URBANA — Terry von Thaden drove up North Prospect Avenue in Champaign on Saturday for the first time since her son’s life was irrevocably changed by a bullet to his head there three weeks ago.
“I had to run errands and be up in that area, and I drove that direction purposely. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” said the mother of Liam Gasser, 24.
“It was crowded. A fire engine went by, and then a car horn honked, and I was a little overwhelmed. I cried, and then I decided I didn’t need to run errands.”
The Urbana woman has cause to be overwhelmed. Her son remains in intensive care at Carle Foundation Hospital with a myriad of issues related to a spinal cord injury he received about 1:13 p.m. on Oct. 24, a Sunday.
Gasser was driving north on North Prospect Avenue, just north of Baytowne Drive, when another vehicle quickly changed lanes in front of him, cutting him off. Gasser honked his horn at the other driver, and as he pulled to the next stoplight, the response from the offending vehicle was a shot to his head.
“He is still on a ventilator in ICU and not as far along as we would like,” von Thaden said. “He has a lot of fluid in his lungs, infections.
“It just changes the profile of getting him into rehabilitation. We want him there as soon as possible, but that’s not happening.”
As slow as his healing is going, so, too, is progress on finding the shooter.
Champaign police have information about a vehicle from which the shot may have come. Von Thaden said police have told her they have received several tips, but there have been no arrests.
“Not all the tips are fruitful. At least people are concerned,” she said.
Von Thaden said sharing what happened to her son is the best way she knows to get people talking about the violence plaguing the community in hopes of deterring it.
Last week, friends set up an online “supplemental needs trust” for Gasser through GoFundMe to cover the cost of specialized medical equipment, round-the-clock care, travel to rehabilitation and to make his home wheelchair accessible, for example.
“If there were a time when we couldn’t use the money, we can forward that to someone else with medical needs,” von Thaden said of that type of account.
By late Monday, more than $44,000 had been donated to Gasser, whose needs going forward will be staggering.
Gasser was a December 2020 graduate of the University of Illinois in kinesiology who was in the process of applying to graduate school to study to become an athletic trainer. He was working as a bartender and kitchen help at Legends on Green Street.
His mother said doctors have tapered off on his sedation and pain medication.
“They need him awake, aware and responsive. He’s in a lot of pain. His brain is sending out faulty signals,” she said. “He can feel stabbing pain, nerve pain. He’s just got a constant headache, really bad. He’s very uncomfortable.”
The ventilator means he can only lie on his back, which adds to his discomfort.
Although he’s “extremely cognitively aware,” communication remains difficult.
“His brain is functional, and he can move his lips,” said von Thaden, frustrated that she’s not better at reading lips.
“Sometimes, the ventilator tube amplifies sound, and we can hear him a little bit. I pray for those moments when there is a little leak, and we get those bits of voice. It makes everything so much easier,” she said.
While Gasser’s condition remains grave, von Thaden said there are glimmers of good news.
“He can wiggle his foot, which gives him a bit of control,” she said. “If he needs the nurse, he can click the control with his foot.”
Although he has no movement in his arms and hands, von Thaden said several days ago, “his pinky wiggled a little at his command.”
“He’s done that more than once,” she said.
Von Thaden said the nurses in the unit have been wonderful and have even traded shifts to stay with him, offering consistency in his care.
“He’s getting great care on that floor, and it’s not easy, because he relies on others for simply everything,” she said.
A human factors researcher at the UI, von Thaden has not been back to an office since her son was shot but has been able to do some work via computer. Ironically, part of her research involves safety culture.
She is amazed at the people who have contacted her since the shooting — “people I’ve interacted with briefly in life, like chaired professors or people who have run major companies. I wouldn’t think my name is on their radar.
“It’s amazing that people remember and are so kind,” she said.
“As far as Liam, I’ve heard from grade school, middle school, high school teachers. Everywhere he’s worked, people have reached out. I had a gentleman who babysat Liam at age 4. He moved away, and he reached out and said ‘What do you need? What can I do?’
“What I need isn’t going to come,” she said of her son’s prognosis.
One friend brought a new soft blanket for her to use in the hospital that “was just the thing” while others have brought snacks and food. After her stressful trip to North Prospect, she returned home to find her yard cleared of fallen leaves. She doesn’t know who went to that effort on her behalf, but she’s grateful.
Still, other friends with architectural knowledge have offered to help make her non-accessible house livable for her son.
“That’s so tangible and exactly what I need,” she said of those talents. “That’s an amazing support.”
While she doesn’t want to put a value on the many acts of kindness, von Thaden said it’s been helpful to hear people say they are praying for or thinking of her family.
“The energy helps so much,” she said.
The most comfort, though, has come from peers of her son who have told her stories about him she’s never heard.
“I have found them to be extremely reassuring. I’m so happy with who he really is and how much he has helped people,” she said.