Hearing that I was getting discharged from Shock Trauma was a HUGE morale booster for me and my family. It meant that my condition was stable. It also meant that I no longer had to endure the drumming on my sides, and the pain of tubes in my nose, throat, and mouth. Despite that, I was terrified, as I was now entering into the next phase of my journey. “What now?” I thought, still unable to talk.
That question would soon be answered, when I was informed that I was heading to a rehabilitation hospital that specializes in working with patients with spinal cord injuries. I’m not going to disclose the name of the hospital, but I was happy to be going there. “I finally get to leave this (Shock Trauma) place and I’m never returning,” I thought ecstatically.
Once I arrived at the rehab hospital and was settled in my room, I hit another milestone. No longer needing a feeding tube, I was able to eat. My first meal since my injury was a grilled cheese sandwich. Thinking about that sandwich now, it was HORRIBLE. It had hard edges, and super thick cheese but at that moment, it was delicious. It was the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. “I wonder if I can have another one”, I thought to myself.
No longer sedated and refusing to take pain medication, due to an incident that happened while in Shock Trauma, reality set in. I really became aware of everything happening to me and around me. Despite this, I continued achieving major milestones. The next one was gaining feeling back in my extremities. As exciting as this was, the intense nerve pain I began feeling was excruciating. This pain was actually worse than breaking a bone. It was a constant burning and nagging feeling deep down. Additionally, my nose and throat were still extremely irritated as they were healing from the tubes that were removed. It was during that time I knew I was facing a very long, slow, and painful journey.
Despite all of the pain and discomfort, I would soon reach another milestone. While lying in a similar bed to what I had at Shock Trauma, one day my doctor came and said, “Mr. Brooks we’re going to put a “cap” on your tracheostomy tube, which will allow you to talk.” Like a kid excited at Christmas excited to open gifts, I thought, “Did I just hear that I’m finally going to be able to talk again? I get to have a conversation with my parents,” I thought to myself. Once the “cap” was in place, I was delighted by the expectation of speaking my first words since my injury. That was short lived when nothing came out. I actually felt like my oxygen had been cut off and I was choking. It felt like I would soon be gasping for air. “Why isn’t this working?” I tried saying. Seeing the frustration in my face, the doctor said it would take time and suggested that we try again the next day. So, day after day, I would try speaking until I finally was successful. At times it was difficult but well worth it.
With yet another milestone behind me, I wondered “what is next?” At this point I still had not been out of bed. A few days would pass before I would receive a power wheelchair, and later start a rehabilitation regimen. Making all of this progress so soon after being incapacitated for so long was very exciting. Still, despite the many milestones, it was during this time that I realized how completely dependent and vulnerable I was. My days consisted of someone else doing everything for me, feeding, sponge bathing, dressing, and transferring me in and out of my chair. “This suck,” I thought to myself.
Despite the immense frustration, the highlight of my days was therapy. My first physical therapist, Alicia was incredible. She provided the perfect balance of tough love and empathy. She knew exactly when to push me and when to fall back. Every week we would work on the things I need to gain some independence. A mix between occupational therapy and physical therapy, we would work on things like sitting up, lifting my arms and hands to my mouth, holding utensils, scooping food, picking things up from a table, etc. Those seemingly so “simple” things I once took for granted, I then had to relearn. After a while my frustration turned into total rage. “Why is this stupid sh*t so hard? Why can’t I pick this up? I used to do these without thinking about it,” were some of the things I use to blurt out. Not having the ability to do those things would cause me to burst into tears while in therapy because of my vulnerability. However, like all things, the more you work on something the better you become.
Just like in therapy, my time there would also improve. I began accepting visitors and was able to hang out with other patients during the day. I learned to drive my wheelchair, so I was able to move about the facility freely. Despite that, the nighttime was still bad. With my parents no longer staying with me at night, I was alone. As a result, I spent a lot of time thinking. Back then I was uneducated on depression so I couldn’t identify it. One day a psychiatrist came to my room and among the many questions she asked was “Do you ever think about harming yourself?” My response was “no I don’t, but even if I wanted to, I’m paralyzed and couldn’t. Leave my room and never come back.” Not anticipating my response, she quickly turned and stormed out to my mom waiting outside of the door. She repeated what I had said verbatim, to which my mother responded, “well don’t come back.” That was the last time I ever saw her.
