Brain Injury Patient Finds New Purpose in Life
After working as a dentist for more than 34 years, Dr. Michael Link finds a new calling after sustaining a brain injury.
When Melissa Link woke up early on Sunday, February 10, 2019, in her home in Newport News, Virginia, she expected it to be a day like any other. Her husband, Michael Link, D.D.S., now 62, was sound asleep beside her.
“After getting up to use the restroom, I got back in bed and tried to go back to sleep,” Melissa recalls. “That’s when I heard Michael making funny noises and having very labored breathing. He was struggling for air enough for me to turn on the light and check on him.”
Melissa could not determine whether Michael was breathing and immediately called 911. The dispatcher on the line instructed her on assessing him and performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) while the paramedics were on the way.
“I had taken a CPR course when our son was a baby, and thankfully it came back to me,” Melissa says.
The paramedics arrived and got to work on stabilizing Michael to transport him to Riverside Regional Medical Center. For 30 minutes, they waited to see if they could get a pulse from him. By that time, Melissa and Michael’s family had arrived and were waiting downstairs with Melissa to hear any news.
“Just before 30 minutes had passed, the paramedics started preparing Michael to take him to the hospital,” Melissa says. “They had finally gotten a pulse.”
What the Links would eventually learn is that Michael has cardiac sarcoidosis, a very rare autoimmune disease in which clusters of white blood cells form in the heart tissue, which can disrupt heart rhythm, blood flow and normal heart function. The cardiac arrest he suffered the morning of February 10, 2019, restricted oxygen flow to his brain, resulting in a global hypoxic-ischemic brain injury. He was admitted to the hospital and induced into a coma.
“Miracle Michael” Emerges
Prior to his cardiac arrest, Michael would not have guessed that he was at risk.
“There weren’t any immediate warning signs,” Michael says. “In the months leading up to this, I had episodes where I could feel my heart racing, and I was extremely tired and lacking energy. As it turns out, this was my body letting me know something was amiss.”
Michael has always been an active member of his community and a committed family man with a sly sense of humor. He and Melissa have been married for 27 years and have two children – Joe, 24, and Megan, 22. The family also has a beloved dog named Chipper. Michael’s other passion is his profession. He was a practicing dentist for more than 34 years and was president of the Virginia Dental Association from 2015 to 2016, as well as president of the State Board of Dentistry.
“My dad was a dentist and introduced me to the profession in the ‘60s,” Michael says. “I feel like dentistry is a unique blend of medicine and physical hand dexterity. I’ve enjoyed being highly involved in organized dentistry throughout my career.”
Circumstances can change quickly in life. Michael worked at his dentistry practice until Friday, February 8, just two days before his cardiac arrest. Now, his family anxiously waited to hear whether he would survive.
“Four days later on Valentine’s Day, we had a miracle,” Melissa says. “That morning, we received dismal results from Michael’s MRI. We prayed over him, he was blessed with holy water, and within hours, he started to emerge from his coma.”
Michael’s physical strength began to return, but his brain function was still lagging.
“I had trouble recognizing family and friends,” Michael says. “I couldn’t read, tell time, identify objects, colors or letters. My balance was off. However, I could sing the alphabet song!”
Michael had already made tremendous progress, so much so that Melissa affectionately dubbed him “Miracle Michael.” The next step in his recovery was to determine where he would receive brain injury rehabilitation.
“My family made the game-changing decision to admit me to Shepherd Center,” Michael says. “It was a big decision to fly to Atlanta and live there for weeks, but it was the best decision we made.”
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Michael arrived at Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program on February 26, 2019.
“I don’t recall the first two weeks at Shepherd,” Michael says. “My first memory is sitting across from one of my therapists. She asked me a dental question about her daughter, who was born without enamel on her baby teeth. I was able to immediately recall the condition – Amelogenesis Imperfecta. I had last read about that in dental school!”
However, when the therapist asked him to find the word “dog” during a word search session, Michael could not find it.
“That’s when I realized that there was something wrong with me,” Michael says.
Michael worked intensively with his entire team of expert clinicians for seven weeks.
“The team approach to everything is wonderful,” Michael says. “Dr. Amy Kolarova and all the professionals help work your brain in different ways. I can’t thank them enough.”
Danielle Bonner, DPT, NCS, C/NDT, a physical therapist in Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program, helped Michael with his balance, depth perception and cardiac rehabilitation. Katie Ferrell, CTRS, recreational therapist, utilized the Wii to work on Michael’s rehabilitation.
“I still remember the exercises Danielle and Katie taught me,” Michael says. “We used the Wii a lot, and it was fantastic. It helped me regain my balance and mobility more than anything else.”
Allison Cwick, M.S., CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologist, used cards flipped on their faces and asked Michael to recall what each card was to improve his memory. Elyse Shivers, MS, OTR/L, occupational therapist, would challenge Michael by playing games that required quick movements and thinking.
“The games I played with the team helped create new pathways in my brain and increase my processing speed,” Michael says. “I even think I could beat them now!”
Michael’s neuropsychologist, Michelle Jackson, Ph.D., ABPP-CN, performed assessments of his cognitive abilities.
“I remember my first neuropsychological testing,” Michael says. “I couldn’t repeat words back to Dr. Jackson five minutes after she told them to me. I always prided myself on my great memory – it got me through dental school! It was frustrating at first, but Shepherd taught me that while I may have setbacks, this process is a marathon, not a sprint.”
While Michael worked on his rehabilitation, Melissa stayed in an apartment in the Irene and George Woodruff Family Residence Center.
“The fact that I could stay in the apartment was a lifesaver,” Melissa says. “I was able to escape a little and have time for myself while knowing Michael was in good hands and perfectly safe. Shepherd has great support for family members. We are not left out.”
A new calling
Today, Michael is thriving. He completed cardiac therapy in 2019 and still sees a speech therapist to maintain the progress he made at Shepherd Center.
“Michael is doing so well, and his brain is much better than ever expected,” Melissa says. “Although he has not been medically released to practice dentistry, he can live a fully functional life otherwise.”
Once a scratch golfer, Michael has returned to the sport and golfs three times a week. He isn’t golfing as well as he’d like to, but he has still managed to score two holes-in-one this year.
“I am thankful I’m able to go out and spend time with friends,” Michael says. “I’ve built up my stamina on a gradual basis.”
Above all else, Michael feels that the series of miracles he’s experienced are a sign to pursue a new calling to share his story with others. He’s given multiple presentations at hospitals and his rotary club discussing his journey, his faith and the importance of hands-only CPR, which Melissa used to save his life while paramedics were en route to their home.
“I tell people to look at the big picture and not get discouraged if they have setbacks,” Michael says. “If it’s not hard, it’s not worth doing. Keep working and don’t give up – that’s how you’ll make progress.”
Written by Damjana Alverson
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, multiple amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. Ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top 10 hospitals for rehabilitation and the best in the Southeast, Shepherd Center treats more than 850 inpatients and 7,600 outpatients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.