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Winning the Battle

A soldier returns unscathed from Iraq, only to watch his son suffer the “signature wound” of the war

The Unthinkable Happens

Story helplessly witnessed the end of Austin’s fall that day as if it were happening in slow motion. Landing near the bottom of the waterfall, the teenager rolled onto the ground, hitting his left thigh, shoulder and, finally, his head. Story hurried to his son’s side. Blood covered the rocks, but Austin didn’t appear to have any broken bones. Story picked Austin up, started to carry him and soon realized that he was too heavy. A friend comforted Lisa and called 9-1-1, and several ambulances arrived moments later. “At that point, when I knew somebody else had control of him, I collapsed, weeping,” Story remembers.

A few miles away, a MedEvac helicopter was waiting to transport Austin to Morristown Memorial Hospital. There he underwent successful emergency surgery for an epidural hematoma, and doctors induced a temporary coma to let his brain heal. His neck was bruised but his spine was intact.

“Austin was in excellent shape and I think his good muscular build really cushioned him in the fall,” says Story. “Except for some bad scrapes, he looked really good. You could look at himphysically and think, ‘This is the kind of guy that Greek and Roman sculptors used to use for models,’ because he was just in such great shape. It was hard to comprehend that somebody who looked this good was this badly hurt.”

That weekend, the nurses removed the ventilator but Austin remained in a coma. Sunday morning was especially difficult for the Story family. “It could be weeks, months, maybe even a couple of years before he wakes up,” a nurse told them. Later that day, Austin barely opened one eye.

Gradually, he gained more awareness of his surroundings, and one day he moved his left hand and foot. On September 11, Lisa held the phone up to his ear so his grandmother could speak to him, and a huge smile spread across his face for the first time.

A few days later, Austin was transferred to the pediatric brain injury program at Baltimore’s prestigious Kennedy Krieger Institute. He impressed the staff when, on the first evening, he walked 20 feet down the hall with his dad holding on.

When he arrived at Kennedy Krieger, Austin “had very little controlled use of the right side of his body,” says Dr. Stacy Suskauer, director of the institute’s brain injury program. “He was able to do just a little bit of standing and walking, but required assistance to do that. He was not able to speak at all. He was just starting to have moments of trying to communicate with a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’either through pointing to a hand or giving a high five for ‘yes.’ … The other thing he wasn’t able to do was eat at all when he first came here. In fact, he was breathing through a tracheostomy tube.”Austin was also quite agitated, just like the wounded soldiers Story had encountered over the years.

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