It was until my younger cousin, Tadea started coming that things would gradually change. Tadea had a spirit and personality that would light up any room he was in. Somehow, he would sneak into the hospital and keep my company at night. I’m not sure how he did it, but he was able to come and go without being seen. Even on the days he couldn’t make it to the hospital, he would call to make sure I was alright. On the days I may have been already sleep when he arrived, he would either sleep in the chair next to my bed or leave me a sign that he was there. Whether in person or on the phone he was always there. He and I have a bond that could never be broken.
The entire time I was in the hospital. I was unaware of the impact my injury had on the greater Baltimore community. There was a group of parents from Loyola who came together to run a fundraiser on my behalf. The event took place in October 2004 at Loyola Blakefield and had approximately 1300 people in attendance. The audience consisted of players from the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles, guest speaker Brian Billick (head coach of the Ravens at the time), and many more. There were also hundreds of auction items. “All of that for me? I don’t even know that many people,” I thought to myself. Years later, this out pour of support will come to play a major role in my life moving forward.
Quickly approaching was the holiday seasons. The first was Thanksgiving and the Turkey Bowl. The Turkey Bowl is the last and biggest game of the season for Loyola Blakefield football. It is when they play their archrivals Calvert Hall at M&T Bank Stadium on Thanksgiving morning. It is where thousands of current students, alum, family, and friends from both schools come to cheer on the teams and show their school pride. I put in my request to go and was dedicated to doing whatever it would take. Everything seemed to be going smoothly with my request until a few days before. The hospital told my parents I wouldn’t be able to go unless they assumed all responsibility of me leaving the hospital, had my own transportation, a private nurse, and a portable ventilator just in case something happened. To fulfill my wish so many members of the community stepped up to provide everything I would need to go.
The next holiday was Christmas. My immediate family has a tradition of spending Christmas in Myrtle Beach together. Due to my injury of course, we couldn’t go that year but the last thing I wanted was to spend Christmas in the hospital. My parents once again spoke with the hospital, and they agreed that I could spend the day at home. I knew this day was going to be bittersweet because I would have to return back later that night. Despite that I still wanted to make the best of it.
Once I arrived home and the door swung open, I was greeted with a loud “SURPRISE!” My parents had gone far and beyond to host a surprise Christmas party for me. During that time nothing else mattered to me. I was surrounded by my family and friends who loved and cared about me. As you could imagine, I was upset when I had to leave but it gave motivation to do what was needed to come home for good.
January 18, 2005 was finally here. “I get to go home” …or so I thought. Waking up I was super excited because this was my scheduled discharge date. I could feel something was off though. On the previous two occasions that I left the hospital, my dad was there really early to get me ready. This time was different. “Where is he,” I questioned. Shortly after that thought, my parents walked through the door to my room. Immediately, I could tell something was wrong from their demeanor. My dad proceeded to deliver the bad news. “Van you’re not going to like this, but it is best that you stay here a little longer.”
“Absolutely not!” I responded. Completely crushed I quickly rolled out of the room. I ended up going to another patient’s room (a guy I became friends with there) and asked him to call my cousin Tadea. While on the phone with him, I explained to that I wanted him to help me run away and go home. In the meantime, while I waited for him, I watched as my parents and staff from the hospital frantically searched for me. Once Tadea arrived he helped me escape out a door he often used to sneak in at night to see me. As we were heading to the bus stopped, we were spotted. Looking back, I wasn’t surprised because I was wrapped like a mummy in white bed sheets.
Once my parents convinced me to go back inside, they told the hospital that they were taking me home. They knew that my mind was made up and that there was nothing they or anyone else could say that would stop me or Tadea from trying again.
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