The work of taking each breath had been taken over by a machine. He was heavily sedated, so he didn't move, and there was no sign he knew they were there.
"He was in bad shape," said Adel Dressel, Sprague's mother-in-law. "We thought we were going to lose him."
After a week of being treated in the intensive care unit of Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, on Monday he opened his eyes for the first time.
Later that day, a nurse asked if he recognized the woman standing nearby, his wife, Nicole Sprague. He nodded his head.
Early the next day, when she walked into the room, he mouthed the words to her around his breathing tube: "I love you."
"He's been trying to ask what's going on? What happened?" she said.
It's a question she and other family members have been asking since the evening of March 19. The 35-year-old Boeing mechanic, who had worked at the company for about a year, was injured at Paine Field when he was caught in the wing flap of a 747. No bones were broken, but his lungs were severely damaged, triggering cardiac arrest.
"His lungs were in really bad shape for the first couple days after this happened," said Dr. Andrew Luks, who specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the hospital.
"The lungs were injured to the point where he can't get enough oxygen into the bloodstream on his own and needs the help of the ventilator to do that," Luks said.
Doctors also were initially concerned that he may have suffered brain damage. All his family could do was watch and wait for some sign from Stan.
"When he first came in, he wasn't responding to commands or giving thumbs up in response to questions," Luks said.
That began to change early last week. One day he used one of his hands to point to letters written on a white board to indicate he was hungry.
Next, he began to signal he didn't merely comprehend what was said to him, he was spiking it with some of his teasing humor.
Perhaps no one has been a more frequent target of that humor than Dressel, his mother-in-law.
"Stan is a character," she said. "He likes to tweak people a little bit."
Sprague grew up in Oklahoma. "He's a cowboy," she said. "He used to ride bulls."
He's also a staunch Republican. Dressel, who lives in the Boston area, describes herself as a "liberal old Democrat.
"I have very strong opinions about certain things," she said. "Every once in a while he likes to 'tweak' me. At the beginning, it would get a little heated. But it's very good natured now."
So one day last week as family members were leaving his bedside, Stan signaled that he would like to kiss them goodbye.
"Can I give you a kiss?" Dressel asked. Stan shook his head no.
"You don't want to kiss your mother-in-law, do you?" she responded.
"He had a big old grin on his face," she said. They kissed.
There were other signs. Sprague is an avid NASCAR fan. Luks, his physician, began questioning him about race-car drivers, both his favorite -- Kevin Harvick -- and those he wouldn't give a Facebook "like" to if he could.
"I brought up the issue of NASCAR and you could see his eyebrows go up," Luks said.
For an intensive care patient, "that's a pretty high level of interaction."
Doctors are increasingly confident that Sprague shouldn't have any long-lasting neurological issues.
Sprague is the second Boeing employee to be seriously injured this year.
On Feb. 3, Josh Divers, 30, was walking beside a 787 being towed at Paine Field when he fell. The airplane's wheels rolled over his feet, eventually resulting in a double amputation of his legs below the knees.
Divers was released from Harborview on Wednesday, and faces a long rehabilitation while he learns to walk on two prosthetic legs. Before he left the hospital, Divers stopped by to see the family.
"These were two really bad accidents at Boeing within a short period of time," Dressel said. "I want some answers. We want some answers -- my daughter, Stan's father, the guys at Boeing. It could have happened to any of them."
Safety reviews by the state Department of Labor and Industries are still under way on both accidents, as are reviews of the accident by Boeing and machinist union representatives.
The state agency has conducted about 20 safety inspections at Boeing in the past four years, including checks related to contractors working at the plant, said Elaine Fischer, Labor and Industries spokeswoman.
The last safety inspection occurred in December 2010 after a worker fell on stairs and was hospitalized, she said. No violations were found in that inspection.
On Wednesday, doctors were confident enough of Sprague's progress that they unhooked him from the ventilator, a test of how long he could manage breathing on his own.
Severely injured patients often have to switch back and forth, using the machine and periodically breathing on their own.
When temporarily cut loose from the ventilator, Sprague didn't waste any time using his new-found freedom, greeting his wife with: "Hey beautiful, I love you!"
Sprague managed to breathe machine-free for about 12 hours.
"We had a little celebration," Dressel said, with Nicole Sprague, Brandy, the couple's 15-year-old daughter, and Dennis Sprague, Stan's father, driving from the family home in Lake Stevens to Everett for dinner.
Nicole Sprague said she recognizes signs of her husband's growing impatience with his restrictions. On Thursday, he moved his arms and legs, mimicking a running motion, when he sat in a chair for the first time.
It was as if he were saying, "I'm getting ready to make a run for it," she said.
Breathing entirely on his own is a critical medical hurdle Sprague must achieve before he can be transferred from the intensive care unit -- and a big step on the road to recovery.
Doctors expect his lungs to heal, Luks said. He just needs more time.
"He's at that stage where there are not a lot of things we need to do," Luks said. "We need to let his body recover. How long that will take is hard to say. But he's going to get there."
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To send a note
Notes can be sent to either Stan Sprague or his family through the Harborview Medical Center website at http://bit.ly/4AL0HB
The Sprague family also has established a blog for updates on his condition at www.caringbridge.org/visit/stansprague/journal
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