HILLIARD, Fla. – Nathan Dowie fires off one text message after another. It’s still easier to communicate that way.
His voice is still raspy and his tone still soft and hollow, reminders that Dowie’s journey back through a maze of surgeries isn’t quite yet finished.
But he’s close. He’s grateful. And he’s smiling.
Dowie is always smiling, something that isn’t easy to do after the events of the past 12 and a half months for the former Hilliard Middle-Senior High School quarterback.
There was the traumatic brain injury during a football game last August. Seizures in the locker room afterward. Emergency brain surgery hours later. Another emergency surgery weeks after that to reopen his trachea, the pipe that serves as the pathway between the voice box and the lungs.
While Dowie’s football team was enjoying its best season in nearly 15 years, he was in and out of the hospital for surgeries to help him be able to breathe and swallow. He had stents put in to help keep his trachea open and then laser surgeries to sear off the scar tissue that kept closing it.
And then ... silence.
For nearly six months, Dowie could barely speak above a whisper due to repeated procedures on his trachea, a complication that arose after brain surgery and got significantly worse in the weeks that followed. Dowie’s vocal cords were paralyzed. He struggled to breathe.
For a player who was accustomed to barking out the snap count and using his voice to lead his football team, Dowie had been forced into being uncharacteristically silent.
“It’s just been a roller coaster, man. That’s all it has been,” Dowie said. “Oh man, almost died twice, had all these airway issues, all these surgeries. Just been nothing but a roller coaster through everything. Train wreck, almost.
Crazy doesn’t begin to describe the past year for Dowie, who remains the ultimate glass-half-full personality. He’s optimistic, determined and positive — always positive — that the last year’s worth of surgeries will end sometime inside of the next six months.
January 2021 is the target date, doctors have told him, for an end to a nightmare that began in August 2019.
“I’m an old man and I still look back every morning when I get ready to come to work, how happy I am that we were able to overcome and he was able to survive,” said his former football coach at Hilliard, John Pate.
Something’s not right
No way that he was going to miss this game.
Dowie said that he’d felt a bit off entering Hilliard’s Week 1 game against Gainesville Oak Hall on Aug. 23, 2019, due to what he thinks was possibly an undiagnosed concussion that he suffered in practice. He suited up because that’s just what players are supposed to do. He was the quarterback. The leader. Dowie said that he wasn’t going to miss the first game of his final season.
“I really wanted to play it. I didn’t want to sit that one out,” he said. “I am a big team player. I want to play for my team, be there for them, win for them.”
Dowie started the game and the Red Flashes went back and forth in a duel against Oak Hall. Dowie had a rushing touchdown and scored a two-point conversion in the game.
His score in the second quarter helped Hilliard take the lead.
It also came with a price.
Dowie went headfirst across the goal line on the score and went end over end. He said that play made the pain in his head worse. Not unbearable, but something that he said should have forced him to talk to his coaches.
If he had to do it over again, Dowie said that’s where he should have pulled himself from the game and gone to the athletic trainer for a consultation.
“I would have sat out the fourth quarter,” he said. “I probably would have gone up to coach and been honest, been, like, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling right. I’m wobbling and can’t walk straight really. I have to go check up with the personal trainer and make sure that it’s a concussion.’"
The worst was yet to come.
On Hilliard’s final offensive possession of the game, Dowie was intercepted and gave chase on the return. It was a double impact of sorts, with his head slamming into the turf for the first jarring blow and the opposing player coming down with all of his weight on Dowie’s head for the second. The earlier play on the end-over-end touchdown left Dowie in a fog, but the collision on the interception return was when he said things began to feel seriously wrong.
“I was stumbling the whole way back to the locker room,” he said. “My girlfriend had to help me the whole way to the locker room because I couldn’t walk in a straight line because I was hurting too bad.”
Dowie’s grandmother, Sandra Vanzant, has a background in nursing and was at the game that night. She remembers seeing subtle signs from Dowie that things were amiss during the game. He came back to the bench one time and immediately went over to stand in front of the fan, something that he never did. Vanzant said it looked even more awkward when Dowie was walking off the field and leaning on his girlfriend so much.
Those things taken individually were quirks.
Collectively, it was a sign that something was well out of character for Dowie.
“Soon after that I got a call from [his girlfriend], saying that he had passed out and had a seizure, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, we might have a brain bleed,'” she said.
‘It was a nightmare’
In the locker room is where reality started to hit of just how injured he was. Dowie had been dinged up before but never to the extreme that he was that night.
“I was dizzy. I was nauseous. Then in the locker room, one after the other, all the players left. I was the last one in there, still taking my stuff off, and I got my shoulder pads off and I leaned over the trash can that was in there and I threw up,” he said.
“And I sat back up straight and the next thing I knew I was falling back, passing out. And one of my coaches caught me and said, ‘Nathan, Nathan.’ Slapping me on the cheek saying, ‘Wake up, wake up, keep your eyes open.’ But after that I was blacked out. Don’t remember anything.”
Dowie began suffering seizures and was rushed to UF Health Jacksonville.
