Atlanta, GA,
13:57 PM

Chef Makes a Comeback from a Severe Brain Injury

Chef Jeremy Delaneuville successfully returns to his career and aspires to own a restaurant.

After Jeremy Delaneuville awoke from a coma in April 2007, he would sit in his bed at Shepherd Center pretending to cut vegetables and repeating to himself, “You’re in the weeds! You're in the weeds!”

In a restaurant kitchen, being “in the weeds” means you're falling behind, and Jeremy had fallen way behind. The head line cook at a Charleston, S.C., restaurant, he was beaten and robbed one night on his way home from work. He sustained a traumatic brain injury and spent four weeks in a coma.

But hearing Jeremy say that phrase gave his family members hope. They had been told that if he survived, he would be severely disabled. That his earliest waking thoughts were about his passion for cooking encouraged them to hope for the best.

Now, Jeremy, 31, has recovered so well that earlier this week, he auditioned in Atlanta for a reality television cooking show called “Hell’s Kitchen.” His mother believes it wouldn't have happened had it not been for his rehabilitation at Shepherd Center.

“The doctors in Charleston said he would have to be in a nursing home,” says Janet Clark, 52, of Abita Springs, La.  “We really had no hope of a full recovery until we got to Shepherd Center. You hear ‘traumatic brain injury,’ and it sounds permanent. I was making plans to change the house for hospital beds and wheelchairs. I was mourning my son.”

Jeremy’s injury was severe – he was hit with a fire extinguisher – and doctors had to temporarily remove part of his skull to relieve swelling in his brain. For months thereafter, the feeling of his scalp touching his brain caused him to vomit daily, but other memories  of his rehabilitation are vague.     

Jeremy remembers relearning how to shave, shower and walk, being in the pool and exercising on a bike and treadmill.

Though Jeremy does not recall his treatment team, Janet says the therapists were “wonderful” and that everyone “was constantly making sure we were comfortable.” And when Jeremy transferred to Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s post-acute brain injury program in nearby Decatur, Ga., Janet joined a support group for the families of patients.

“It was the first time I had someone to talk with who was going through what I was,” she says. “It answered a lot of questions about what I needed to know. Having someone to talk to makes you feel comfortable about things. It made a big difference.”

Jeremy does remember his determination to get well.

“My first thought was, ‘This is not the end of my life. I’m too young. I’ve got too much to live for,’” he says. “I kept telling myself that I’ve just got to work hard and get better. The way my family supported me, I would be letting them down if I didn’t.”

Nine months after his injury, Jeremy returned to Charleston, but discovered he’d taken on too much too soon. He went back to Louisiana and worked as a butcher for a few months before applying for another restaurant job.

The executive chef  ”asked a lot of questions about my injury,” he says. “She was hesitant, but she hired me and she watched me like a hawk to be sure I was OK.”

Jeremy was slow at first, he recalls.

“I’d have tongs in my hand, and I’d look at them like, ‘What do I do with them now?’” he says.

But the more he worked, the better he got. He was promoted twice in three months, changed jobs twice and is now a sous chef in Knoxville, Tenn.

“I think the pace of working in a kitchen helped him,” Janet says. “He had to survive. But the first few years, you could tell he was sluggish. He had to stop and think. He carried a booklet to remind him to do things.”        

Rhonda Taubin, M.D., Jeremy’s physician at Shepherd Pathways, says Jeremy’s injury was severe. “It’s incredible he survived. To hear that he’s trying out for a reality TV show is unbelievable. He’s a real success story.”

That he might have been humiliated on “Hell’s Kitchen” didn’t concern Jeremy. He was convinced that if he were chosen for the show, he would win. But he wasn’t selected, and he had the feeling it was because he was overqualified.

“They wanted people that [the chef] Gordon Ramsay could yell at,” he says. “I had too much experience. He wouldn’t have had anything to yell at.”

A few months after his audition for "Hell's Kitchen," Jeremy was hired as the executive chef for a new Brazilian steakhouse in Nashville, Tenn. Ultimately, he would like to have his own restaurant, but no matter what his future may hold, he sees his injury in a positive light.

“It was hell at first,” he says, ‘but it put things in perspective. I wasn’t a bad person before, but I’m better now. I’m more serious and considerate of others, and I’m more driven, career-wise. I want to be the best person I can be.”

For more information about brain injury rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, click here.

Written by John Christensen
Photos by Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

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, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.