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

By Christina Perrier | March 23, 2023

Nic Altenderfer sits with his skateboard.

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

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.’”

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.

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.



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.


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.


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 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.”