Ethan Vaughn grew up in a single-parent household.
A three-sport student-athlete at J.P. McCaskey High School, he gave up extracurricular activities after his freshman year to help take care of his younger siblings. He graduated from McCaskey in 2006.
Four years later, Vaughn’s older brother, Randy, was shot to death in Coatesville.
After all of that, Vaughn thought he didn’t have much of a future. That changed in January 2011, when he met Jordan Steffy after a church service in Lancaster city. Steffy is the founder and CEO of the Lancaster-based Children Deserve a Chance Foundation, a college preparatory program for middle and high school students. Steffy suggested Vaughn, then 23 and working odd jobs, pursue a college degree.
“I was hesitant at first because no one had ever told me to further my education,” Vaughn recalled. “He (Steffy) took me on college tours, introduced me to people who are leaders, and showed me there’s a better way than working some dead-end job.”
Just as Vaughn got the ball rolling toward college, his life came to a halt. On March 19, 2011, he was seriously injured when the Jeep he was riding in collided with a tractor-trailer on Lincoln Highway East (Route 30) in Paradise Township. The driver died upon impact. A 3-year-old boy later died from his injuries.
Doctors at Lancaster General Hospital gave Vaughn, whose many injuries included a ruptured artery in his groin, a 1-percent chance of making it through the night. Steffy and others stayed in the hospital that night.
“Just to be there with him in his final hours,” Steffy said. “We make it through the night. He’s still with us. One night turns into two nights. I remember the astonishment of the nurses and the doctors that this guy just will not quit.”
This month is the 10-year mark since the crash. Vaughn, now 33, is about to begin a professional career, but only after a lengthy recovery and overcoming other obstacles en route to obtaining two higher-education degrees.
“I didn’t give up,” Vaughn said. “I didn’t throw in the towel.”
The long road to recovery
In addition to the ruptured aorta, Vaughn had tubes placed in both sides of his rib cage to remove internal bleeding. He also suffered a concussion, a fractured collarbone and a sprained wrist. He stayed at Lancaster General Hospital for about a month before being moved to Lancaster Rehabilitation Hospital. Vaughn, on a feeding tube, lost more than 60 pounds from his 5-foot, 11-inch frame.
“I had to weigh less than 90 pounds,” Vaughn recalled. “Down to the bone.”
Over the next month, he went from a wheelchair to taking a few steps while holding onto a railing on the side of a wall in a hallway to eventually walking around the entire building. He underwent occupational and physical therapy along the way.
In May 2011, two months after the accident, Vaughn returned to his mother’s Lancaster Township home. He spent large parts of his day stretching and doing recommended physical therapy exercises. The feeding tube came out in August 2011, allowing Vaughn to begin building his weight back up.
In the summer of 2012, Vaughn finally felt back to normal when he volunteered at a summer camp and was asked to play two-hand touch football and capture-the-flag.
“Next thing you know, I’m running and beating everybody,” Vaughn said. “Everything was back plus more. I couldn’t believe it. I could run fast again. I’m athletic again.”
Back in the classroom
Another 18 months passed before Vaughn entered a college classroom for the first time. In the interim, Vaughn said he was dealing with family troubles while also trying to get his driver’s license.
“It took me two times to pass my permit test,” he said. “Took me three times to pass the driving test. But each time I took the driving test, it was with a different car. I had to adjust with each one. I had to contact a lot of people to see who was willing to give me a chance.”
Vaughn got his driver’s license in 2013, but he needed to save up to buy his first car. In the meantime, he rode a Red Rose Transit bus to the HACC campus on Old Philadelphia Pike in Lancaster. He enrolled there in January 2014, in part by obtaining his high school transcript from McCaskey with help from Steffy’s Children Deserve A Chance Foundation.
After earning an associate degree from HACC in December 2017, Vaughn transferred to Millersville University, graduating in December 2020 with a bachelor of science, majoring in speech communications with a minor in broadcasting and media.
“I thought that speech matched my talent and love for poetry, writing and performing,” Vaughn said. “I’m good at talking and communicating with people. I decided to ride that out.”
Vaughn is eyeing a career in television production, using what he’s learned over two previous internships at Lancaster Community TV under the direction of CEO Frank Altdoerffer.
“His work ethic is great,” Altdoerffer said. “You give him a job, some of that he had to do independently because of COVID-19. But he went out and did it. … I just think the world of him.”
Until he lands that first TV job, Vaughn is continuing to work for the School District of Lancaster by assisting at football events in the fall, basketball events in the winter and track & field events this spring. Occasionally at those events, McCaskey student-athletes ask Vaughn about the car crash.
“It seems like this is going to be with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “I want to be able to turn it around 180. … The cost of it is humility and being vulnerable and having an open heart. But on the other side, what people see is encouragement.”
People like Steffy, who has been somewhat of a mentor to Vaughn over the last decade.
“The other week I took my son to one of Ethan’s celebrations,” Steffy said. “I took a picture with Ethan and held my son in my arms. What I thought in that moment is Ethan is a role model for my son. When my son is older and looking for mentors, Ethan is someone he can look towards to show what’s possible.”
To show what’s possible when you overcome the odds, even if it’s a 1-percent chance to live.
“And now they feel inspired to want to do better in their life because they see I have victory over death,” Vaughn said. “Victory over a 99-percent chance of dying. But that 1-percent chance of life shows God created math, and he can overrule any number.”