It was a beautiful spring day. Sunny, blue skies. Chase and I were to spend the weekend at our lake house. I’d gone down that morning and Chase was playing golf with his buddies and meeting me that afternoon. He sent a text mid afternoon telling me he had a few holes left and would be on his way.
I was on the dock with our dogs when I heard my phone ring. It was John, one of our good friends and Chase’s golf buddy. I can still hear John’s voice on the other end of that phone, “Chase has a gash on his head and we are waiting on the ambulance, meet me at the ER as quick as you can. I’ll call you when I know more”……..ambulance? I didn’t get to ask more questions. I managed to get the dogs into the house and get dressed. During my thirty minute drive to the ER John calls me back to tell me Chase is really bad and they are trying to get him air lifted to a brain trauma center. Then John finally tells me what happened. A guy on the course threw his golf club and it boomeranged back and accidentally hit Chase in the head.
By the time I arrive, they’re preparing him for the helicopter. It’s a blur but I remember our radiologist friend, Trey, coming in and telling me, “Emily it’s bad. Really bad”. The words open skull fracture, multiple brain bleeds, brain hematoma, and traumatic brain injury were all being used. They wouldn’t let me fly with him so I got on the road to try to get to Huntsville Hospital (2 hrs away) as quickly as possible.
I couldn’t tell you anything about the drive other than the phone calls….the kids, our parents, friends. So many calls. So much crying. Questions I couldn’t answer.
Arriving at the hospital, I’m met by Ryan Abernathy, Chase’s best friend, and his wife Kelli. Thankfully Ryan had gotten there first because he lives in Huntsville. I’d called him in a panic begging him to get there so Chase wouldn’t be alone. His face tells me it’s so much worse. When I get to Chase, he is telling me where the life insurance policies are, the bills are paid, he loves me and to tell the kids he loves them. Before I arrived, the neurosurgeon had met with him and told him there’s a high chance he wouldn’t survive and if he did he may be on a ventilator or he could wake up and never be the same. She also tells Chase that this surgery is his only hope for survival.
I remember telling him I loved him thru tears as they wheeled him off. Ryan and I returned to find his wife, kids, and more friends who have shown up, and wait the longest wait of my life. It’s 6:15 PM. The next few hours so many amazing friends show up. The kids arrive. The next few hours are a mix of waiting, praying, and crying.
11:30PM the phone rings to the waiting room. They have finished and the doctor wants to talk to me. I’m told to go to a conference room and wait for her there. I remember watching her walk in and thinking I couldn’t read her body language at all. She starts, “It was much worse than we thought. A piece of the skull broke off and made its way almost 2” into his brain. We didn’t think we would be able to retrieve the bone and that would have spelled death. When we opened his skull, the swelling was so bad, his brain swelled out and pushed the bone out. That was good news. We got the bleeding stopped, put the skull back together, and covered the hole with a metal plate. He’s on a ventilator. Now we wait to see if he can breathe on his own, and then see if he wakes up, then we will see what we are working with.”
The river of tears that I’ve been holding back finally breaks. He’s alive still. But those words, “If he wakes up”. “Ventilator”.
Waiting. More waiting.
I return to the waiting area and I tell what I’ve been told then walk away thru a flood of tears.
The phone rings again maybe 45 mins later. Finally, the words I’ve been waiting to hear, “He’s off the ventilator, awake, and asking for you”. I don’t remember going from the waiting area to ICU but I remember walking in and seeing him for the first time. I don’t know when I’ve been so happy to see someone. He’s awake when I walk in and he says, “I made it”. I just remember holding him and crying.
Later he tells me he still can’t move his left arm , hand, and fingers. Various doctors would come in and ask him to move his toes, legs, and arms. Everything was moving except the left arm, hand, and fingers. These are a direct result of his traumatic brain injury.
The next few days are a mix of him being in excruciating pain, and him attempting to use his left arm and hand and still being unable. After 4 days in ICU, he’s moved to a room and amazingly, 1 day later we are sent home.
Recovery at Home, Life After Traumatic Brain Injury
The next few weeks I watched as Chase progressed from being unable to hold a bar of soap or washcloth, or tie his shoes or pajama bottoms, to slowly getting better and better at each task. He worked with so much determination each day. Chase spent hours on therapy each day. Some days he would sleep for 16hr stretches and seem distant and foggy headed, and some days it felt like the old Chase had returned.
Sometime during the fourth week home, Chase decided he wanted to hit golf balls. I got a video text sent to me showing me he could get off the tee and hit straight. He was so excited. He went on to play 18 holes that afternoon followed by 18 more the next day. I remember calling my mother in law that week and telling her I felt like the old Chase was really back with us. His mental sharpness had returned, and so had his quick wit and humor.
During his journey, we both felt blessed to have such an amazing support group standing beside us. He absolutely wouldn’t have progressed as quickly without the love and friendship we were shown during those weeks. Occupational and physical therapist friends would stop by and work with him after hours. Countless friends stopped by to cheer him up. Patients sent cards and messages and videos. His staff brought meals and smiles and stories from the office. It’s the most love I’ve ever felt during a time when we both needed it.
The Chase Thomas Strong Foundation
During his 5th week home, as he was returning to work, we formed the Chase Thomas Strong Foundation to have a platform to be able to help children with brain injuries, be “Strong Like Chase”. Our goal with this foundation, is to help children and their families with unmet needs while recovering and living with brain injury. We hope Chase can inspire others with his story, and raise awareness for those living with Brain Injury.
For information about how you can help children with brain injuries, please follow www.stronglikechase.org
Two days after surgery and one week after traumatic brain injury.