- Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission
Media Contact for Miracle On Ice
Nick Pizzolato, Digital Communication Coordinator
Gage Senter was seven when he first put on skates. A promising young athlete, he never looked back. During his freshman year in high school, he was recruited to play on the varsity team as the first-line center and was named "Rookie of the Year." But all of that changed one July night in 2015.
Gage was hit by a car as he was crossing the street. It wasn't until the next day police officers contacted his grandmother to tell her he was at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). After that call, she never left his bed side.
"I would get to MGH every morning at 8:00 a.m. and wouldn't leave until 10:00 p.m. I would go home and try to sleep, but afraid of the phone call that may come," said his grandmother Gayle Bilapka.
Gage spent the next six weeks in a coma as doctors waited for his brain to stop swelling. He was eventually transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital while his family prepared for the worst. Then, miraculously, Gage woke up and motioned to staff that he wanted to call his family.
When his grandmother answered the phone, a staff member from Spaulding was on the line. ‘"Please don't hang up on me,’ she said. ‘I think this is your grandson because he's trying to tell us he wants to talk to Nana,’" remembered Bilapka. "That was when he first woke up, and he wasn't supposed to wake up."
Gage suffered a traumatic brain injury. Because of the accident, he could not eat, drink, stand up, or talk.
"I wanted to walk, but my brain just wouldn't let me. I was pretty scared," said Gage. But then he remembered advice from his track and field coach.
That mantra was, "Persevere, believe, and win. When I was down, that what I thought of, and kept pushing myself," said Gage.
"We had to put an alarm on his wheelchair because he kept on trying to get out to try to walk," said Bilapka. "As time went on, he kept doing more things they didn't think he'd be able to do. It was a miracle."
When he was released from Spaulding, Gage attended Methuen High School, where he received an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The school reached out to the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC), an agency that provides services, brings down barriers, and empowers people with disabilities to live life in their own terms. MRC’s Statewide Head Injury Program (SHIP) specifically focuses on helping individuals like Gage. SHIP recommended Gage go to the May School for Brain Injury and Neurobehavioral Disorders in Brockton, MA, for his rehabilitation and education.
At the May School, he met Stacey Sirotta, a physical therapist. To Stacey, his level of recovery to that point was beyond impressive. "I've been practicing for almost 20 years, and I've never seen a physical recovery like this before. Ever. We don't see that. It's a miracle." "The truth is, I think the athleticism beforehand had a lot to do with it, having that inner drive," she added.
Stacey began to work with him and learned how much he missed skating and wanted to see if he could get back on the ice. She brought him to a skating rink and held on to Gage as he took his first few steps on the ice in three years.
"We were on the ice for three minutes, and his muscle tone caused a lot of cramping and pain. So, he sat down on the ice, took his skates off, and I helped him slide off the ice," she remembered.
That didn't stop Gage, though. Each week, they went back to the rink. And every time, he stayed on the ice for a bit longer. "After our third visit, something just clicked. Gage's motivation took over, and he started gliding better," says Sirotta.
As people at the rink learned of his story, a stranger came over and gave Gage some tips about skating. "He told me to use your edges and trust your balance on the ice," said Senter smiling.
With that advice and practice, his skating kept getting better, and he joined a recreational men's league in 2019, four years after his accident.
Audria Chea, the Northeast Regional Coordinator for SHIP at MRC, is currently working with Gage and his family to transition from the May School to the next steps in personal and professional growth. Everyone is excited and optimistic about Gage's future.
Sirotta thinks he would be a fantastic coaching assistant for a youth hockey team, but Gage has some other aspirations. "I want to become a rehabilitation aide to help folks like me," Gage added.
Pictured: Gage Senter and Stacey Sirotta spend some time on the ice.