Faith in the fall: The story of Seth Alfaro

Seth Alfaro
A courtesy photo of Seth Alfaro following his Feb 13, 2017 fall.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids man who started the night out with friends ended up at the hospital, after falling more than two stories from the top of a building.

But that was only the start of this unexpected story of faith.

THE ACCIDENT

On Feb. 13, Seth Alfaro headed downtown to meet his two friends, 21-year-old Nate Wybenga and 22-year-old Jacob Marco, who brought along 20-year-old Hunter Bauss.

After skating around the northwest side of Ottawa Avenue, the group stopped to take photos. Seth, 21, thought he could get a better shot of the sunset by climbing to the top of nearby buildings. Bauss followed.

The pair scaled a ten-foot building, walked across another building’s roof, and pulled themselves up an old rickety pole. As they watched the sunset, they didn’t know the longest day of their lives was just beginning.

Instead of climbing back down the rickety old pole, Seth jumped eight feet to the roof below him. But on impact, the roof gave way and he tumbled about 25 feet to the ground.

According to his friends, Seth bounced off a furnace and landed face down on the only open slab of concrete, inches from sharp, rusty metal.

For about 20 seconds, the three friends called for Seth. They expected him to get up and walk out, but all they heard were moans.

After frantically searching for a way into the building, Marco kicked out a window and the friends found Seth in a room full of parts, unconscious and badly bleeding.

“No one should ever be able to see their friend the way we saw Seth that night, you know, bleeding out. It was not a pretty sight,” Wybenga said as he stared back at the building where it happened. “We carefully rolled him over and immediately called 911.”

Miles away on the northeast side of Grand Rapids, the Alfaro family was sitting at the dinner table.

“About 7 o’clock I heard just a frantic knock on the door,” said Seth’s mother. “I opened the door and it was the police officer. And it just felt like the movies. You just knew instantly that something wasn’t right. And the first thing she (the officer) said was, ‘Seth Alfaro had a bad accident.’ And I asked her, ‘Is he OK?’ And she said, ‘I can’t say.’”

The Alfaros jumped in their car and police led them to Spectrum Health’s emergency room. Staff told them to wait in a side room while they found a social worker.

“In my mind, I really thought that when we got there, they were going to tell us that he was dead,” Seth’s mom recounted. “I really thought that’s what they were going to say.”

DOCTORS: ‘IT’S UP TO SETH’

An original CT scan showed there was bleeding on Seth’s brain. The doctors needed to do an MRI to determine the extent of the damage, but Seth’s brain was swelling. The immediate priority was to reduce the swelling, so they sedated Seth. He was lifeless in a coma.

Seth Alfaro
Seth Alfaro lies in a hospital bed at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

Doctors said the next 24 hours would be up to Seth.

“And they said, we’ll know in the next 24 hours if he’s going to make it or not,” his father recounted.

Before the doctors left the Alfaros that night, Seth’s mom had one last question.

“I said, ‘Could he die from this?’ And he said, ‘Yes he could.’ And I didn’t know what else to ask.”

The family remembers doctors telling them if they could get any sign of life from Seth in the first 24 hours, that is promising. But repeatedly calling his name, asking him to open his eyes, raise his thumb, or squeeze their hand led to nothing. Seth was completely unresponsive.

Seth’s mom said doctors then pushed back the crucial response time to 48 hours, then said Seth’s swelling would peak three to five days after his fall.

The Alfaros knew quickly they could only wait and see. With Seth’s life hanging by a thread, his parents held vigil beside his hospital bed. Their lives hinged on the sounds and numbers put out by the machines keeping Seth alive.

“All you have is time. You just sit there and think and pray and think. But I couldn’t stop picturing him walking out the door,” said Seth’s mom, who recounted her shock. “Everyone told us that, there is no way to predict with a brain injury. They said two people can have the same injury and come out completely different. There is absolutely no way to predict it. So they couldn’t give us anything.”

