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Patient Profile: Rebuilding a Life After Traumatic Brain Injury

Mark Caprio reflects on the milestones and challenges ahead.

Mark Caprio, 30, of Huntsville, Ala., survived a horrific automobile accident in 2001 only because a nurse and her EMT tech husband happened onto the scene and kept his windpipe clear until an ambulance arrived. A neurosurgeon and surgeon operated on him simultaneously at the hospital because his injury was so severe, and he had to be resuscitated in the intensive care unit when his heart stopped.

But because he had a brain injury, Mark remembers little of those life-and-death struggles. He does remember going back to college, becoming an all-conference baseball player, making the dean’s list and getting his degree. And he is grateful today that he has a job and is living independently, but he says he still feels he has much to accomplish.

“Mark is a walking, talking, working miracle,” says Donald P. Leslie, M.D., Shepherd Center’s medical director. Dr. Leslie treated Mark when he arrived at Shepherd a month after his accident. “His progression over the past 12 years is incredible.”

When Mark arrived at Shepherd Center, he was in a waking coma. He was incoherent and often agitated, and he still had a tube in his chest.

“But that first day,” says Lisa Caprio, Mark’s mother, “the nurse came in and said, ‘OK, you’re going to take a shower.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You can’t do this,’ and she says, ‘Mom, you go over there and relax.’”

Within days, therapists had Mark using a walker and shooting baskets on the basketball court.

“I realized then how much I appreciated Shepherd Center,” Lisa says. “Every day we could see improvement. They had constant activity for him, a schedule. They weren’t going to let the patient decide. They knew what was best and what the patient could do. What a great place it is.”

“Shepherd Center is tremendous,” says Frank Caprio, Mark’s father. “We were lucky to be there.”

After a year at home to continue his rehabilitation, Mark returned to school at the urging of his coach and found he still excelled at baseball. He attended three colleges over the next several years and got his degree from the University of Alabama.

“That first week of school, I realized that I had something like ADD,” Mark says. “I could pay attention for about two minutes, and then I’d be off and not know where I went.”

Medication helped, and after registering with the disability office, he was given extended time and quiet places to take tests.

But he found that keeping a job was difficult because he experiences cognitive fatigue. He also loses track of time and sometimes struggles to express himself clearly.

Mark’s strengths shine, though. “He’s a good guy,” Frank says. “He’s helpful, he’s got a great heart and he loves people.”

In fact, Mark loves to umpire baseball games and excels at working with children with disabilities. He is now working at the Boys and Girls Club and wonders: “What do I want to do? What do I want to strive for in life? I don’t want to go through the motions.”

Mark’s concerns are common among people with TBI, says Terri Kohn, a Shepherd Pathways licensed professional counselor who works with people with TBI.

“Following a brain injury, one’s priorities change,” she says. “What seems important to his peers at 19 or 20 might be things such as dating, going to bars and socializing. But Mark missed out on the socializing because he had to focus so hard on surviving and getting through school.”

As a result, she says, young people with TBI often feel awkward and left behind socially while their peers have moved on. And, in fact, Mark says he feels like he was “born again” — not in a religious sense, but rather that after his injury, his life started over again.

“Mark definitely has issues,” his mother says, “but he’s in a good spot. We always comment that when he had his accident, he was an 18-yearold boy. Now he’s becoming more mature and thinking about his future and his career. I do see him evolving and I hope he’s still getting better and learning to cope and strategize on those issues so he can make it on a job.”

“Brain injuries tend to be very humbling,” Kohn says. “When you have a brain injury, people see you at your most vulnerable, and it can be physical, mental, spiritual or behavioral. It’s very humbling to have family, friends and healthcare workers knowing intimate details that you do not recall and most likely will not recall.”

On the other hand, she says people like Mark learn to focus on what is important and appreciate that they’ve been given a second chance. And so have their families.

Frank says that before the accident, he and Mark “used to butt heads.” Now, he says, their relationship is far better than when Mark was going through adolescence.

“I got an opportunity to have a deeper relationship with my son and to tell him what I really feel about him,” Frank says. “Shepherd Center gave us another chance at a good life together.”

Written by John Christensen
Photography by Dennis Keim

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.