‘a miracle’
Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]
Bret Montgomery reaches for a shorter kayak paddle in the equipment room at Cave Country Canoes in Milltown.
“Try this one,” he advises a customer.
“Reach your hand up,” he says, demonstrating how to determine if a paddle is the correct length.
He ensures the rest of the group are outfitted properly and sends them toward the waiting bus.
There was a period of time when Rhonda and her husband, Gary, didn’t know if their son would live.
It was June of 2015, and Bret had flu-like symptoms. Then, his hands started swelling. A typical 15-year-old country boy, he spent much of his time outdoors and in the woods. Maybe he had gotten into something that was causing the irritation. Their doctor recommended Benadryl. It didn’t help. The doctor then treated Bret for the flu. That didn’t help either.
“He didn’t seem to be getting any better, so I made an appointment for Wednesday,” said Rhonda. “That morning, I got up to get ready and he was doubled over in the floor with stomach pain.”
She rushed him to the doctor, where a tentative diagnosis of appendicitis was made and a CT scan was taken. Rhonda and Bret headed home to pack for the hospital. That’s when Rhonda got the call.
“There was a large mass in his abdominal area, and they told me to get him to Kosair’s immediately,” she said.
Rhonda recalls the surreal moment.
“I couldn’t breathe. I cried. I fell in the floor. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare. It was horrible,” she said. “From that point on, I lived a nightmare for six months.”
Things got worse before they got better.
The following day, Bret awoke in tremendous pain and unable to breathe. When a nurse tried to get him out of bed to head to the X-ray department, he collapsed in the floor and began vomiting.
Bret’s lungs were full of fluid. A surgeon removed about 24 ounces from each lung and put in drainage tubes. The scariest part? Doctors told the couple if they’d been home when Bret collapsed, he would have died.
The Montgomerys soon learned their son had Burkitt lymphoma, a relatively rare, but aggressive, form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While it has a high survival rate, the treatments are very intense, Rhonda said.
On June 17, 2015, Bret received a round of chemotherapy. There’s a one-in-a-million chance this particular medicine won’t clear a person’s system. Bret was that one.
“His organs shut down,” said Rhonda.
By mid-July, he was on a ventilator, was having dialysis and was experiencing uncontrollable seizures. Bret’s heart was also stopping for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, an issue that was traced to a reaction to the sedation medication.
“We were told every day our child wasn’t going to make it … ,” Rhonda said, but she refused to accept that prognosis. “Me, being the strong-headed mother, told them they were wrong … ”
During Labor Day weekend 2015, Bret was coming out of the sedation. He couldn’t sit up and had no control over his body. Suddenly, his blood pressure plummeted and blood started pooling around him. The main artery to his intestines had ruptured.
Finally, Bret was stabilized and a CT scan revealed some good news: the tumor was shrinking. That shrinking had resulted in the torn artery. A surgeon from Norton Hospital went to Kosair to do the surgery.
Rhonda never lost faith or let go of hope. However, it was during this time she began to privately consider that her son might not recover.
Rhonda noted the impact a prayer group had on the family, always offering support.
Just when the situation seemed the darkest, a tiny bit of light entered.
“From that point, believe it or not, he made a huge turnaround,” Rhonda said.
Bret’s body tolerated the treatments. There were no further life-or-death emergencies.
On Nov. 5, 2015, he was moved to Frazier Rehabilitation. Bret, who is 6 feet tall, weighed only 89 pounds. He could not sit up or feed himself. He couldn’t talk, and his parents and caregivers learned he had lost his vision.
“He had to re-learn everything,” said Rhonda.
Three weeks later, the Montgomerys brought Bret home. He wasn’t really well enough, but he desperately wanted to be home for Thanksgiving, his favorite holiday.
Rhonda, who had stayed by her son’s side throughout the ordeal, had learned enough by watching caregivers and therapists work with her son to care for him. Bret’s vision returned, and he learned to speak again.
Bret continued receiving outpatient therapy until May 2019, when the family’s insurance refused to pay for further sessions.
Today, Bret still has some speech difficulty and uses a wheelchair but has regained reflex response in his feet, something the neurologist said likely wouldn’t happen. Rhonda believes Bret will walk again.
“He may not ever be exactly like everyone else,” she said, “but I feel like he will accomplish his goals.”
Bret, now 21, is able to pull himself up and stand for 15 to 20 seconds, a huge milestone, said his mother.
Despite not being able to complete high school and still working to regain function he lost due to cancer, Bret is employed.
“This has been the best thing,” said Rhonda. “Cave Country has no clue what they’ve done for our family.”
But Cave Country Canoes has a different perspective. They see what Bret has done for the business.
“He makes everybody better; he makes everybody more patient, more kind,” said Sherri Nail, Bret’s manager. “ … He does what needs to be done. He has the ability to be observant. We’re busy and not always paying attention to detail. He does see the details.”
Nail said Bret is a good example for the teenage employees, some of whom he oversees. Cave Country employs about 100 people in the summer, about 20 of them in the equipment area where Bret is stationed.
“He’s older than the teenagers, so he directs them,” said Nail.
Nail said she first learned of Bret from his sister, Destiny, who was employed at Cave Country. The staff saw a possibility of being able to offer him a job.
“When we added the addition to the gift shop, we put in a wheelchair ramp with Bret in mind,” said Nail. “We weren’t accessible until then. Since then, we have built an accessible deck. That just paved the way for him.”
This is Bret’s second season at Cave Country.
Asked what he likes most about his job, he replies: “Everything.”
“I just like being outside,” Bret said. “I like helping people, interacting with customers, and it’s really fun here. The employees joke back … ”
When it comes to jokes, Bret is in his element.
“He has a wonderful sense of humor; he’s super-funny; he’s hilarious,” Nail said, describing Bret’s style as more dark and sarcastic “honest humor about things we go through every day.”
Rhonda said she believes Bret’s sense of humor has had “a huge impact” on his recovery.
“He loves to make people laugh,” she said.
She remembers her son as outgoing and a class clown. Cancer took some of that from him, leaving him struggling with anxiety and depression.
“I feel like the job brought that back to him,” Rhonda said.
Cave Country’s season is winding down, but Bret is looking forward to next year and beyond. He plans to keep working and enjoys caring for his dogs, chickens and ducks at his Taswell home.
Bret’s mother hopes more companies will become open to hiring people with disabilities.
“I think employers ought to … give kids like him a chance,” she said.
Rhonda also hopes people are grateful for what they have and realize how it can all change overnight.
“It’s a big eye-opener. Don’t take life for granted,” she said. “He gets up every day with a smile on his face. I honestly don’t know how he does it. He knows what a normal life is. He was a normal kid.”
And if anyone questions whether there’s a higher power, Rhonda said Bret’s story is proof of that.
“He’s such a miracle,” she said. “Every time we go to his doctor he says, ‘You do know he’s a miracle, right?’ If they didn’t believe in God and they hear his story, they would now.”