“Having an RN background didn’t help the situation,” Vanzant said. “I was crying. Very scared. It was a nightmare. Big time.”
Hours later, Dowie had a craniotomy to repair subdural and epidural hematomas. His father, Sean, said everything that night in the following days felt like he was in another world.
“It didn’t seem like reality to me. It just seemed, like, how this could be happening to me?” Sean said. “It seemed surreal. … A nightmare, yes. And just the not knowing how he was going to be, how this was all going to turn out.”
Pate said Dowie’s injury and how the season went from there were unlike any experiences he’d gone through in coaching. And Pate has quite the coaching resume, too, with the bulk of his experience at the college level.
The team returned to practice the following Monday and addressed just how different things would be without Dowie in the lineup.
“This is my 42nd year of coaching. … And I have never gone through anything like that,” Pate said. “To have your season completely turned around with your QB, your leader, the strongest player on your team and all your core, for him to collapse 20 minutes after a football game and go down and go through the trauma he has gone through.”
Just the start
The brain surgery was just the beginning.
Dowie spent 35 days in the hospital recovering from that surgery and trying to regain the strength on the left side of his body from the trauma and surgery. The day he got out of the hospital, Dowie made an appearance at Hilliard’s homecoming game against Wolfson. He was wheeled on the field in a wheelchair and later crowned homecoming king.
The Red Flashes had dedicated their season to Dowie. His No. 8 jersey was displayed on the sidelines during games. They finished 7-4 and won their first home playoff game in 14 years. Opponents and the community paid tribute, too.
“It warmed my heart really to see other schools coming together with us feeling how we felt about it,” he said. “It was really heartwarming to see that.”
Two days after making an appearance at the homecoming game, Dowie began experiencing difficulty breathing and went back to UF Health Jacksonville. A complication during his brain surgery and recovery was that his trachea had somehow been damaged. While it was noticeable in the weeks that followed, it wasn’t until that night in September that Dowie felt the full brunt of what he was dealing with.
He sat in his hospital room and was as scared as he’d been during the entire process, uncertain of what was going on in his body.
In those moments, Dowie kept asking himself one repetitive question. He had made it through emergency brain surgery, yet here he was, straining to get oxygen into his lungs. The issues intensified substantially in the weeks that followed.
The question he kept asking: Why was it becoming more and more difficult to breathe?
“I was breathing heavy. It. was hard to breathe. I couldn’t catch my breath,” he said. “I was breathing oxygen, and it wasn’t doing anything. It was pretty scary.”
Vanzant said the breathing issues were caused by tracheal stenosis, which developed not long after his time in the hospital. According to medical literature, it can be caused by breathing or feeding tubes during medical procedures or prolonged intubation.
What followed has been a handful of surgical procedures to Dowie’s throat, including three balloon tracheostomies to help reopen his airways and two laser procedures to help sear the scar tissue away that builds up and makes it challenging to breathe, swallow and eat.
Every surgery that Dowie had did help in the short term but ultimately set him back. Those surgeries created more scar tissue that eventually grew thick enough and made it more difficult for him to breathe. Inactivity in speaking paralyzed his vocal cords. He had to go to speech therapy and learn how to talk again. Dowie had swallow studies done to monitor his throat.
He eventually had a stent placed in his trachea to help keep it open. Each stent was supposed to be a temporary solution in the first of several successive procedures meant to help him breathe normally again. Due to COVID-19, the surgery to remove it and put the bigger stent in was pushed back until late July. He said the delay in surgery prevented him from talking above a whisper for nearly six months.
“Text,” Dowie said when asked how he communicated during that time.
“I could whisper really good. It was crazy [to not be able to talk].”
‘He’s our miracle'
A year after brain surgery, Dowie isn’t slowed down at all by his head injury. Brain surgery was actually easier to navigate back from than his trachea issues. Dowie regained strength on his left side slowly, but it all came back. Mentally, he’s like he was before the injury.
“He’s our miracle, to be 100% mentally normal,” Vanzant said.
He’ll never play contact sports again, but Dowie said that he looks forward to potentially coaching in youth or peewee football at some point in the future. He’s a couple of weeks into working a new job at an Ace Hardware store in Folkston, Georgia, and said people will still stare at him from time to time and look at the small tube coming from his trachea.
“They just stare and walk by. It’s funny,” he said. “I think it’s funny.”
As for regrets about how his senior year went, Dowie said that he doesn’t think like that.
He was wearing one of the newest and best helmets available — “$435, plus tax,” his coach said — and he got to play the game he loves with some of his closest friends. Dowie won homecoming king and graduated from high school through Hospital/Homebound program. He saw his team from afar and was pumped that the Red Flashes enjoyed their best season in nearly 15 years.
Most importantly, Dowie is still here.
Talking. Texting. Smiling.
No looking back. No regrets.
“No, I don’t [regret it], cause all this has taught me to be strong and patient,” Dowie said. “No matter what, keep on moving along. No matter what tries to bring you down, like, you just have to stay strong. No matter what, man.”