Kit Callahan can’t remember the accident that left him lying unconscious in a cold Chicago subway train stairwell in 1993.
Some think the then-23-year-old fell while trying to jump onto the train platform. Another theory is that he received a sharp blow to the head during an early morning mugging.
Either way, Mr. Callahan’s steady recovery from a two-month coma to a once-more outgoing young man with a part-time supermarket job in Virginia is a nod to medical technology, family support and to Brain Injury Services Inc., an organization that made his rehabilitation possible.
Karen Brown, executive director of the Springfield-based group, said about $6 billion in medical costs is spent annually on an estimated 5.3 million Americans living with brain injuries.
“It’s such a devastating thing because most families are so happy the person has lived or come out of the coma that they don’t even realize what the journey is going to be like ahead of them,” Miss Brown said of the brain injuries that often strip survivors of their personalities and independence.
Traumatic brain injuries may be caused by gunshots or jolts to the head, as in car accidents, while non-traumatic injuries are triggered by strokes, aneurysms or oxygen deprivation. Common symptoms are memory loss and behavioral changes.
More people are being diagnosed with brain injuries than ever, and a recent study showed nearly 70 percent of Iraqi soldiers return home with such injuries after being rocked by explosions, Miss Brown said. People once died from brain injuries, but the recent survival of a trapped West Virginia miner shows how far medicine has come.
Brain Injury Services helps survivors and their families cope by offering medical services, transitional living and support groups, case managers who oversee volunteers and job placement, and help with housing needs.
One of their services, Providing A Link for Survivors (PALS), matches volunteers with brain injury survivors, who often face difficulty establishing or maintaining friendships because of drastic personality changes, or new personality “quirks” that sometimes lead to strange or inappropriate behaviors.
Volunteer Eric Stewart, an Arlington freelance writer whose brother has a brain injury, goes out twice a month with Bob Martel.
“Bob’s a real character, a real ham,” Mr. Stewart said Wednesday as they played putt-putt golf. “I knew from my own brother’s experience some of the things he especially was dealing with [and] I felt I could bring something special to this.”
A heart attack and stroke at age 16 during gym class left Mr. Martel paralyzed on his right side. He credits Brain Injury Services with connecting him with other survivors.
Mr. Martel, 42, is on the organization’s award-winning speaker’s bureau, which enables him to visit jails, nursing homes and schools and tell his story. “They’ve helped me realize my goals,” he said.
Mr. Callahan’s outlook is similar.
Once a party boy who loved to throw back drinks with his fraternity brothers and a businessman working in a major financial market, Mr. Callahan today is a 36-year-old who walks with a noticeable limp. His speech is slower, he wears hearing aids, he lost some vision in his right eye and he has no recollection of four months of his life before the accident.
But three things remain the same: his outgoing personality, dry sense of humor and infectious laugh that makes everyone around him smile.
Through Brain Injury Services, Mr. Callahan volunteers at the South Run Recreation Center in Springfield and speaks at jails and universities about his experiences.
He also works part time as a courtesy clerk at Safeway and zips around town in a small Honda Civic — a remarkable turnaround considering nearly 13 years ago doctors thought he would die.
Mr. Callahan still hopes to use his Virginia Tech University finance degree to achieve his dream of becoming a financial planner. Brain Injury Services is helping him find an apartment so he can live independently once again.
“Brain injury isn’t such a bad thing, it just changes your life dramatically,” Mr. Callahan wryly observed. “You may think it’s the end of the world, but it just gives you different dreams and aspirations than you had.”
BRAIN INJURY SERVICES INC.
Contact: Karen Brown, executive director, or Michelle Thyen, volunteer specialist, 703/451-8881
Web site: braininjurysvcs.org/
Location: 8136 Old Keene Mill Road, Suite B102, Springfield, VA, 22152
Employees: Eighteen full-time staffers, one part-time worker and 75 volunteers
Background: Brain Injury Services Inc. provides child and adult survivors of brain injuries and their families with individual, community-based case management, resources, education and advocacy.
Source: Brain Injury Services Inc.