LARGO — Matt Hanna smiled.
He not only smiled, but also was able to give two thumbs up, crack a few jokes about his graduation from Largo High School, and say thank you Tuesday to two men who saved his life one night nearly seven years ago in Clearwater.
Hanna was 14 years old then, brimming with excitement from starting his freshmen year at Boca Ciega High School's medical magnet program. Those dreams came to a screeching halt in November 2007, when he was struck by a car while riding his bicycle at Franklin Street and Hillcrest Avenue, in front of a white church.
Doctors gave him little chance to survive, let alone recover enough to pursue his dreams. Yet Monday, Hanna, 20, crossed the stage at Tropicana Field in his wheelchair to receive his high school diploma.
Talking is still a bit of a challenge for him, but when he saw his rescuers on Tuesday, Hanna was overflowing with audible, heartfelt thank-yous.
“It's amazing. There was doubt that night that he was going to survive that call. He was on the brink,” said Lt. Peter Gushee of Clearwater Fire and Rescue, who came to Hanna's aid with Lt. Robert Lee. “I just can't believe it. ... That's why we do what we do.”
The first thing Gushee remembered about Hanna was his size. At first the pair didn't realize they were trying to save a child because he was so big, Gushee said. Then they noticed the injuries.
“It looked bad. He was in bad shape,” Gushee said. “We knew he was definitely hurt and this was no run-of-the-mill call.”
After a helicopter flew Hanna to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, the EMT's weren't sure what became of him, like many of the victims they help, Gushee said. It wasn't until Hanna's family tracked them down to let them know he was graduating high school that they learned how far Hanna had come.
A traumatic brain injury from the accident has required Hanna to live at Sabal Palms Children's Center assisted-living facility the past six years, but he can play video games from his wheelchair, play Connect Four with his nurses, and watch baseball with his dad, Matthew Hanna Sr. He has enrolled in a program for adults with disabilities where he can continue his education. He still laughs. He still throws occasional “The Incredible Hulk” references into conversations, and he still wants to be an EMT or a firefighter paramedic.
It's been a long road to recovery, said his grandmother, Marion Holden. The first couple of days were touch-and-go. He was in intensive care for about six weeks, and life has been a blur of hospital rooms, rehab facilities and doctor's visits ever since.
“It's a miracle. They truly saved his life,” Holden said. “He's on cloud nine. ... His progress is remarkable. It wasn't immediate; it was slow and steady, but you see where he is today — a funny, happy, beautiful child.”
The men brought Hanna T-shirts and a cap emblazoned with their unit insignia, a personalized firefighter helmet and a firefighter “challenge coin,” symbolizing his membership in the unit.
Matt truly is a fighter, his father said. Whether his challenge for the day is physical therapy or physics homework, he is his own source of motivation and an encouragement to everyone he meets.
“I love seeing him happy,” his father said.