PORT HAWKESBURY: Just as the plane carrying Anthony MacDonald prepared to stop, sunlight started to peer through the clouds.
A little more than a week after undergoing emergency brain surgery, the SAERC hockey player gingerly stepped from the airplane which took him to the Allan J. MacEachen Airport in front of a large crowd gathered to welcome him.
“It was very humbling,” his father Mark MacDonald told The Reporter. “There’s no place like home; the Strait area, and Port Hawkesbury is really like no other place. There’s love and support.
“We knew that there was going to be something at the airport. Obviously, we didn’t realize the magnitude of it.”
Port Hawkesbury Town Councillor, and one of the organizers of the welcome, Jason Aucoin, said he had tears in his eyes when the plane carrying MacDonald finally touched down at the airport. The outpouring of support for the MacDonald family makes him proud to be from Port Hawkesbury.
“It just blew me away, locally, the support,” he noted. “Everybody was willing to help, one way or another. Even myself, I helped a little bit, but I bet you I had 100 people contact me asking, ‘what can I do to help you help them?’ It was overwhelming for me, I can’t imagine how the family feels.”
Not just the local area, Mark said the support has come from outside the region.
“It’s a very far-reaching network of people, even people who were born here and I went to high school with, or people that went to high school with Anthony’s mother in Judique,” Mark noted. “It’s just never-ending, the people you haven’t seen in 10 years, still so much support.”
Because of his head injury, it was a subdued, but happy, welcome home on November 19.
“We spoke with everybody and there was a social media post out about no loud noises, no sirens, no horns, no loud applauses, or anything when Anthony came out of the plane,” Aucoin noted. “I think people were in a little bit of awe or shock, but I think most of all, it was in respect for Anthony and the wishes from the family to have it down to a dull roar at best.”
During a hockey practice on November 10 at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre, 15-year-old Anthony was not wearing his helmet when he was hit in the head with a puck.
“We cannot stress enough to kids; keep your helmet on, no matter what. Whether you’re near the bench, whether it’s the end of practice, whether it’s the start of practice, you got to keep your helmet on, no matter what,” Mark stated. “I never, ever, ever want to see this happen again.
“We’re not going to hide from the fact that he took his helmet off on the ice. It was a very innocent thing, but that’s what can happen, keep your helmet on.”
Anthony was taken to the Strait-Richmond Hospital, then later airlifted via the Emergency Health Services LifeFlight to the IWK Children’s Hospital in Halifax.
A CT scan confirmed a skull fracture and bleeding on his brain. Later that day, Anthony was taken into surgery, then he remained sedated to minimize brain activity and allow the injured organ to heal properly.
The operation was successful but his doctors predicted a long and complicated recovery that could last up to two months.
But on November 13, Mark posted that Anthony was awake, he was off most of his medications and his breathing tube was removed.
Four days later, Mark reported that Anthony was walking around, and would be released on November 19.
Pilot Dimitri Neonakis with the charity Dream Wings – an organization which offers flights to children with disabilities – flew Anthony and Mark home.
“He was really excited,” Neonakis posted on Facebook on November 19. “With Anthony on the right seat – special headset on to muffle sound- we took off out Halifax and headed for Port Hawkesbury at low level to avoid any possibility of discomfort to him from the pressures of high altitudes.”
Noting that Anthony even got a flying lesson on his trip, Neonakis said they were able to reach the airport ahead of schedule.
“A good tail wind got us to Port Hawkesbury ahead of schedule but Anthony wasn’t in a hurry to get on the ground,” he recalled. “It was a good break for him to be up in the air so he asked to fly over his school, the hockey arena and his house before landing.”
Calling Anthony “tough,” the pilot called local residents “incredible people” after seeing so many people at the airport to greet Anthony.
“We sat in awe and watched this incredible show of support by the people of Port Hawkesbury,” he posted.
According to Aucoin, a former resident of the area reached out to Neonakis, and told him Anthony’s story. After the pilot agreed to shuttle him home, they then reached out to the MacDonald family, then received approval from doctors at the IWK to take the flight.
“His generosity is just out of this world,” Aucoin told The Reporter. “To reach out to a family he doesn’t even know, never met, and to offer to do this for the family at no fee, no charge, or anything for anybody for this, is just incredible. It’s like a Christmas story a month early.”
Not only did Anthony get the chance to fly the plane for a time, Aucoin said given his injuries, it was important that Anthony not drive home.
“Even more importantly, it kept Anthony off the road for an extra two-plus hours, which is incredible in itself,” he noted.
While he was in the hospital, the family was in close contact with the staff at SAERC, especially his hockey and basketball teammates, and Anthony’s co-workers at Tim Horton’s reached out. His SAERC teammates even made a special trip up to Halifax on November 14 to give Anthony some encouragement.
Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton was also at the airport to welcome Anthony. She added thanks to Neonakis and his wife Lara, as well as Aucoin for helping organize the welcome.
“The Allan J. airport was filled with family and friends who were wearing hockey jerseys and ‘Anthony’ masks and who were so excited to welcome Anthony home from Halifax,” she said. “I am so proud of Anthony; this is a true story of incredible perseverance. Anthony, you have the whole community behind you bud and many others in our province and beyond who are praying for your speedy recovery. If there was ever a tougher kid from Cape Breton, I’ve yet to meet him.”
Not just the Strait area, Mark said his and their family have received a lot of moral support from the athletic community, including none other than hockey superstar and Nova Scotian Sidney Crosby, as well as another future hall of famer, Patrick Kane.
“He got a signed jersey and a letter from Patrick Kane and he’s a huge Blackhawks fan,” the father said. “His eyes are just lit right up. Even when he was in the hospital, every time he’d get in a little sag, there’d be another video.”
He also received kind words from Bob MacKenzie, Pierre LeBrun, Darren Pang, Craig Simpson, Ray Ferraro, Cassie Campbell-Pascall, James Duthie, and David Amber.
Aucoin noted that former NHLer and Port Hawkesbury resident Aaron Johnson also sent a video.
“The big one was Aaron Johnson, because he’s known Aaron Johnson since he’s was a very little boy and Aaron gave us hockey gear,” Mark recalled. “Like every Port Hawkesbury kid his age, this is the hometown boy. He got a really nice video message form him, and again, it just picked him right back up.”
Recalling the doctor’s comparison of Anthony’s recovery to a journey, Aucoin said he has surpassed expectations by walking so soon.
“Anthony is at the start of a long journey, so is his family, so is his support staff,” he said. “I think what’s most important right now is to continue the support to the family and to help any way you can.”
Mark said despite this early progress, Anthony’s recovery will take time. He is scheduled to return to Halifax for an MRI and a CAT Scan on December 17. Until at least the new year, Anthony will not be attending school.
“Anthony still has what they call a bone collapse, so the piece of his skull that was impacted is still out,” Mark said. “The swelling, it’s still there but it’s going down rapidly, and if all that’s good, they’re doing to re-attach the bone flap the next day. He’s still got a long road ahead of him but he’s still under very strict rest and they want him to climb stairs and start a little bit each day, a little bit of walking.”
A GoFundMe page was also created to help out on this road to recover. It can be found at: https://ca.gofundme.com/f/h3pmhd-anthonys-road-to-recovery.
“I just cannot thank the community, the Strait area, enough for the outpouring of support and all that stuff, for what they’ve done for us, and what they’ve done for Anthony,” Mark added. “It’s helped us so much to focus on Anthony.”