A Healing Story: The Long Road Home for Robbins Boy
As students at Robbins Elementary School run out the doors of this final day of school, ready to begin summer vacation, Slayton Maness leaves campus with a sense of accomplishment that goes beyond completing the third grade.
The 9-year-old looks back with a quiet smile as he steps onto the school bus to head home, hopeful for long summer days playing outside with his cousins, jumping on the trampoline, throwing the football around with his dad, fishing trips and family cookouts.
His mom, Karen Maness, waits for him as he gets off the bus at the top of a dirt driveway that leads to their home off North Moore Road.
The bus drives off. Cars whiz by on their way to and from downtown Robbins as mother and son head down the long driveway.
Such a routine moment, this getting on and off the school bus. Kids take it for granted. Parents take it for granted.
How that all changed a mere seven months ago, that Nov. 3 morning with Slayton lying out in the road, broken and bleeding.
It’s indeed been a long road home.
The school bus had activated its flashing lights as it was slowing to a stop. It had yet to deploy its stop sign when Slayton left the driveway and ran out into the road to climb aboard.
“I was walking around,” he says. “The bus driver told me to stop. I didn’t hear it. I don’t remember that.”
That’s when the truck, driven by Billy Joe Binkley, 60 of Bonlee, started coming out of a curve in the road. He said he barely had time to slow down. The truck hit Slayton and threw him 20 feet down the road.
It seemed like a blur after that, the helicopter landing nearby to rush Slayton to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. While medics in the sky stabilized the young boy, the state Highway Patrol accident investigators tried to figure out what happened. No charges ultimately were filed.
At the hospital, Slayton’s injuries came into clearer focus: breaks and fractures in his neck, ribs, pelvis, ankle and left hand. At some point, he also had suffered a stroke.
It would be more than two weeks in the intensive care unit for Slayton and his family, but the healing was just beginning.
Initially, doctors said the right side of Slayton’s body would remain paralyzed after the stroke and they were uncertain about the long-term effects of the other injuries.
But you can’t expect a 9-year-old boy to heed an adult’s judgment, can you?
Slayton learned to walk again as the family spent three weeks in Charlotte at a rehabilitation facility before finally returning home in December, where he continued to recover.
Despite suffering so many severe injuries, Slayton has defied even doctors’ best-case scenarios and is almost back to being a normal 9-year-old.
“I feel better,” he says as he wrestles with his dog, a pit bull named Kilo.
His mother credits Slayton’s strong-willed independence to his extraordinary progress.
“As soon as we got home Dec. 5, he was trying to walk and sit on the floor on his own,” Karen says. “He did a lot. He didn’t like being in a wheelchair.”
“It was boring,” Slayton interjects, still wrestling with Kilo.
“He doesn’t like being dependent on other people to help him,” she explains with a smile.
The Maness family has been steadfast in helping Slayton heal, and they’ve become even closer through hardship, Karen says. But it’s been a struggle financially with mounting medical bills and finding transportation to appointments in addition to dealing with the emotional trauma of the accident.
“Our whole life just stopped when this happened,” Karen says.
Months later, she still hasn’t come to terms with what she saw that morning.
“Just last night I was telling Jonathan [her husband] that it still doesn’t seem like it happened,” she says. “It still hasn’t sunk in. A lot of people don’t realize his injuries and what he’s been through.”
“He’s in really good shape for what he’s been through,” Jonathan Maness adds.
Slayton remembers little about the accident, but over time, he has come to better understand what happened based on what others have told him.
What he does remember is being bored sitting in a hospital bed, unable to move, and the countless hours waiting to go home, return to normal.
“You just sit there in front of the TV and color,” he says.
In the months following the accident, Slayton wore a halo to stabilize his neck and head as his bones healed.
Jonathan remembers the moment when doctors removed the contraption.
“We were ecstatic,” he says. “But when it first came off, it was scary. He couldn’t hold his neck up.”
Doctors performed surgery to add additional support to his head and neck.
With six screws in his head, along with six in his neck supporting two rods, Slayton now has a full range of motion in his neck. Scars from the surgery are silent reminders of what he has been through.
“It’s funny how that works out,” Jonathan says. “He was supposed to be paralyzed on right side [of his body]. The doctors were amazed at how fast he healed.”
Slayton’s right leg hurts occasionally, and he still has a spot on his forehead that will take a year to completely heal. Doctors are still determining whether or not he will need additional surgery.
“As he gets older, he probably will,” Karen says.
