09:30 AM

Clients and Families Work Together to Recover from Traumatic Brain Injury

Recovery is a team effort among Shepherd Center staff, patients and their families.

When a person recovers after a near-fatal injury, the patient’s family and friends are often quick to credit the top-notch medical care and follow-up therapy they receive. At Shepherd Center, while the doctors and therapists undoubtedly play a vital role in a patient’s recovery, they often say they couldn’t have succeeded without the commitment of both the clients and their families.

The client must work extremely hard in therapy, pushing his or her body and mind to their limits. But as former patient Bobby Fenner proves, the family’s role is just as crucial. They act as advocates, as well as being a steady support system to help their family member understand his limitations so he can work to overcome them.

For Bobby and his family, Aug. 9, 2015 seemed like a regular day. His wife, Karen, had gone to the grocery store, while Bobby and his adult sons, Dylan and Codi, remained at home.

“I put a ladder in the back of my house to change out a flood light,” Bobby says. “That was the last thing I remember.”

“My son, Dylan, was inside in the kitchen and saw my husband fall off the ladder and came running out to find him on the ground unconscious, having seizures,” Karen recalls. “They already had him in an ambulance on the way to the hospital before they called me.”

Bobby spent the next 11 days at metro Atlanta’s Gwinnett Medical Center, where he was in the brain trauma unit.

“They were amazing,” Karen says. “They later told us they didn’t know if he was going to live or die.”

Bobby had sustained multiple fractures in his skull, lost his sense of smell and developed some hearing loss. His memory was lost for a time, and he was confused to the point of not knowing where he was or what he was doing.

Karen advocated to transfer him to Shepherd Center, where he stayed for nearly a month before moving to Shepherd Pathways, the hospital’s post-acute brain injury rehabilitation program in nearby Decatur, Ga., for a host of therapies, including physical, occupational and speech.

“Initially, the family support was critical,” says Kathleen Kurtz, case manager at Shepherd Pathways. “In the hospital setting, you have a 24-hour level of care, so when they leave the hospital setting and they go home, it’s a whole new world. They did a fantastic job of making sure Bobby’s needs were met.”

It wasn’t easy. At first, Bobby didn’t know why he was in therapy. He didn’t understand his limitations and why they were asking him to go to therapy. This is a common issue in people with brain injuries.

“He was always very cooperative, so he would do what the therapist asked, but you could see he didn’t really like what people were asking him to do,” Kurtz says. “He didn’t really have a good understanding of what had happened to him, therefore we were asking him to do things to treat deficits he didn’t even realize he had.”

Bobby has a harsher take on it.

“I think I was vulgar, used a lot of profanity,” Bobby says. “I do laugh about it now, and I get reminded daily from my wife how I was.”

As time passed, Bobby’s awareness improved. His therapists focused on building his cognitive endurance. They developed a daily routine for him. They worked on his planning, problem-solving, organizational and prioritization skills, which were essential if he was going to go back to work at Caterpillar.

His Shepherd Pathways team credits both Bobby and his family for his recovery.

“I think he had one of the fastest recoveries that I’ve seen,” says speech-language pathologist Ariella Kaplan. “I think a big part of that is what he did at home. If they carry over the skills that we teach to the home environment, that makes a huge difference.”

Kurtz agrees.

“As Bobby recovered, the family did a really good job of pulling back when they were supposed to,” Kurtz says. “That can be very difficult for families to do. They surround the patient, because they love their family member and want to care for them. And then, as that patient gets better, family needs to pull back and let the patient experience more independence. And they did it.”

The freedom and responsibility is something Bobby says he craves.

“I showed them that I had the drive and the initiative to do what I needed to do to move on with my life,” Bobby says. “And I haven’t lost that since the accident.”

He’s been back at his job for the past couple of months as a field technician for Caterpillar. He’ll soon take a driving test to see if he can get back on the road.

“Everything from Shepherd Center to Shepherd Pathways is a gift that they have given me,” Bobby says. “I always look forward to going back and seeing everybody and showing them my progress. It’s a gift every day to be able to come back and show them what a pain in the butt I am.”

By David Terraso