Doctors drilled a hole in the back of Seth’s skull and inserted a metal device to track his internal cranial pressure. When those numbers jumped, Seth was further away from waking from his coma. And as his parents stared at the ICP numbers, Seth’s temperature was dangerously rising.

Doctors tried to insert a tracheotomy, but failed three times for various reasons. The last attempt was unsuccessful because Seth had developed pneumonia.

Doctors warned the Alfaros that if Seth woke up, he may be different because of “neuro storming.”

“They actually said most people wake up very violent, flailing, (with) just no purpose to it. Sometimes (they are) yelling,” Seth’s mom recounted. “It’s just a brain trying to wake up, it’s just firing. Then they said, if you add to it he’s 21, and add to it that he’s a male, they said that’s just a recipe for disaster.”

Seth Alfaro: The early years

Seth Thomas was the third of the Alfaros’ seven children.

Seth Alfaro
A courtesy photo of Seth Alfaro (center) with his parents and two older siblings.

By the time the Alfaros had shaped their family, they already knew loss. The couple lost four babies — three were born with a genetic kidney disease and died shortly after birth, the fourth was stillborn.

“We learned way, way in the beginning that gold is tested in fire. That’s our faith,” Seth’s father said. “You hear people that go through trials like that and they kind of break apart. I’ve always felt that our faith became stronger because of it.”

Seth grew into an artist and aspiring musician with the word ‘passion’ tattooed on his arm. For him, that wasn’t just a word; it was how he lived life.

“Seth is the wildcard, he is the goofball. (He’s) the one who always has to be doing something,” his sister-in-law Megan said. “Life is exciting, and if you’re not having a good time what the heck are you doing? that’s Seth.”

Seth Alfaro
A courtesy photo shows Seth Alfaro as a child.

The day of his accident, Seth managed to leave work early. He helped remodel for VanderHyde Construction, but his true passion was music. He wanted to be a star.

The night before Seth’s accident, his parents had a conversation with him on the couch in the living room.

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose your soul in the process?” Asked his father.

“I don’t want any of my kids to ever be defined by what they do, how much they make. Hopefully they’re defined by being the best husband they can be and being the best father they can be. That’s what’s going to define them. That’s the legacy that they’re going to live,” Seth’s father recounted.

A day later, the Alfaros sat anxiously in Seth’s hospital room, waiting for any sign of life.

DEVESTATING RESULTS

Back at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, the Alfaros passed time in a cold, dark hospital room. The shades were drawn as to help Seth’s brain avoid sensory activity. The vents were shut to try to cool Seth’s rising temperature. His parents sat next to his bed in their winter coats.

“We never left the hospital. We were there 24/7. There was always someone with him,” Seth’s father said.

Doctors kept telling the family they didn’t know what to expect. An MRI would give them a better idea of just how bad the bleeding was. After taking Seth off sedation drugs, they were able to perform the procedure with him still in a coma. The results were devastating.

“That was a really low day for us,” Seth’s mom said. “They found brain bleeding all throughout the brain and the brainstem. They found brain shearing in the brain. And brain shearing is the worst type of brain damage that you could have – it’s kind of a shredding of the brain.”

“You know it’s bad when the doctors are giving you the news and they’re saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’” Seth’s father added.

It took a while for the couple to accept the news. Then it was time to tell his siblings.

“All I’ve ever wanted to be is a wife and a mother. Having kids is so joyful to me,” Seth’s mom tearfully said. “I remember we talked to the kids and we said, your dignity is not in what you can do, it’s in who you are… no matter what he can do or how he comes home, it’s the same Seth.”

“I was hugging Peter, our 9-year-old, and he said, ‘It’s OK mom because really life is about getting to heaven and so it’s OK,’” Seth’s mom said. “I knew he was right, but my first thought was, then just take me right now, God, because I can’t do it anymore. It’s too painful. I just I can’t, I’m done. It hurts too much.”

PRAYER WARRIORS AT WORK

Days before the MRI results came back, Seth’s parents knew they needed prayers. Their faith led them to recruit aunt Kathy. Seth’s dad would relay information to Kathy Barth and she would share it on Facebook. The response from was overwhelming.

