A brain injury affects everything that makes a person who they are. It can rob sight, the ability to communicate, walk, and even radically change personality. According to the Brain Injury Association of America, 1.4 million people in the U.S. sustain a brain injury each year. Of those who are hospitalized, only one third receive rehabilitation.
National news media has reported high profile brain injury cases involving celebrities, national athletes and military personnel injured in combat. Although there have been amazing recoveries, like that of journalist Bob Woodruff, little has been shown of medical rehabilitation’s vital role in helping achieve these breakthroughs. Until now.
The "Pathways" documentary was filmed by Brandon and Tiffany Verzal, award winning videographers who were working for the Texas A&M sports department in 2008 when they received a call that their 1-year old daughter, Alexis, was limp and unresponsive at her daycare provider's home. After rushing to meet the ambulance at the local hospital, they discovered the shocking news that Alexis had suffered a brain injury at her daycare.
The hospital stabilized Alexis, but she suffered serious injuries that would require long term rehabilitation. The Verzals gratefully accepted a donated flight to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska, known for its accredited pediatric rehab program. Encouraged by Alexis' improvement, Brandon and Tiff decided to stay in Lincoln, so Alexis could continue her outpatient rehabilitation at Madonna. They started their own video company, V2 Content, and began working around Alexis' therapy schedule.
What began as a personal project to document their own daughter's progress, expanded to include the journeys of three other remarkable young people at Madonna. Four different individuals with different types of brain injuries, but sharing the same path to hope through rehabilitation.
When Alexis first arrived at Madonna in April 2008, she couldn't see, talk, eat, move or do anything independently. The girl whose angelic smile won over strangers and who loved to giggle and play was now completely listless, like a rag doll left behind after a tea party.
Rehabilitation was hard. Alexis would scream as she worked in therapy to move her arm, lift her head or concentrate to follow the colored lights of a toy. The progress seemed slow, but it was evident. Intensive, consistent therapy helped Alexis’ brain rebuild broken connections. With the extensive damage to her visual cortex, Alexis was not expected to fully regain her vision. But eventually, her upwardly fixed eyes gained movement range and focus, working in unison to look at her parents’ faces and watch her therapists. Alexis delighted in the applause she earned for turning a book page or sitting up with support.
Though tragically injured, Alexis never lost her loving spirit and soon was charming other patients, families and staff at Madonna with her radiant grin and laughing blue eyes. She worked tirelessly with her Madonna care team, parents and grandparents to keep making progress, step by thousands of steps.
Today, Alexis loves to sing Johnny Cash songs, read and talk about "Dora the Explorer," play with her puppies and zoom around in her walker. She is finally regaining many of the physical abilities she effortlessly enjoyed up to the day she was hurt, though her right side continues to have less control and mobility than her left. Cognitively, Alexis is advanced for her age, as her pediatrician, and either of her grandmas, will tell you.
Thirteen-year old Derek Ruth of Malcolm, Neb., is a champion to those who know him, both on and off the football field or baseball diamond. During a midget football game on Sept. 6, 2008, Derek suffered a traumatic brain injury. After two emergency surgeries to save Derek's life, which involved removing portions of his skull on both sides, he was transferred to Madonna's inpatient pediatric rehabilitation program.
At first, Derek was so weak, just sitting in a wheelchair was a strain after short periods of time. He was unable to walk, communicate or eat on his own and was not fully aware of his surroundings. With the help of his Madonna team, the constant support of his family, and his faith and determination, Derek made incredible progress. He struggled to stand with support, then took a few assisted steps, then used the body weight support treadmill to relearn proper gait positioning and regain strength. Within a few weeks, Derek’s therapists had to keep up with him as he quickly crossed the gym on his own. He became just as lightening fast with his letterboard, spelling out answers to homework questions in Madonna’s Therapeutic Learning Center and joking with his parents and four brothers.
Friends organized "Team Derek" to celebrate his achievements by participating in the Lincoln Marathon on May 3, 2009. Derek cheered on his supporters, including several Madonna employees, crossed the finish line with his family -- running the last few yards. His winning smile said it all.
In the fall of 2009, Derek returned to school and earned straight As his first semester.
It was only 8 degrees the night of Jan. 14 when seventeen-year old Mandy Kays from Shawnee, Kans., lost control of her car and slid off of I-435 into the freezing water of Cedar Creek. The car submerged upside down, making it difficult for rescue workers to get her out of the vehicle. When she arrived at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, her body temperature had dropped to 82 degrees.
Though she survived the near drowning, Mandy suffered a hypoxic-anoxic brain injury, which caused serious physical and cognitive impairments. When Mandy transferred to Madonna two weeks later, she was ventilator-dependent and minimally responsive. The girl who excelled in her homeschool studies and was preparing to take the GED exam could not move, speak in full sentences or remember the current date.
Each day, Mandy's care team focused on improving her cognitive and physical skills. She studied math and worked on computer skills in the Therapeutic Learning Center, built up her strength during physical therapy to walk with assistance, learned to find her voice in speech therapy and enjoyed a community outing to Target where she picked out some earrings with her favorite symbol – stars.
On June 20, Mandy celebrated her return home to Kansas and her 18th birthday surrounded by her family and friends. Not surprisingly, most of Mandy's gifts involved stars, but none shined as brightly as Mandy.
Twenty-eight year old Christian Stokes thought he was pretty lucky while serving as an Army sergeant in Iraq. Though he had several close calls, he was never hit by enemy fire or injured during his two years of duty. He returned home to Kansas City in Jan. 2009 and, despite the worried admonition of his mother, bought a motorcycle to enjoy riding with his friends.
On April 8, 2009, Christian was riding on I-635 North when he noticed his rear tire was unstable. In seconds, Christian's motorcycle slid out from under him and he jetted from the seat at 70 mph.
Christian's mother, Cora, immediately flew from South Carolina to be by his side during the two weeks he lie in a coma with pins keeping his shattered left arm in place. When Christian came to Madonna on April 24, he slept in a net bed to protect him while he worked through the predictable early stages of brain injury recovery, involving agitation and confusion.
His soldier's determination and excellent physical conditioning helped Christian make incredible progress in rehabilitation. Christian called his physical therapist, Scott, the "repo man" for taking away his wheelchair. But Christian was ready for it all -- taking steps with assistance, then on his own, then moving like a football player in training, shuffling quickly to the left and right.
On July 17, Christian discharged from Madonna and returned to home duty in Kansas City, where he is enjoying time with his daughter, Destiny, and planning his next mission -- to finish his bachelor's degree and possibly work toward becoming a physical therapist or police officer.