Two years ago she wouldn’t have been able to talk about this. Two years ago, when her world came crashing down around her, she had no idea how her family would heal.
Now, Yesenia Linnell, the mother who is picking up the pieces of her family’s life, is eager to tell the story. Not because it’s over, but because it’s theirs.
Her youngest son Keannu grew up as a kid with lots of energy and a thirst for living. Sports came easy to him. By the time Keannu got to high school, he was a three-sport athlete excelling in football, baseball and wrestling. As a freshman, he was the starting quarterback for the junior varsity team at Lathrop High School, about one hour east of San Francisco. When his coach suggested he make the move up to varsity, Keannu wouldn’t have it.
“I want to stay with the team I started with,” Yesenia recalled of her son’s reaction. “They need me. If you take me, what’s going to happen to them?”
And so he stayed with the JV team. As a 16-year-old, his friends described him as a “man child.” He was taller and stronger than everyone in his class. His friends and teammates thought Keannu would play quarterback for a Division I college after graduation.
Now, Keannu is just focused on learning how to walk again.
A tragic turn
During his sophomore football season, Keannu complained that he was experiencing blurry vision. He had perfect eyesight his entire life so his doctor’s initial response was that it was time for glasses.
When the problem persisted, doctors thought he suffered a concussion. The problem with that was he never really took hard hits in games. The Linnells were getting frustrated.
Then came the constant pounding headaches and upset stomach. Yesenia had had enough and brought her son to the emergency room. It was then that a CT scan revealed that Keannu had a tumor in his brain. In the moments after learning the diagnosis, Keannu looked up at his mom and asked if she was sad.
“I said ‘no’ but meanwhile I’m dying inside,” Yesenia recalls.
“It’s OK, mom,” Keannu told her. “It’s alright.”
He decided right then that this would not be the end.
A neurosurgeon explained that Keannu had Hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of fluid in the brain. They were going to cut a hole in Keannu’s head, drain the fluid, and if it was safe, they would get a biopsy of the tumor to determine next steps.
“Things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to,” Yesenia says.
The day of Keannu’s surgery, he was the same lighthearted, bubbly teenager that he always was. He sang his favorite Bob Marley lyric, “every little thing’s gonna be alright,” as they wheeled him into surgery, and the Linnell family headed to the waiting room. After a few hours, a nurse came in to tell them that the surgery was successful and they could see him shortly.
Three hours passed and they were still waiting. With an uneasy feeling, Keannu’s oldest sister Samantha went to find a nurse. As she walked through the hallway that her brother had been rolled down hours earlier, she saw a group of nurses huddled in a corner. One of them was crying. It was the nurse assigned to Keannu.
He didn’t wake up. During surgery, Keannu suffered a stroke — preventing blood from reaching his brain. Days later, the steroid he was given compromised his immune system, causing a minor cold to escalate to pneumonia.
The doctors induced a coma because Keannu’s coughing caused more pressure in his brain, which led to more bleeding. He was rushed back into surgery to have a shunt implanted to drain fluid in his head.
“I can tell you it was just one emotional roller coaster after another,” Yesenia explains. “You think you’re coming out of one, and you’re right back into another one … just trying to make sure we didn’t fall apart was hard.”
The hardest part hadn’t even begun yet.
The vibrant teenager, the star quarterback, the best friend with all the jokes, the popular high schooler that everyone loves, the 16-year-old with his entire life ahead of him was now completely nonverbal. His body movements were extremely limited. He couldn’t even stand up.
After being hospitalized for 6 months, Keannu was transferred to a rehab center, where he would attempt to relearn everything he had lost.
“We don’t have a book. … We don’t have somewhere we can call to help us navigate through this process of his recovery. … No one has that,” Yesenia explains.
What the Linnells do have is a very special member of their family — Keannu’s sister, Callia.
When all of this happened, Callia was pregnant with her first child. Yet, instead of focusing on becoming a mom for the first time, she felt a sisterly instinct to dedicate her life to her brother’s recovery. She has taken on this challenge with a remarkable sense of courage and love.
“Honestly, it was just a feeling that I had to go through this with him; that I needed to do this,” Callia explains, slowly and thoughtfully.
It’s almost as if she’s never been asked why she’s taken this on, nor has she ever given her decision a second thought.
Callia is Keannu’s full-time caregiver. She lives with her husband and their two young children almost 30 minutes away from her parents’ house. Each morning, she wakes up early, drives to the house she grew up in and preps Keannu for the school day. She goes with him from class to class, then to physical therapy — not leaving his side until 6:30 p.m.
Callia is not professionally trained to do this. She graduated from the same high school Keannu attends and never furthered her education. But that hasn’t stopped her. If anything, it fuels her.
“I want you to get better, I want you to start walking, I want you to be normal, I want you to play football again, so I’m going to push you as hard as I can,” Callia says, with Keannu sitting right next to her and tears welling in her eyes. “I love you and this is why I’m doing it.”
Callia sees this as her job. This is her life’s work and she will not stop until her brother is back to being the brother she grew up with.
In August of 2017, Keannu left the rehab facility to return home. Callia has worked with him nearly every day since. She tutors him, she feeds him, she pushes him. She learns from the physical therapists he sees. She watches YouTube videos. She educates herself by watching others.
When he returned home from rehab, he couldn’t speak or even move on his own. He was completely nonverbal, being forced to use a physical alphabet system, pointing to letters on paper to slowly spell out words explaining how he was feeling. He had less than 5 percent of mobility in his limbs.
Today, he’s speaking more clearly. His arms are stronger and his legs can move with assistance.
When I met Keannu for the first time, he gave me a fist bump and instigated a thumb war. He laughed when he realized he caught me off guard and when I looked up to see his smile, he slammed his pointer finger onto my thumb to win.
Inner strength. That’s what Yesenia said got the family through when their life unraveled almost two years ago. Now, after being with the Linnells for some time, I can see that they’ve paired that courage with faith.
“It’s sad to say but most people would have given up a long time ago. But not this kid,” says Joe Pirillo, football coach at Lathrop High School. “There is no quit in him. That’s the way he was on the field when he played. I hope Keannu pulls off his comeback, just like any quarterback would do in the final few minutes of a big game — pull off the comeback and show everyone that he’s still here.”
Keannu graduated from Lathrop High School on May 30, almost two and a half years after his brain surgery. He has plans of going to college and his friends think he should become a motivational speaker.
Before leaving the Linnell’s home, I ask Keannu what his motto is.
“Never give up,” he says with a smile.
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