June 4, 2011 was supposed to be a great day for former Pulaski County High School student D.J. Pinkel, and for his mother, Sharon Silvers
That was the day Pinkel was to graduate from high school.
“I was getting ready to iron his pants for graduation the next day when I got the phone call,” said Silvers, a teacher for Pulaski County Schools. “I was getting out his shirt, and tie, and his cap and gown.”
The phone call Silvers received is the one every parent dreads the most. Pinkel had been in a car accident.
“That was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever been through,” she said.
Pinkel’s name was indeed called at the Pulaski County High School graduation ceremony that Saturday last month, but as someone to be prayed for, to be kept in one’s thoughts — not as someone who would get to stroll onto the stage in the school’s gymnasium, receive their diploma, and shake hands with the principal.
Not yet, anyway.
A month after Pinkel’s crash, a special graduation ceremony was held at PCHS. It was an intimate affair, with just one guest of honor, one graduating senior tossing his tassel from one side of the cap to the other — Derrick Pinkel.
“It’s every parent’s dream — I’d waited 18 years to see him graduate,” said Silvers. “With everything that happened, I didn’t know that he’d be able to.”
The ceremony came as a surprise to the still-recovering Pinkel, he didn’t know about it until he walked in the doors of the PCHS auditorium.
“My first reaction was that I was really surprised by it,” said Pinkel. “I was really happy because I hadn’t graduated (with everyone else).”
Pinkel got to go through the whole process — a “full-blown ... mini-graduation” as Silvers put it. He did the march in all by himself, had his name called and came up on stage, and even had a reception with a cake.
Silvers gives credit to PCHS principal Mark Wilson for spearheading the belated commencement ceremony.
“Mr. Wilson wanted D.J. to have his own special graduation,” said Silvers. “I helped him. He took care of all of the stuff at school. He had the auditorium all set up, and the music, and the DVD of the graduation and all of that.”
Pinkel was a well-liked classmate at PCHS, who played on both the soccer and cross-country teams during his time as a Maroon. A number of his former teammates and students, as well as teachers and soccer coach Casey Inabnitt, were among the 50 or so who attended the July 5 ceremony to celebrate their friend’s second chance at a once-in-a-lifetime milestone, many of them giving up their lunch breaks at work to come and show their support.
“Being able to see him go across the stage and get his diploma, there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere,” said Silvers. “It was a really emotional day, but ‘happy’ emotional, because a month prior, I never dreamed I’d see him get up there and graduate.”
It was definitely a relief for Silvers, who’s diligently helped her son on the long road to recovery for the last month and a half.
At around 2:15 a.m. on June 4, Pinkel crashed his Honda SUV into a tree on Ky. 39. The vehicle came to rest in a nearby creek — just north of Pulaski County High School.
Pinkel was flown to Lexington for treatment, which made for an unexpected and unpleasant journey for his mother.
“It’s every parents worst nightmare, to have to make the trip up there and not knowing how he’ll be when I get there,” said Silvers.
As a result of the accident, Pinkel suffered head trauma and has had to regularly see a brain injury specialist in Lexington, where he was flown to for treatment after the collision. He “missed the whole month of June cognitively,” said Silvers, though he’s got his memory back for the most part by now. What he doesn’t remember is the crash itself — which may be for the best, noted Silvers.
Pinkel was discharged from the hospital the next day after his wreck, an expectedly speedy recovery — and one that Silvers believes was touched by divine intervention.
“(The doctors) came in at 8 a.m. and told me (Pinkel) couldn’t wake up, he couldn’t breathe on his own,” Silvers said. “They thought he had brain damage.
“His friends all got up the morning of the wreck and started a prayer chain,” she continued. “A couple were going to miss graduation and come up (to Lexington), but I wouldn’t let them. They told me they were all awake and praying for him.
“It wasn’t long after that that he was off the ventilator and awake,” she continued. “In a matter of three hours, everything turned around.”
Pinkel also suffered from fractured vertebrae, but no surgery was required, and Pinkel is today wheelchair-free. He still can’t drive or go to work for the next six weeks, and plans to attend college are on hold for now — though Silvers said Pinkel, soon to be a father as well, will be going to Somerset Community College eventually.
“Physically, I feel back to being myself,” said Pinkel. “I feel like I did on the last day of school.”
The focus at this time is on getting better — and getting to enjoy the graduation Pinkel thought he’d lost is a part of that healing process.
“I was kind of worried I wouldn’t get that chance,” he said. “It meant a lot to see my friends because I feel like the people who really cared were there.”