Owen Sayers is taking the stage this weekend in the musical Elf Jr. as Michael Hobbs, a young boy who wants to believe in miracles.
The role isn’t a stretch. Owen, a freckled 11-year-old actor and musician, had a miraculous year. He returned to the spotlight from a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed him.
“I honestly had no idea Owen had even been in an accident,” said Mary Grogan, who is directing Elf Jr. for the University of Kentucky’s Academy for Creative Excellence. “I didn’t know until someone told me, and that was after he auditioned and got the part. There’s no way you could tell. You have to hear him. This big voice coming out of this little kid is just so amazing.”
On a warm evening in May, Owen sped downhill on his bicycle in Lexington’s Andover neighborhood. A passing sport-utility vehicle startled him; his front tire hit the curb. The impact sent Owen over the handlebars and face-first into the trunk of a small tree, breaking his left cheekbone.
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“My friend Sam had asked me to race him,” Owen explained Friday at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he’s a fourth-grade voice major. “Technically, Sam won.”
Owen’s parents, Tim and Becky Sayers, hurried down the street to the crash site. Their son already was on his feet and talking, fretting about his missing eyeglasses. But something about the boy seemed wrong. Tim, who played football in school, knew what a concussion looked like. To be safe, the Sayers drove Owen to the emergency room at Saint Joseph East.
The first alarm: At the hospital, Owen quickly became groggy and nauseated.
The second alarm: A CT scan of Owen’s head revealed an epidural hematoma. That meant a blood vessel in Owen’s head had ruptured. He was bleeding into the tiny space between the outer covering of his brain and the inside lining of his skull.
Ordinarily, an epidural hematoma is caused by a skull fracture. But Owen’s skull hadn’t cracked in the crash. It was intact. There was nowhere for the increasing volume of blood to go other than squeeze his brain.
That can be fatal. Dr. Robert Atkins, who popularized the “low-carb” diet, died of an epidural hematoma after he slipped on ice and hit his head. So did actress Natasha Richardson after a skiing accident. Emergency surgery — typically, drilling a hole in the skull to relieve the pressure on the brain — is almost always necessary for survival.
An ambulance rushed Owen to the emergency room at Kentucky Children’s Hospital at UK. A team of surgeons and nurses was ready, although it now was late at night.
“Usually they would have done another CT scan on him at UK, but they told us there wasn’t enough time because they had to get him right into surgery,” Becky Sayers said. “They told me, ‘Your son has sustained a very serious brain injury. We’ll do what we can.’”
Several hours passed. Relatives and friends arrived at the hospital as word spread. But the parents, pacing the halls, barely noticed.
“Finally the doctors came out,” Becky Sayers said.
“When you picture this sort of thing in your head, you always assume they’re going to say, ‘We got it, everything is fine, he’s going to be fine.’ But what they said was only, ‘The surgery went well.’ I said, ‘OK.’ And finally, because it was the elephant in the room, I asked, ‘Is there any brain damage?’ And they said, ‘We’re gonna need him to wake up.’”
Owen looked awful in his recovery room. To gain access to his skull, doctors had shaved the dark red hair off the left half of his head and sliced open his scalp in a large crescent, starting above his ear and ending near his forehead. They stitched it shut when they finished. A ventilator helped him breathe.
There was no sign as to how much of Owen — an affectionate chatterbox who likes to give small gifts to people, a bright kid, a boy soprano in local theater and choral productions — would come back.
“And then things just sort of shifted,” Becky Sayers said.
Around 3 a.m., Tim Sayers squeezed Owen’s hand. Owen opened his eyes and seemed to track his father for a few seconds. A little later, Owen tried to pull out his breathing tube, which is actually a positive sign, provided the patient does not succeed. A little later, Owen heard music from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on the television. He responded with wiggling “jazz hands.”
By daybreak, Owen had regained consciousness. By Friday, he was ready to go home.
He suffered from headaches and dizziness for a week or two but otherwise showed no lasting effects. The scar from his surgery is barely visible even when he parts his hair to show people.
“I can’t say enough about the children’s hospital. The medical care was excellent. They did so much for us,” Becky Sayers said.
Two months after crashing his bike, Owen returned to the stage in the lead role of Simba in The Lion King Jr., produced by UK’s Academy for Creative Excellence. His lion’s mane was itchy, but he didn’t have any problem remembering his lines or belting out his songs.
“I was amazing,” he said.
Owen auditioned for Elf Jr. in September. He landed the role of Michael, son of Walter Hobbs and half-brother of Buddy the elf.
The abbreviated children’s play is similar to the 2003 movie Elf starring Will Ferrell and James Caan: Walter is work-driven and makes no time for family until his sons, Buddy and Michael, soften his heart. In one song, I’ll Believe In You, Michael promises to believe in Santa Claus again if Santa can somehow make his dad spend time with him.
Rehearsals ran for eight weeks, with separate training sessions for music, dance and acting. Owen kept pace with everyone else, said Grogan, the director. The play is being performed throughout the weekend, with two Sunday shows, at Sts. Peters and Paul School on West Short Street.
“He definitely could have a career on the stage if that’s what he wants,” Grogan said.
Owen said he isn’t sure what he wants to be when he grows up — maybe an actor in musical theater or a Broadway dancer.
Or maybe a veterinarian. Or a judge. Or a firefighter, or a police officer.
“Or a doctor,” he said. “Because I’d like to help people and save them from dying.”
When: 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Lucille Little Theatre at Sts. Peter and Paul School, 423 West Short Street, Lexington
Cost: $12 for children, $14 for general admission, available at the door