“Hello, it’s me again,” I said as I entered his room. Brad* was lying inert in the bed and I was there to provide coma stimulation. I was fresh out of Speech Pathology Graduate school and had my first job working in an inpatient rehabilitation center. I was excited to put all of my theory into practice and make a difference in the lives of people in need.
Brad was a local teenager who was transferred to our facility once it was determined that he was medically stable enough to receive rehabilitation. He had been drinking and driving, wrecked, and was left with life-threatening injuries, including a severe traumatic brain injury. Brad was a national tennis star and had already been recruited to play at a major university, but I did not see any of that. All I saw when I stared at the young man in front of me was a broken body, an unresponsive brain, and someone who needed to fight for their life.
Brad had been in a coma since the accident. Coma stimulation is a treatment used to rebuild neuronal connections that have been lost or damaged from trauma or illness. A consistent and appropriate presentation of multi-sensory stimulation is used to increase arousal. Coma stimulation has proven to be an effective method for encouraging and enhancing a coma patient’s response to the environment. As the stimulus is presented, data is recorded with the time certain behaviors occur and stop. The responses—such as a flicker of eyes or flaring of the nostrils—can be subtle. For a new grad with little experience, these small gestures can cause you to question if the responses represent successful treatment or sheer chance. Doubts can become stronger if the family and staff around you also have questions. On several occasions throughout my career, I was glad that I did not give in to the whispers overheard in the hallway that questioned the value of my service.
Brad defied the odds and woke up from his coma. Through extensive inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, he got his life back. In turn, I learned the power of cognitive rehabilitation. I was no longer reading clinical studies from a textbook; I had a front-row seat to powerful demonstrations of human resilience and changes in the brain. Watching Brad go through the process of the Glasgow Coma Scale was miraculous, and such a gift for a new graduate. As a therapist, I gained confidence in my skills with every patient after him as I watched their lives transform.
Brad left the facility, and years later I did too. I moved to new cities, new states, took on new jobs, and 22 years later, learned the most valuable lesson of all. My youngest son came home from high school one day talking about a motivational speaker that was at his assembly. The man was there to teach about the dangers of drinking and driving. As he shared a little bit about the speaker’s life, it seemed oddly familiar. The more he shared, the more my mind raced in an attempt to connect the dots and process what I was hearing. Could this be the same kid? The stories were too similar. I know that my attention drifted because I refocused only when my son questioned whether I was listening to him. I stared in awe and waited for him to answer when I simply said, “What was his name?”
There is something truly beautiful when science, human connection, and gratitude meet. Brad has devoted his life to teaching young kids about the effects of drinking and driving in hopes of preventing others from making the same life-altering mistake he did. The moment my son said his name, I saw Brad’s mother’s face, sitting beside her son’s hospital bed praying for a miracle. I call this the boomerang effect that happens when you provide service to others. If you are lucky, like I was, you will catch it. Then you will feel the enormous impact that your tiny role can have on another person’s life. Brad regained his life, chose to pay it forward, and my son and his friends were able to learn from his story.
I remember the day that Brad got discharged from the rehabilitation hospital. His family was full of gratitude and thanked each of us individually. Today, I share this story to thank her. Brad’s mom never gave up on him. She trusted the doctors and staff to use their knowledge of science and research to deliver the services necessary to rebuild her son’s life. As health care professionals, I hope that we never forget that the most valuable data doesn’t come from the collection of notes written in a discharge summary, but rather from experiences that we have and the lives that we touch.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.