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After the Coma

Eight years after a car accident changed everything, a mother and her son tell what it has been like to live with his traumatic brain injury.

ST. PETERSBURG – It is estimated that 1.4-million people a year suffer traumatic brain injuries. For some of these patients and their families, life returns to normal. Ours did not.

More than eight years ago, on Thanksgiving night, our then 27-year-old son, Mike, went with friends to a popular bar in downtown St. Petersburg. He didn’t worry about drinking, since he wasn’t driving, but the Jeep he and two friends were riding in flipped over. The other two passengers suffered minor injuries, but Mike was tossed out and landed on his head.

The neurosurgeon told us Mike suffered a brain stem injury. He told us to imagine Mike’s brain as a watermelon with dime-sized nicks in it.

Nine months of institutional care followed two weeks in a coma. Mike’s relatives and friends visited him in hospitals, nursing homes and Bayfront Medical Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit. I, his mother, became his primary caregiver.

On Aug. 7, 1998, we brought Mike home to stay. His dad, Lon, had built plywood ramps to the front and back doors, to accommodate Mike’s wheelchairs. Lon also installed grab bars in the bathroom for the special tub and toilet.

When Mike’s large shower chair didn’t fit into the bathroom, Lon rigged three poles around an outdoor shower and hung curtains there, so we could wheel Mike in his chair under that shower. That lasted until the first cool spell, when we began seating Mike on a special bench in the indoor shower.

Having a physiatrist – a physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation – is a must when dealing with a brain injury, and Mike’s physiatrist immediately signed him up for Bayfront’s Comprehensive Outpatient Brain Injury program. For two months, the staff tried to work with Mike on basic living skills: grooming, preparing a meal, shopping and physical therapy. He would have none of it.

Our previously laid-back, easygoing son became combative, pronouncing anything they tried to do “stupid, stupid, stupid.”

That ended therapy. The staff suggested I take Mike home and “do everyday things with him.” Overnight I became speech, occupational, physical and social living therapist, with no background in any of those disciplines.

Mike’s siblings – Julie, Tom, Cathie and Pat – and his dad pitched in with ideas and hands-on help. Cathie, an RN, had videotaped Mike’s physical therapist giving us detailed instructions on exercises for Mike at home. She would drive from her home in Sarasota every week to work with him.
Julie, who lives in St. Petersburg, would come over daily between work and school to accompany Mike with his walker along the sidewalk or in his wheelchair. That gave me time for my therapeutic hour of lap swimming.

Tom kept Mike supplied with board games, to encourage cognitive skills. When Mike could get in the backyard pool with an “Aqua Jogger” around his waist, Lon and the siblings played water volleyball, to help Mike build stamina and coordination.

Pat continues to fly in often from Atlanta to entertain Mike, help him with his computer, challenge him to improve his cognitive skills.

Even Mike’s nieces and nephews played games, colored or worked with clay with him, to help get his neurons clicking.
In January 1999, Mike joined a Lifestyle Family Fitness gym. With my help, he climbed on machines and returned to working out. Two years later, we met Shane Trevigno there, and he volunteered an hour a week to work with Mike on improving his balance and getting him out of the wheelchair. Shane, an ex-Marine, combined drill instructor tactics with fun stuff to motivate Mike.

Marci Anderson, a friend of Shane’s, volunteered an hour of massage a week. Dr. Ric Lenholt, a chiropractor and friend of Marci’s, volunteered his expertise.

In February 2000, Mike’s physiatrist sent him for vocational rehabilitation, and Mike re-entered Bayfront’s brain injury outpatient program, where he worked with a speech pathologist to prepare to return to college. Mike had been in his third year working toward a finance degree when he was injured; by now he wanted desperately to get back.

At St. Petersburg College, Mike benefited from being allowed a note taker, a quiet room for taking his tests, a tutor and more.

Over four semesters, he took courses in college success skills, elementary and intermediate algebra and calculus. The results were the same; Mike could do some of the work, but not enough to pass the class. Short-term memory loss plagued him.

After a neuropsychological exam and aptitude testing, Mike’s counselor, Tracy Van Ess, suggested that he try Abilities of Florida. His teacher there, Jim Gardner, worked hard with Mike on computer-assisted drafting. Again memory loss tripped him up.

Now, Mike works two afternoons a week at Healthstat O2, the respiratory and home care services business co-owned by his brother Pat. Mike also has spoken a couple of times to high school classes about his rehabilitation and looks forward to doing more.

And he is being treated at Bayfront with a computer-based program aimed at improving his balance and thought processes.

In Mike’s words: Before I had my traumatic brain injury, I was a full-time student at USF, renting to own my first home, working part time for the owner and also working as a waiter at Chili’s. I played beach volleyball on weekends and had plenty of friends.

Now, I have finally realized that I’m still the same person I was before my accident, but I can’t or won’t do some things that I used to.

If I ever want to drive again, I will have to be evaluated and take driving lessons at Bayfront’s Comprehensive Outpatient Brain Injury program.

I will never have alcoholic drinks again.

After a brain injury, alcohol greatly increases the chance of having a seizure. If I go to a bar or a party with friends, I only drink water or Sprite – because I’m not supposed to have caffeine, either.

I will never play beach volleyball again, because I almost always use a cane to walk: I have poor balance, a fused wrist and a dislocated shoulder – all from my accident.

I have learned to slow down and do things the correct way. I really think things through before I start them.

After my injury, I became very angry with all of the people who were caring for me, trying to heal and protect me. Unfortunately that anger is part of the recovery process, and I thank God that I didn’t stay at that stage.

Now I’m much more positive, mostly because of all the love and support my family has given me. My parents, brothers and sisters have really supported me. I’m still living with my mom and dad.

People who work out alongside me at Lifestyle gym have given me many compliments while reaching out a helping hand. “You are my inspiration!” is one of my favorite things to hear.

I have learned that a brain continues to heal after a traumatic injury. I continue to see and experience improvements in myself, and that has encouraged me during these years of healing.


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