The Crash, the Coma, the Comeback

Back from the Brink

Can a man reclaim his life after a brain injury leaves him unable to walk or talk? This man did.

By Jim Kane, as told to Mike Sager

Before I came out of the coma, the doctors told my parents, “With hard work, he might be able to feed himself again.”

I was 28. March 24, 1992. I was in my first year of law school at Widener University in Delaware. My girlfriend—now my wife—had a Suzuki Sidekick. I was driving it home. The car hit a guardrail on the highway entrance ramp and rolled several times. I guess I was in a hurry. I guess I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

Not remembering what happened is pretty common after a brain injury. The memories become blocked so you don’t have to relive the trauma. From what I understand from my family, I ripped through the soft-top roof, flew through the air, and hit my head.

I injured the left part of my brain, which controls speech and coordination on the right side of the body. The swelling was so bad that I had a hole drilled in my head to ease the pressure. The coma lasted 35 days. It was a defense mechanism, the doctors said. My body was shutting itself down so it could heal.

Coming out of a coma is not like it is in the movies. I don’t remember it. My family tells me I’d been moved from the trauma center to a rehab hospital. My room was crowded with family and friends. My mom was going on and on about how my youngest brother, Denis, had been accepted to the Naval Academy and what a great student he was and how he was going to play football. I guess I’d had enough of the coma and was ready to start my fight to recover. I interrupted my mother and said, “Shut up.” I mouthed it quietly at first and then I said it louder. My mom, who I love to death, was so proud I spoke to her first.

I was in the hospital for three more months. At first I couldn’t speak or walk. All I could do was grunt. I knew what I wanted to say and do, but my physical skills weren’t there. I felt trapped inside myself.

As the brain swelling decreased, functions started to return—but not to normal. My brother left his job to take me through physical and speech therapy every day. Progress was very slow—I was repeating words over and over again, doing reps and more reps in physical therapy in order to help my brain create new synapses and rewire itself. It definitely helped that my parents, my girlfriend, and all my siblings were always there. It felt like a team effort. They cared so much that I felt like, I’m doing this for all of us: I’ve got to give more than 100 percent. Plus, I’m a hardheaded Irishman, the oldest of five—four boys and a girl—so I had to set an example.

Over time, my range of motion and abilities increased, but the damage had been done. I’m from a very athletic, competitive family. We were a basketball team unto ourselves. It was hard to get used to the idea I would never play point guard again. I still have trouble running. Also, my speech drags. Nobody has ever told me I talk funny, but I prefer to deal with people in person rather than on the phone.

By January 1993 I was back in law school, wobbling around campus. It was hard. Things that used to come easily, like memorization and deduction, no longer did. But I did the work and eventually graduated.

People say, “Man, you must have some amazing realizations about life.” It’s funny, but what I learned from my injury was something I already knew: Family and relationships are the most important things, not what kind of job you have or the car you drive.

I do realize the hugeness of what happened to me. I was facing death. I could have ended up in a vegetative state. Instead I’m the father of four, ages 11 through 20. And that was maybe the best part of my recovery. After I worked as a lawyer for a while, my wife and I switched roles—she took a job and I stayed home with the kids. I wasn’t the best cook or housecleaner, but what I learned from my mother was to laugh, have fun, and make sure the kids feel loved. It was awesome; they didn’t know I talked funny or walked strange. They just thought, “That’s the way Dad is.” Because they didn’t care, I didn’t either, and that made me more comfortable. When our youngest started school in 2010, I returned to work full-time.

Let’s face facts: I suffered a traumatic brain injury, and I’m not as quick as I once was. But through hard work I finished law school. I’m 52 now, and I excel at my job as an attorney for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities in Trenton, New Jersey. I know I downplay the miracle of my recovery; not everybody flies out of a speeding car, ends up in a coma, and gets their life back. But the miracle would never have happened without the people I love. With their help, I proved the doctors wrong.

And recovery is still occurring. Last month, for the first time since the accident, I ran up a flight of stairs.