“I would have never thought in a million years that it would have done what it did, that it would’ve reached the amount of people, the number of people, people we didn’t even know,” Seth’s mom said.

Seth’s prayer warriors were born.

“What happened with Facebook is a miracle of itself and a miracle and a testament of the love of people. So many people said, ‘This has restored my faith in humanity,’ said Seth’s mom. “People who didn’t even know us, didn’t know Seth, people from Spain, from Italy, from New Zealand contacted us.”

The Alfaros started to notice a trend: when they would send a prayer request to Aunt Kathy, Seth would overcome medical obstacles. His temperature and ICP number dropped and his oxygen levels stabilized.

Still, doctors were not able to complete a tracheotemy on Seth.  His parents went their separate ways to pray.

“I was having a really difficult time at that point saying, ‘OK, Lord, your will, your way, your time.’ I couldn’t figure out what he was doing or why it was going this way,” Seth’s mom said.

Meanwhile, Aunt Kathy was posting to Facebook. “I know this time of waiting is very hard,” stated her 3 a.m. post for prayers. Minutes later, an unexpected post from prayer warrior Amy Oatley popped up.

Oatley wrote of a vivid dream she had. She saw herself with hundreds of other people, pouring in and out of Seth’s hospital room. Some were on their knees praying, others were crying. She ended the post saying, “As you say, the waiting is hard, yet He is healing Seth in the waiting. Trust in Jesus even more. To Jesus through Mary.”

AWAKENING

Then ten days into the battle, there was a glimmer of hope: Seth wiggled his thumb. It wasn’t much, but it was the first sign of any activity.

Seth Alfaro
A loved one holds Seth Alfaro’s hand as he recovers.

Eventually, he was opening his eyes and looking around, but he wasn’t “there.” He would move his hand or squeeze another but it was still infrequent.

Then one night as he slept, Seth moved his right leg up and down, in and out. It was the most movement his family or doctors had seen. And it was without any command.

It took another three weeks for Seth to wake. Nothing could prepare the family, friends, strangers and doctors, for what would come next.

SHARED ‘MIRACLE’

With Seth awake, the uncertainty of his future set in.

His vocal cords were too weak for him talk. Doctors gave him four building blocks with the letters of his name and asked him to spell it out.

“That was heart wrenching, because every moment you’re like, ‘Is this it? Is this Seth now?’” Seth’s mom said. “But two days later the speech therapist took a pen and he was writing full adult sentences. And one of the first things he wrote was, ‘My God is good.’ This is at 21-year-old kid who was out skateboarding and woke up in a hospital unable to walk, talk, eat, swallow, and he’s writing ‘My God is good.’”

The Alfaros were amazed, but they could tell that Seth had more to share.

Seth was frantic to share something, but still his vocal cords were too weak. He grew frustrated with his inability to communicate, so his mom turn to aunt Kathy. She asked that people pray for peace for Seth. Days later, Seth was not just talking, he was rejoicing in his three-week journey.

“It was just a whirlwind for the next probably two or three days. He told us right away that he had never begged or pleaded for anything so much in his life. That he had heard God and felt his love, and begged and pleaded for his life. For even 30 seconds or even two minutes… he just kept asking for more time,” Seth’s mom said.

“And then he told us right away that he saw himself laying there on the machines. He saw all the people praying for him, people crying for him, and that that was what brought him back,” she recounted.

Prayer warrior Amy Oatley saw what Seth says he saw. Except their accounts were weeks apart.

“God takes mistakes, He takes things in our lives, crooked lines and writes straight with them,” Oatley said about the post. “Is it a surprise? No. But I truly believe it’s a miracle and I know a lot of other people do as well.”

It was all coming together for Seth’s mom.

