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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 continued...

For the next two months, the Kennedy Krieger team worked with Austin, providing physical, occupational and speech therapy; behavioral psychology services; and therapeutic recreation— the same treatments military personnel with severe brain injuries receive. Although he’s a bit unsteady, he can now walk without assistance and use his right side. “I saw him play Othello last week, pick up those little pieces and turn them over. But it takes some extra focus and attention for him,” says Dr. Suskauer. Austin is also talking again, in full sentences, but sometimes has difficulty finding the right words. And his sense of humor has returned.

Before his accident, Austin was extremely accurate with his soccer throws and kicks, and very fast. One day, while goading him to kick the ball harder, the physical therapist at Kennedy Krieger remarked, “Man, that’s one of the weakest touches I’ve ever seen.”

Not the End of the Story

When this article was written in November,  Austin was about to move from inpatient rehabilitation to the Specialized Transition Program at Kennedy Krieger, where he would continue intensive therapy in a day setting “to tease out his cognitive strengths and weaknesses,” according to Dr. Suskauer.

He’s changing very quickly at this point, which is the best prognostic indicator I have for how  much he’s going to continue to change,” she notes. “But I think there will always be some differences in Austin from prior to his injury. I think in a year he’ll be integrated back into school, but he’ll probably need some accommodations to do his schoolwork. And he may need to learn in a different way than he did before. He may still have some problems with memory, attention and finding the right word, but I’m hopeful that he’ll be able to continue to complete schoolwork and graduate from high school.

“A lot of parents have been told that recovery ends at a year, and that what you have at a year is basically what you’re going to get,” she adds. “But we know more and more that that isn’t true. Usually the fastest rate of recovery is seen early on or in the first year, but we know that meaningful recovery can continue to happen after that and can continue for years. There’s always hope.”

Dr. Suskauer and her colleagues stress the need for public education about TBI—how to prevent it, how to recognize it, how to deal with the aftermath. “I think it’s really important that the general public understands what it mean to have had a traumatic brain injury, that when Austin goes back to school and pretty much looks physically the same, it may be hard for peers or teachers to understand why he needs special accommodations, why he might be a little bit slower to answer questions or need more time on tests. Traumatic brain injury can be a silent or invisible injury, if somebody looks fine. You can’t see their brain.”

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