Nine years ago, a car accident shattered Dennis Weaver’s body and spirit. “That’s the day my life changed forever,” said the soft-spoken 47-year-old husband and father.
On May 7, 2004, Dennis was heading home on Interstate 10 after putting in a long day as a superintendent for a plumbing company in Phoenix, Ariz. A truck driver allegedly fell asleep at the wheel and slammed into Dennis’ new Chevy van. The high speed crash totaled his vehicle and the engine landed on Dennis’ right leg. Emergency responders worked for two hours to free him from the wreckage.
A helicopter flew Dennis to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, where doctors pieced his shattered leg back together with pins, screws and metal. The injury that wasn’t as apparent happened to Dennis’s brain as it shook violently back and forth inside his skull, resulting in a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Following four months of extensive orthopedic surgeries, Dennis spent more than a year in rehabilitation for his TBI. In 2007, Dennis returned to his hometown of Moorcroft, Wyo., to be closer to extended family. “Personally, I needed a lot of help,” said Dennis.
Unable to return to his previous occupation, Dennis began cooking at the local VFW and his family’s restaurant. With access to limited rehabilitative care, his overall health declined dramatically. “Depression and anxiety took over my life.” Dennis’ wife, Andrea, and his step-daughters witnessed firsthand his physical and psychological struggles.
An avid outdoorsman, Dennis loves to golf, hunt, fish and ride horses, but safety became a big concern. “I was easily frustrated,” said Dennis, who felt his life spiraling downward. In October, 2012, Paradigm, a workers’ compensation provider, recommended Dennis come to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. Results of a comprehensive brain injury assessment indicated Dennis required more intense rehabilitation to restore his active lifestyle.
Five months later, Dennis returned to Madonna, but experienced a lot of reservations entering the Rehabilitation Day Program. “I had no self-confidence and didn’t know what to expect,” said Dennis, who could barely move his right leg. Being around other people intimidated him, but his Madonna team remained upbeat and reassuring. “They are phenomenal– you’re not just another human being on an assembly line.”
Madonna’s new Transitional Living Program (TLP), where Dennis lived in onsite housing with two other men, helped Dennis heal emotionally. Through daily interactions with his roommates, Dennis’ social skills reemerged, along with his personality. “I never felt out of place at Madonna,” said Dennis. TLP increased Dennis’ independence with daily living activities like cooking and laundry.
Regaining his physical strength and conquering his cognitive deficits took Dennis weeks of daily, repetitive therapy. The first time Dennis stood in the aqua therapy pool he was overcome with emotion. “I cried because I hadn’t walked independently since 2005.” Dennis strengthened his right leg with technology like the NuStep, ICARE and Proprio 4000. Within a month, he felt he’d turned the corner. “I got the spark back in my life.”
Gaining control of his depression and restoring self-confidence proved the most challenging for Dennis. He learned techniques to reduce anxiety and control his anger. Speech therapists used an iPad, provided by Paradigm, to help Dennis with memory and executive functioning. Dennis’ socialization and self-worth soared through volunteering in Madonna’s Café as part of a return to work program, Recreational therapy introduced Dennis to adaptive leisure opportunities, like the handcycle and Paragolfer. “He was very timid at first and didn’t realize his potential,” said Rick Haith, recreation therapist. “Dennis’ eyes lit up when he learned he could golf and bike independently.”
Surviving the accident changed Dennis’ outlook. “It sounds odd, but it made me a better person. I value life more.” Before the accident, he had a great job and all the material “toys,” but something was missing. “Following my rehab at Madonna, I can truly say that I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”