“It’s more afterwards, looking at what day it happened because that was the day that we were both really upset and tired of waiting,” she said. “Then you fast forward a few weeks down the road when Seth talked, and he tells us that while he was in his coma he saw hundreds of people in his hospital room praying for him – so many people that it was spilled out into five other rooms full of people. People he didn’t even know, praying for him. And that’s what made him fight to come back.”

UNEXPECTED RECOVERY

Whether it was the prayer warriors or Seth’s passion, his recovery beat every expectation from doctors, including Dr. Sam W. Ho, chief of staff at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.

“In the beginning when you look at the MRI you say, ;OK, this is a bad injury.’ On the other hand we can’t use the image to use, to determine the person,” Ho said.

Ho took a chance on Seth. He says he saw a young man with so much life ahead of him. He was moved by the support of Seth’s loving family and by a conversation he had with Seth’s dad, who fought for his son to attend an acute rehab center instead of a longer term solution.

Ho said he felt it was the right decision because Seth would have more attention and it’s what he would want if he was the parent.

“If we do something right, we don’t have to treat the complications following many months and years to come. Medicine is not that black and white, it always turns out sometimes… (the way) you don’t expect,” Ho said.

In four weeks, Seth went from barely being able to walk to running out of Mary Free Bed’s doors. The days leading up to March 30 were grueling and long, as Seth relearned how to breathe, swallow, eat and talk.

But as he headed home eight weeks ahead of schedule, it was clear there was one thing he didn’t not have to learn again: his passion for life.

SETH SPEAKS

Sitting in his parent’s living room, the change in Seth is noticeable. There is a peace and calm about him as he speaks about his moments on the edge of life.

“If I wanted to die, I could’ve died. It’s so easy to die. It’s like when you’re really tired and you could fall asleep. It’s that easy to die,” Seth said. “But I saw everyone who was praying for me, not their faces specifically, but I saw all the people who were praying for me. And that’s what gave me the strength to come back, and that’s what gave me the strength to fight.”

Seth’s gratitude for those who helped him emanates from every sentence. So too does his love for God.

“Seth before the accident was always looking out for himself. [He] was shallow. You couldn’t have a heart- to-heart and really, really talk about the faith,” Seth recounted. “Now it’s like, I want to talk about the faith. I want to become closer to God. It’s just that want.”

When Seth woke up from his coma, he started talking about all the things that had happened to him while he lay “asleep” for nearly three weeks. His parents wrote it all down as he lay in his bed.

As time goes by, his memories are fading. He doesn’t remember anything about the day he fell, or much of the days when he woke up. But hearing what he said takes him back to that place.

“It’s crazy even for me, even hearing that back. Like, ‘Wow. I said that to them,’” Seth said. “But in some ways, it’s kind of weird because they’ll say it and it almost brings it back. It’s a memory. It happened. It’s more like curating a memory of something you did. I can’t explain it, it’s amazing.”

Seth can only describe what he felt as light, an energy that he was wrapped in.

“Prayer does so much more than you could ever imagine,” Seth said.

He says he had a bird’s-eye view of the people funneling in and out of his hospital room. He says God showed him the people who said they were praying for him but actually didn’t, and that hurt the most, though he never felt any pain.

He remembers begging God for one more breath on Earth.

“It’s all the people that were praying for me that gave me the strength to keep fighting, to live. I remember begging God for two more minutes, for 30 more seconds,” Seth said. “Because all these people were praying, you know, give me this more time in my life. And then it was granted to me. And that’s how the rest of my life came back.”

When asked if he would ever like to change what happened the night of the accident, Seth’s answer is clear.

“No. Because the way that God’s blessed me, through this whole thing, experiences, and just the person that I am now, I don’t think I would’ve changed like that and this quickly,” Seth said. “It is hard going through some of this stuff, it is, there’s no other way to put it. But it’s God’s will and that’s what I try to remind myself… I’d rather be doing his will than my own.

“I may have forgotten some of the experiences that went on but I could never forget this whole experience and I don’t think I will ever. I don’t know how I could doubt ever again, in any way.”

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Online:

GoFundMe: Medical fund for Seth Alfaro