Nic Altenderfer

The Power of Community: A Lehigh Student Suffers a Skateboarding Head Injury, and his Sigma Phi Delta Brothers Jump into Action

Nic Altenderfer ’23 suffered a life-threatening skateboarding accident in 2021. This is his story.

Photography by

Christa Neu

Late on a Wednesday night, in the first week of his junior year, Nic Altenderfer ’23 rode his skateboard home after visiting a few friends.

He had ridden his skateboard around the Lehigh campus and surrounding neighborhood countless times—making the trip from his friend’s house on Pierce Street to his home on East Fifth Street in South Side Bethlehem regularly—and had collected superficial scratches, bumps and bruises over the years. But nothing would prepare him for what would unfold on that fateful night in 2021.

En route, Nic skirted around the side of an oncoming car, but got too close to the curb, which stopped his board under him. He was thrust forward, hitting his head and shoulder on the curb. A person on the sidewalk called out to make sure he was okay. “Yeah, I think I’m alright,” he responded. About a minute later, he stood up and rode the rest of the short way home.

When Nic got home, he told Owen Adlerstein ’23, his roommate and Sigma Phi Delta fraternity brother, he had fallen. Not thinking much of it, Adlerstein responded, “Big surprise,” as it was common for Nic to fall off his skateboard. Nic grabbed an ice pack and headed upstairs to his room.

While upstairs, Nic realized he did not feel normal and called Walker Robinson ’22, his “big” from his fraternity. With urgency, Robinson called fellow fraternity brother David Rawley ’23, who drove to Nic’s house with another fraternity brother, Alex Romanowski ’23.

“I just remember being really hot and moving to my floor in front of my AC because the air blowing on me felt nice,” Nic says. “That’s all I remember because my brain was being squished by blood.”

When his fraternity brothers got there, they found Adlerstein upstairs with Nic trying to figure out what happened.

“We were not sure what was going on, but we could tell something wasn’t right,” Rawley said. “Very quickly we started to realize Nic’s rapidly getting worse in terms of his mental perception, ability to respond and his coherence. He said something about hitting his head and his shoulder really hurting. The second I realized this was a head impact injury, I thought, ‘We’re going to St. Luke’s [University] Hospital immediately.’”

I just remember being really hot and moving to my floor in front of my AC because the air blowing on me felt nice. That’s all I remember because my brain was being squished by blood.

Nic Altenderfer '23

Rawley’s truck was outside idling, and he didn’t want to risk waiting for an ambulance. The three brothers picked Nic up, who kicked, flailed and grabbed onto door frames, crying out that he just wanted to go to sleep.

“The last few flights of stairs, he just went limp,” Rawley said. “He very quickly was deteriorating, and that put a big sense of urgency on the situation.”

Romanowski and Adlerstein sat in the bed of the truck while Rawley drove and tried to keep Nic responsive as he sat in the passenger seat. About 30 seconds after pulling away, Nic became unresponsive. Rawley yelled for Romanowski, who climbed through the truck’s back window.

“He began to check his pulse, check his pupils, trying to make sure he’s alive at this point,” Rawley said. “(Romanowski) was screaming at Nic, trying to get a response, and we were getting nothing. That’s when we started to panic, and I started laying on the horn and running through red lights to get there as fast as possible.”


His fraternity brothers carried Nic into the St. Luke’s emergency room. The hospital staff immediately realized the urgency of Nic’s injuries and began tending to him.

Rawley recalled seeing more and more medical staff rushing down the hallway, pulling on pairs of gloves and masks. He said their behavior underscored the seriousness of the situation. One of the doctors let out an expletive upon checking Nic’s pupils, as one was dilated and one was not.

“I don't know exactly what that means, but that was something that scared the doctors, so that really scared me,” Rawley said. “I really wish I had gotten further away before I heard that.”

The three fraternity brothers sat in the waiting room not knowing if Nic would be alive the next time someone walked through the hospital doors. When they saw the hospital chaplain come out to talk to them, they assumed the worst.

Seniors David Rawley, Nic Altenderfer, Alex Romanowski, and Owen Adlerstein

(From left to right) David Rawley '23, Nic Altenderfer '23, Alex Romanowski '23, and Owen Adlerstein '23.

Nic was in critical condition and had been rushed into emergency surgery, the chaplain said. He didn’t know what Nic’s chances of survival were, but he told the fraternity brothers if they had waited a few minutes longer to get Nic to a hospital, he likely wouldn’t have survived.

