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Craig McLeod broke his neck during a family trip to Myrtle Beach last summer. He and his wife Brenda share the story. William Kalina, 717-505-5449/@BillKalina

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With one sneeze or wrong turn of the head, Airville resident Craig McLeod could have spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

McLeod, an avid marathon runner who teaches environmental science at Fallston High School in Harford County, Maryland, was on vacation in August  with his wife, an art teacher at the same school, and their two sons.

The family had planned a 2½-week trip in their recreational vehicle to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, spend some time in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and then head to Disney World in Florida. 

Family vacation gone wrong: But the first night in Myrtle Beach put a halt to the family expedition.

After putting the kids to bed around 10 p.m. one night, McLeod tripped over a pull-out bed in the RV while trying to adjust the thermostat. His arms were caught in the bed, forcing his head to take the brunt of the fall. 

"I heard a 'pop-pop-pop,' and I knew something bad happened," he said. "The pain was pretty intense."

After his wife, Brenda, scolded him and the boys for playing around — she said he's notorious for horseplay, hurting himself and walking it off — she begged him to call 911 and get medical attention.

Instead, McLeod decided to try to sleep it off and ride his bike roughly one mile to a local urgent care office in the morning. After a restless, painful night, he stiffly pedaled his way to the office, where he was told he'd need to get a second opinion.

McLeod went to the local hospital, Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital, where the doctor told him after taking X-rays he'd need surgery immediately, as he'd broken his neck in three places and was at risk of paralysis.

"The spinal cord was almost pinched off; I was very close to not walking at all," he said. "It still shakes me up a little bit. My arms were numb, and I knew I did something bad."

The eight-hour surgery that followed led to four titanium screws in his neck, along with a plate that fused his C6 and C7 vertebrae. The doctor didn't sugarcoat what could've happened that day, McLeod said.

"We had the boys in the room, and he said 'You're very fortunate, as you're about a millimeter or so from not walking,'" he said. "We took it all in, we absorbed it, and I just started crying. Then (my family was crying), then the doctor started crying."

Southern hospitality: Brenda McLeod, whose been Craig's partner since they were 15, called their close family members before posting the incident to Facebook.

The family received a wave of support from family and friends, and even from South Carolina locals and hospital staff, she said. 

A nurse let the mother borrow her car so she could get to and from the hospital. Additionally, Craig McLeod's parents, both in their 80s, drove down to see their son.

After his parents later attended a Baptist church service nearby, more than a dozen parishioners came along to his hospital room to check on him.

"Talk about southern hospitality," Craig McLeod said.

The recovery was slow, and it was weeks before he was up and moving, he said. A friend from the family's local church also flew down to Myrtle Beach to bring them back, as Brenda McLeod doesn't know how to drive the RV.

Once home, the active father of two began walking through fields with his dog and slowly getting back into his active lifestyle. His wife, he said, stepped up to the plate.

"Suddenly, half of me was gone," Brenda McLeod said. "It was terrifying."

Once back in school, the usually rowdy high school students took it easy on Craig McLeod, he said. But as he healed, he was thankful to be back at work and see things return to normal.

Although he's not back to running the full 26 miles of a marathon, he's running 3 to 6 miles daily. Pain is minimal, and he just has stiffness in the neck, he said.

But even as the healing marathon runner is getting back to his roots, the family can't help but think about what could've happened, Brenda McLeod said.

Reflecting on the event: "We always think about the what-ifs," she said. "We would've had to move to a ranch house, have an in-home nurse, quit my job and realign our entire lives. But reflecting always makes us appreciate what we have."

Craig McLeod echoed the sentiment, expressing gratitude that he can continue to play with his kids and function normally today.

"It makes me appreciate what I have now," he said. "It was really a wake-up call."

Around Christmastime, the family took the RV back to South Carolina to visit the individuals who showed them such southern hospitality, including the doctor who caught the neck break just in time.

While the family said they love visiting the people there, they still haven't pulled out the bed that tripped Craig McLeod that night — and holy water sits in the front of the RV to hopefully keep vacation activities safe.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.

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