She still worries that he’ll hurt himself by playing too hard.
“He’s trying to be a bigger boy than he really is,” she says. “He’s a daddy’s boy.”
The return to school came March 12. And each of those days, Karen has waited for the bus with her son at the top of the driveway.
“I’m always thinking about it,” she says of the accident. “I make sure I tell him, ‘Stay away.’ I don’t care if [the bus driver is] waiting a few minutes. For a while there, I was walking him up to the bus myself.
“I stopped when he started getting ill with me,” she continues, glancing at her son now playing a video game quietly. “He would say, ‘That’s enough. My friends are on the bus.’ It’s still hard though.”
The route has changed. Slayton no longer has to cross the road to board the bus, but some days, he does have to cross. After the accident, the family was told that signs signaling a bus stop would be placed in the curves on either side of the driveway to caution drivers. None have yet been installed.
If his parents had their way, Slayton wouldn’t ride the bus, but the family car broke down months ago, and they don’t have the money to get it fixed.
The oversight of Slayton extended into Judy Oerke’s third-grade classroom, where she and his classmates supported and kept him part of the class despite his absence.
Oerke was home sick that November morning when she received a call from the school. She knew something was wrong.
“All the teachers were trying to figure out how to tell me,” she says. “I didn’t know they were going to come out and say it was one of my kids.
“Tears came. I cried. It was such a big shock that it was one of my students. I wanted to go to [Slayton].”
Oerke worked to help her students understand what happened and they brainstormed ways to help Slayton. They made cards and get-well videos, and they even dedicated their class book — a collection of stories students wrote — to Slayton to make sure he knew he was missed.
Oerke brought Slayton’s school work to him so he could keep up. She watched him improve with each visit.
Everyone anticipated that first day back at school for him, but Oerke tried to keep everything as normal as possible when Slayton walked in the door.
“He did really great the first day,” she says. “He acted like nothing had happened. We all took it one step at a time. He just fit right back in.”
Life wasn’t totally back to normal. He couldn’t participate in some P.E. activities, and he had to be careful on the playground.
Even months later, Oerke still tried to stay close and keep an eye on Slayton as he played outside. She encouraged other students to look out for him too.
What stands out to her is how happy Slayton has been since he came back.
“He seems to take every moment,” Oerke says. “He is just having so much fun being back with his friends. He’s come back, and he’s just acting like Slayton.”
The day before school ended, Slayton enjoyed a field day with his friends. Originally, he was scheduled for a check-up in Chapel Hill that day, but his parents were able to get an earlier appointment so he could participate.
“He just had the best time,” Oerke says. “He had that great big smile on his face all day long. “I hope he continues to grow and have the same loving spirit that he has now. just want to see wonderful things happen for him. He’s been through so much this year.
“He truly is a miracle. To be as happy as he is is just unbelievable.”
Oerke cried when students left on the last day of school — like always — because the group leaving her classroom will always hold a special place in her heart.
“Every class is special,” Oerke says. “I’ve always thought that, but I think this year, with all the things that have gone on, it has been an extra special year.
“I think this group will always be a special group for [Slayton as well],” she continues. “They’re very conscious of his feelings — wanting to be sure that he’s happy. There’s a special bond.”
And as a woman of faith, Oerke believes things happen for a reason.
“[Students] become your family,” she says. “It’s almost like you’re another mom. I don’t have kids of my own, but each one that comes in my classroom I claim as my own. I believe that God gives me the students that I need and that need me every year.”
When she stops to think about it, Karen Maness still can’t believe how far they’ve all come since November.
“I think about it a lot,” she says. “From the time you see him helpless on the road to what he is now — it takes a toll.”
She thinks her son doesn’t fully understand how lucky he is to not only be alive, but to also be able to walk, play and be a normal child.
“I think later he will,” Karen says. “When he’s older.”
The thought of moving past the accident is hard to grasp when their entire world has revolved around Slayton’s care for so long, but Karen and Jonathan hope to find more normalcy this summer and beyond.
“Just try to get on with life,” Jonathan Maness says, “and do what we can do.”
Like any parent, Karen wants to see her son graduate from high school and go on to college.
Slayton, still playing the video game, says he’d like to become a professional wrestler when he grows up because they’re big and strong.
Regardless of what Slayton becomes, the family is blessed.
“He knows God had a hand on him that day,” Jonathan says. “Every time we pray, he thanks God.”
Slayton looks up from his game and nods his head, “He saved me.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at (910) 693-2485 or by email at email@example.com.
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