Rawley said they knew all they could do was hope and pray—and get in contact with Nic’s parents, who live a little under two hours away in central Pennsylvania.

Jonah Gibson ’24, a friend of Nic’s sister, Gionna Altenderfer, and his fraternity “little,” called Nic’s mom, Brenda Altenderfer, and told her Nic had been taken to the hospital after a fall.

Brenda didn’t think much of it.

“Nic’s fallen off his skateboard a million times without a helmet,” she says. “We figured just another fall.”

Half an hour later Brenda received another call, this time from a doctor who asked her how far away she was from St. Luke’s hospital.

“Isn’t he going to make it?” Brenda asked jokingly.

“I don’t know if he is,” the doctor responded. “The chaplain will meet you at the front door.”

Nic’s fallen off his skateboard a million times without a helmet. We figured just another fall.

Nic's mom, Brenda Altenderfer

Brenda’s instinct was to pray and stay positive, repeating to herself that he was going to be okay.

“I just kept thinking, if he’s alive when we get there, everything will be okay,” she says. “God, just give him back to us—no matter how you give him to us, we don’t care, we’ll take him. Just let him be alive.”


Brenda, her husband and Gionna met the chaplain at the door and Nic’s friends in the waiting room. She asked Gibson if Nic was alive, to which he responded, “I can’t tell you.”

“My heart just dropped,” Brenda says. “But then, I could tell from their faces, I didn’t think Nic was dead.”

The chaplain took the Altenderfers into a small chapel and explained that Nic was alive and coming out of surgery, but the next 48 hours would be crucial.

Brenda says Nic had ruptured a vessel inside of his head during his fall and was suffering a brain bleed. He had an epidural hematoma over his right temporal lobe, which required a craniotomy, in which a part of his skull was removed.

Nic’s family was finally able to see him around 6 in the morning. Nic was in an induced coma to help stabilize him.

“Even though he was all hooked up and in a coma, I just knew he was going to be okay,” Brenda says, choking back tears. “I just kept thinking, when he was a little kid, he was so inquisitive. Every five seconds, ‘Mom, what's that? How does that work?’ Every single thing. He would build stuff, and he would do mischievous stuff—not super naughty, but he would climb up a 20-foot tree. He was just that kid. He’s special. And, I just knew he was going to make it.”

When he was eventually brought out of his coma, Nic remembers being disoriented. “At first I was like, ‘Where am I?’ I was in the hospital room, restricted to the bed. I tried to break out and exhausted myself and passed out. The next time I woke up, they told me what happened. All I could think about was getting out of there and going back to school and normal life.”

Brenda said each time Nic woke up while in the ICU, it was like the movie “Groundhog Day.” Unaware of the extent of his injuries, he would swear, scream out in pain and question why he was in the hospital and not being helped back to Lehigh.

At first I was like, ‘Where am I?’ I was in the hospital room, restricted to the bed. I tried to break out and exhausted myself and passed out. The next time I woke up, they told me what happened. All I could think about was getting out of there and going back to school and normal life.

Nic Altenderfer '23

“When you have that kind of brain injury, you just kind of say whatever you want. Your filter goes away,” Nic says. “I was saying a lot of funny things and making jokes and yelling at the nurses to put my Zoom class on the TV. My mom apologized to the nurses for me being so vulgar, and they were like, ‘That’s normal. We’re just happy he’s talking.’”

After two days and Nic’s constant screams of being in pain, the doctors discovered Nic had broken his clavicle. They operated on his shoulder Saturday morning.

The day of the surgery, the doctors told Brenda not to rush into the hospital from the Comfort Suites Bethlehem, where she was staying, as Nic would be sedated after his surgery. On her morning walk along the South Bethlehem Greenway, she received a call from a number listed as “St. Luke’s Hospital.” It was Nic calling to ask Brenda where she was—three times from three different nurses’ phones.

“I’m thinking, ‘How does he know my number? This is amazing.’” Brenda says. “That day I thought, ‘He’s going to be okay,’ like, he remembers my phone number.”

Despite a two-week projection, Nic was out of the ICU two surgeries and five days later. He was moved to the trauma unit, where he was fitted for a helmet that would protect his brain until the doctors were able to reattach the piece of his skull they removed. In the unit, he also practiced his coordination and balance.


