April 2, 2010 — -- Flying through the air was what Chase Kear loved most about pole vaulting. Kear, a self-proclaimed "small-town country boy" from Colwich, Kan., was good at it too, winning an athletic scholarship to a local community college.
Then Chase had an accident so severe it may have taken a miracle to recover from.
"I will never forget Chase's coach saying 'It's bad, it's really bad,'" said Paula Kear, Chase's mother. "He said he was vaulting and he missed the mat."
During a routine pole-vaulting practice, Chase's pole had flexed to the extent that he crashed on the ground and landed on his head, cracking his skull from ear to ear. He was immediately airlifted to Via Christi Regional Medical Center in Wichita, Kan., where the doctors' news for Chase's parents was not good.
"They told us that he had severe trauma to his head and that he had a better chance of dying than living," said Paul Kear, Chase's father. The Kears were left to think about what Chase would be like if he survived.
"Institutions, diapers, a vegetable, I mean that's what we were facing," Paula Kear said. "We knew that."
Chase's churchgoing Catholic family asked that he be given the last rites. But while his parents were struggling with fear and shock, his aunt had another idea.
"My sister said, 'Do you want to call our home parish and put Chase on the prayer line?' and I said 'Yes, please,'" remembered Paula Kear. "She said, 'Do you want him on the Father Kapaun prayer?' and I said yes."
Click HERE for a slide show of Father Emil Kapaun and of Chase Kear's life before and after his accident.
The parish at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Colwich had been praying for several years to Father Emil Kapaun, a priest from the area who had volunteered as an Army chaplain in the Korean War.
Kapaun was captured and imprisoned with his troops in a prison camp in Pyokong, North Korea. Fellow prisoners of war said Kapaun's selfless ministries and willingness to share his meager rations saved other soldier's lives. Kapaun contracted pneumonia in the prison camp and died.
"He was always willing to go out and be with the men where they needed him the most, and that was usually on the front lines," said Father John Hotze, vicar of the Wichita diocese.
Many members of the Colwich parish pray to Kapaun as people elsewhere pray to Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa. All three are candidates for sainthood. The faithful believe the candidates led exemplary Christian lives and can intervene with God, the only one who can perform a miracle.
"The idea is the miracle shows that you're definitely in heaven and it's a sign of God's favor," said Father James Martin, author of "My Life with the Saints." "Christians believe that when you pray you're praying to someone who is basically putting in a good word for you."
Miracle of Faith? Chase Recovers
With hope from the world of science and medicine dwindling, the Kears turned to their faith. Chase's parents put a Kapaun prayer card on his hospital bed. Chase's younger brothers put the prayer on Facebook, asking friends and family to pray to Kapaun on Chase's behalf. There was no shortage of prayers for Chase going out to the dead war hero.
Chase's doctors, meanwhile, did what they could. "They said if we don't do surgery he'll die, and if he comes off the table he'll probably get an infection and that will take him," said Paul Kear.
Chase's injuries had caused massive amounts of swelling in his brain, leaving surgeons with few other options than to perform a risky operation to remove part of his skull. Then, they hoped, his brain would be able to swell outside of the cranium and relieve pressure.
Seven days after the surgery, Chase was still unresponsive and on life support. His father asked him for some signal that he was still there.
"I could hear my dad tell me to give a sign that I'm still there," Chase told ABC News.
"And that same day," said Paula Kear, "he started moving a little bit. A finger moving was -- Oh, my God, it was Christmas, it was the best feeling in the world."
Chase's neurosurgeon, Dr. Raymond Grundmeyer, said it was clear that Chase had turned a corner.
"His parents started noticing signs; the nurses started noticing signs that he was responding more," said Grundmeyer.
From that point Chase recovered rapidly. Seven weeks later, he walked out of the hospital, having somehow survived an accident that should have killed him.
"He was on death's door," said Grundmeyer. "And I would have to say, from a religious perspective, in Chase's situation, with the background of his parents and family and friends, the spirituality there, and the fact that he's recovered so well -- you almost have to believe that there's something additional going on than your typical medicine. This was definitely miraculous."
Miracle of Faith? Vatican Investigates
But while Chase's doctor may describe the recovery that way, the church is very cautious about using the word "miracle."
"As a church we cannot say that until it is given that designation from the Congregation for Saints," said Hotze, the vicar, who is director of the effort to declare Kapaun a saint. "It was an amazing recovery. Whether or not we can show that this was a miraculous recovery is something that remains to be seen."
Miracles are not random events but must come as a result of specifically directed prayers, said Father Martin, the author.
All candidates for sainthood require proof of intervention in two confirmed miracles. Potential miracles are rigorously investigated by teams of Vatican physicians. Medical mysteries can be part of a miracle, said Martin.
"What happens is that the scientist and the doctors basically say this is inexplicable, there's no other explanation for this instantaneous cure," Martin said.
Last year a Vatican investigator came to Colwich, Kan., for a first round of information-gathering from doctors and the Kear family.
"They asked me what I thought about all this and I said honestly, if I'm the miracle that makes Father Kapaun a saint, that's great," said Chase. "And if it's not me and it's someone else, you know, that's great. I really just want him to be a saint, 'cause I think he helped me. There's no way that I could be that tough to come from my deathbed to where I am at now.
"I couldn't have done that alone."