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After his near-death experience, rocker Will Hoge’s life is back to normal — yet profoundly changed

Musician, Heal Thyself

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Will Hoge is a man with a reputation for muscular live performances. Yet four Thanksgivings ago, Hoge found it a physical struggle to play a single song from start to finish. A few days before the holiday, while his wife Julia was at the grocery store and their son Liam was at school, he parked his wheelchair in the living room of their East Nashville home.

He balanced his guitar on his lap. To his great relief, he discovered that he could finally lift his shoulders enough to gingerly wrap his arms around the instrument's body. Tentatively, he closed his fingers and made a chord.

It was the first time in four months he'd been able to strum anything heftier than a mandolin.

Singing came no easier. The wheezy sound emitting from his chest cavity was a far cry from his usual robust rasp. But to Hoge, in hindsight, it marked a turning point.

"That was a big step for me, kinda trying to sing again, even in a whispered kind of tone," Hoge says. "It made me feel like at some point I will be able to do this again, which was nice."

By far the nicest thing about it was that he was still around to do anything at all.

Only that summer, Hoge had been scraped off the pavement in East Nashville, down six pints of blood. His life hung in the balance. He'd been sewn, set and sutured back together by the top-notch team in the Trauma Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

This Thanksgiving, Hoge is showing his gratitude by making the first of his two consecutive 3rd & Lindsley shows a benefit for the local chapter of the Trauma Survivors Network. Since he's back to being a full-force, from the-gut performer, there will be no need for a wheelchair, nor any timid, vaporous singing. It's an understatement to say that Hoge has bounced back.

At the same time, he's an indelibly changed man, and one who's on a significantly altered career path.

News of what happened to Hoge the evening of Aug. 20, 2008, instantly spread all over Nashville and well beyond. Even celebrity gossipmonger Perez Hilton was "send[ing] him some positive vibes." A little bit of the attention might have come from a general morbid fascination with musicians cut down in their primes. Mostly, though, it had to do with him being a veteran roots-rock underdog a lot of people knew and liked.

Hoge has trouble recalling the particulars of that night beyond the point where he wrapped up a recording session at the Sound Emporium — he was working on the album he later dubbed The Wreckage — and eased his scooter out onto Belmont Boulevard. He headed for home on the East Side. As far as memory goes, it's not a matter of his having blocked things out so much as having blacked out.

"The last things I remember," he says, "I was coming across Woodland and remembered that I needed to get milk."

For Julia, his wife, that's an especially haunting detail. In a separate interview, she confesses, "Milk! Lord, I still curse that request every day."

Hoge cut over to Main Street, intending to run that quick errand. But he never made it to Kroger. Here, his recollections disintegrate into a dizzying jumble of sensations.

"I remember laying on the ground and there being really bright lights," Hoge says. "And I remember a lot of commotion, a lot of people talking, but not making out any of it. I remember that I wanted a Coke."

What happened, Hoge later learned, was that his motor scooter had been hit by a 15-passenger van, head on. Each was traveling about 30 mph. Hoge definitely came out the loser.

"It'd ripped my face up real bad and knocked a bunch of my teeth out," Hoge remembers. "I think that's why I wanted a drink, because my mouth was filled with junk. Then I went out pretty quick after that. I think I remember going to the ER. I think that's really what the bright, bright lights were."

As the minutes ticked by without any sign of her husband, Julia began to wonder if he might have been pulled over or something. She called his cell. After several tries, she got an unfamiliar voice: "A gentleman answered, and he said, 'Ma'am, this is so-and-so from the traffic unit. Your husband's been in an accident. You need to get to Vanderbilt hospital.' ... And he can't tell me, due to the HIPAA law [which protects patients' privacy], if he's alive or dead."

Julia arrived to find that her husband was, indeed, alive. But his condition, as she'd soon learn, was critical. He was classified as a Level I, the trauma unit's highest priority of patient.

"Everybody kept telling me no head or spinal [injuries], which was the big thing," she says. "So I knew he was still in there, even though his body might be broken. But when they took me back [to the Intensive Care Unit], I was not at all prepared for what I saw. Had someone not pointed him to me, and had I not seen his tattoos, I would not have known it was him, not for a minute. He was so swollen in his face he was unrecognizable."

Hoge's bloodied face was a partly toothless mess. Beyond that, the impact crushed one of his lungs and broke his sternum, collarbone, both shoulder blades and three ribs. Then there was his mangled right leg. The knee was broken, the ligaments torn; a significant chunk of the thigh bone was simply gone.

He'd need multiple blood transfusions and two days on a ventilator just to get stabilized. Ultimately, he would require seven surgeries, a lot of morphine, several months' worth of physical therapy, and a full year of healing.

Still, almost as soon as Hoge woke up and found out where he was and why, his mind turned to all those other patients in all those other beds.

"As you look around that ICU," Hoge says, "maybe there's a part of you that wants to think, 'God, this sucks. I'm going to have to learn to do x, y and z again.' But then you look over, and there's a 22-year-old kid that they're going to have to feed through a tube for the rest of his life, because he was in a car wreck and they're sawing his brain open. That was just never lost on me. I was so incredibly lucky.

"There was gonna be a big pause in what I was able to do and how I was able to do it, and some things would never be the same. But they were so minuscule, really, in the grand scheme of things, especially in that environment. It's one thing if it's just you by yourself and then you start to feel sorry, but when you look around and realize, 'I just went head first through the windshield of an oncoming van, and the worst thing that's going to happen to me is that my face is gonna be scarred up and I might have a slight limp' ... I don't know. I just didn't feel like it was my place to wallow in any kind of real concern about it."

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