Once again defying odds, Nic was released from the trauma unit in less than a week and moved to inpatient rehabilitation at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He had two other options—California or Chester, Pennsylvania—but, his mom says, Allentown was the obvious choice because his friends would be nearby. And so would she.

After hearing about the accident, Austin Scoggin, of Lehigh Amicus properties, gave Brenda a place to stay on Birkel Avenue for no cost as Nic recovered. When Scoggin asked if she needed anything, Brenda had a minimal list: a blanket, towel and pillow.

When she went to the house that evening, Scoggin had made the bed with new, freshly washed sheets and comforter; stocked the bathroom with toiletries and towels; and left disposable plates and cutlery in the kitchen.

Support for Nic expanded throughout and beyond the Lehigh community. Brenda posted about Nic’s ordeal on Facebook, and one of Nic’s friends from home started and circulated a GoFundMe for his recovery. The response was significant. The GoFundMe garnered more than $45,000 in donations, concerned Lehigh parents reached out to Brenda offering their consolations and Nic’s fraternity brothers sent Nic video messages wishing him well.

With restrictions in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Good Shepherd had a no visitors policy. To help make the distance easier to manage, Brenda drove to the center after some of Nic’s long days of therapy. She’d stand in the parking lot while Nic stood at the window of his room, helmet on, and talk on the phone.

Motivated to return to Lehigh, Nic cooperated at therapy and was released after a little over a week to stay with his mom in the house on Birkel Avenue. But he would not be returning to Lehigh for the Fall 2021 semester—news that was hard for Nic to accept.

A couple days after being released from Good Shepherd, Nic went to see a few of his fraternity brothers at the same Pierce Street home he had visited before his accident. His fraternity brothers were watching a presentation projected onto a wall, and just after a few minutes, Nic’s head started to hurt.

“I thought, ‘I see what they mean,’” Nic recalled. “I wouldn’t be able to do school, and this is going to take more recovery than I thought to get back to normal.”

He withdrew from his classes that week.

Nic Altenderfer's helmet

Nic Altenderfer's helmet boasts signatures and get-well messages.

Nic was to be very careful as he recovered. He was instructed to wear his helmet—which now boasts signatures and get-well messages from his friends and family members—for six weeks, only taking it off to sleep. Each day, Nic went to outpatient therapy, played cards and read books with his mom—they finished Nic’s childhood favorite, the Percy Jackson series—completed vision and memory therapy, and went on walks.

Nic’s days were brightened by the quirky graphic T-shirts and cards people sent in support, and visits from his fraternity brothers and other friends.

During this time, Nic’s fraternity brothers held a meal drive, in which they each took turns making meals for Nic and his mom. “We just wanted to make sure Nic’s family had as many resources available to them,” Romanowski says.

Brenda says she knew having Nic close to the Lehigh campus would make a big difference in his recovery. “It was that love and camaraderie from his fellow students that was keeping him going,” she says. “He had so many people praying and rooting for him everywhere. There’s power in community.”

Nic says not only did the community help him heal, but his fraternity brothers are the reason he’s alive.

“They were incredible,” Nic says. “I love them all for that. They saved my life. They got me to the hospital, checked up on me the whole time, they were always there. And, the overall support from the community was incredible.”


Nic returned to his classes with a full course load spring 2022, and has picked up extra classes in subsequent semesters. He hopes to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in spring 2023 with the rest of his class.

Barring a scar on the side of his head, he and his life have largely returned to normal.

Nic Altenderfer holding a skateboard helmet and his surgery helmet

Nic Altenderfer holds a skateboard helmet in his right hand and his recovery helmet in his left.

“Despite the odds, he beat those completely, and he’s the same person as he was before,” Rawley says. “Just as functioning, just as capable, just as intelligent, funny, smart. It was a miracle that all of that happened, and we’re really grateful.”

In summer 2022, Nic studied abroad in Germany, as part of the Engineers Made in Germany program, during which he had a “blast.” He reserves the most gratitude, however, for “just the typical college highlights, hanging out with friends.”


Nic is contemplative about the accident.

“It was preventable,” Nic says. “Wear a helmet. I could have just waited for the car to pass and not have tried to go around it, but hindsight is 20/20.”

His friends Romanowski and Rawley urge the community to take care of one another and be smart.

“We need to look out for each other,” Rawley says. “You have the autonomy and the power to make decisions when decisions need to be made. Act quickly and intelligently, and ask for help.”

Story by Christina Perrier ’23

Photography by

Christa Neu

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