Teen’s fall offers life lessons
After injury, remarkable recovery, Beau Lee says he’s learned from mistakes
Today, Beau Lee can do what was almost unimaginable just over four months ago.
Things like talking, running or even standing, as he is this day in front of an elementary school classroom packed with students to thank them for their prayers, were best-case scenarios in late October when the then-17-year-old lay seriously hurt in the intensive care unit of Kootenai Medical Center after falling off a second-floor balcony during a party.
On a recent Friday morning, Lee, a senior at Lake City High School and a runner on the cross country team, was at Holy Family Catholic School in Coeur d’Alene to offer his thanks through cupcakes, along with a few watered-down lessons he’s since learned, to the second-, third- and fourth-grade students – including his little sister, Campbell – for praying the Rosary every day for a month once news of his injuries had reached the school. For Lee, it was a way to show his appreciation and how far he’d come, while praising what he called the power of prayer.
“As you know, I was in an accident – a pretty bad accident – and thanks to you guys I was able to get out of the hospital a lot faster,” Lee told his audience of about 60 students and a handful of teachers. “This really shows how powerful prayer is, because I should have been in the hospital a lot longer. The doctors said I shouldn’t be doing this good, so you guys can go ahead and pat yourselves on the back.”
And the young students, all crouched on the floor, happily did.
By all accounts, Lee, now 18, has made remarkable progress. It was on Oct. 9 that Lee and several classmates were drinking at a friend’s house following a Lake City volleyball match. Later in the night, he tried to do handstands on the deck railing, flipped over the side and fell nearly 26 feet to the ground.
In a flash, Lee’s life literally went dark. The entire evening and the accident – in which he suffered a diffuse axonal brain injury, a severe shearing of the brain that occurs when the head is rapidly accelerated or decelerated, as well as blood clots and a fractured pelvis – is a void in his memory, and he said he hopes it stays that way. In a moment of panic, Lee’s friends loaded him in a car and rushed him to the hospital.
“I think about it every day, about how dumb of a mistake it was,” he said, sitting at his family’s dining room table as he and his mom, Linda, talked about their experiences over the last few months. “We were just being teenagers and messing around, and all of a sudden it happened.”
As for the friends who drove him to KMC, Lee said, “They, I think, panicked. It’s a mistake I don’t think they’ll ever make again.” However, he added, “We’re still best friends.”
For Linda, a mother of two, it’s a night she’ll never forget.
The phone rang at 10:50 p.m. “It was a nurse and she said Beau’s in the hospital, he’s fallen and he’s in stable condition, but we do need you to come down here,” Linda recalled. “So I was thinking he broke his arm or something.”
As she walked into the intensive care unit, however, she knew it was much worse. “It was pretty shocking,” she said.
Lee was in intensive care for several days, while Linda and dad, Mark, who had been on a hunting trip when his son fell, never left his side. He regained consciousness, but remained unable to speak or communicate, for several days. On Oct. 17, he was transported to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, where friends and family visited and filled a Web message board with well-wishes.
Doctors told Linda and Mark to prepare for the possibility of an altogether unfamiliar son once he woke up, since there was a very real chance Beau might wake up with a different personality – more than likely more aggressive and easily agitated.
Karen Stanek, Lee’s attending physician at St. Luke’s, recalled her first meeting with him after his arrival. “He was very confused, he did not have the full ability to follow commands,” she said.
Stanek said , because of Lee’s injuries, the nerve fibers would have to find new routes to fire information around the damaged areas, which could take anywhere from a few months to several years to heal, depending on the person.
“Every brain is different. (The recovery) is sometimes a gradual, slow grind,” Stanek explained. “We see this sort of injury very frequently. Not usually under these circumstances … but unfortunately you see this diffuse axonal injury often in motor vehicle accidents, skateboarding – any acceleration with a sudden stop.”
And because the damage was done primarily to his left hemisphere, the speech and language half of the brain, he would most likely have some cognitive deficits later on, such as with calculations and verbal memory.
Five days after he was admitted to the rehabilitation institute, something happened that Linda calls a miracle. A nurse told her they’d had a breakthrough: Lee was awake and responding to therapy. And when Linda arrived at the institute, her son came rolling by in a wheelchair. “He said, ‘Keep chatting mom, I’ll be right back,’ ” she said, astonishment still in her voice. “And then it was uphill ever since.”
Lee describes the day a bit differently. “The 21st was when I was Beau, when I came back,” he said. It wasn’t until he took note of all the posters and cards in his hospital room that the magnitude of what happened started to sink in.
Over the next several weeks, he went through occupational therapy to cover the everyday needs, such as getting in and out of a car; physical therapy to regain muscle strength; and speech therapy, which he will continue for at least another six months.. He was released from St. Luke’s on Nov. 12.
To those who don’t know him, Lee now looks and acts like a typical high school student – athletic build with a mop of dark hair, a 4.0 grade point average, a close-knit circle of friends and hopes of attending a college to pursue a degree in the medical field.
To those who know him well, though, there are just a few lingering differences from the Beau of old, his mom said. His speech is a little more drawn and he likes to eat one item at a time on his plate, which he never did before. Also, Lee recently asked her what the word anxiety meant, but was quick to add “I didn’t know what that meant before the accident.”
“I may have to study an extra hour for a test to get the grades I want to get, but that’s about it,” he added.
Stanek said Lee’s recovery has gone surprisingly well. While a single reason is almost impossible to pin down, she said his youth and can-do attitude probably played large parts.
“It definitely surprised me. The speed of his progress has been surprising. He was very fortunate in that regard,” Stanek said. “Usually, nobody recovers 100 percent from a traumatic brain injury. If someone recovers 85 percent, we’re happy with that, but in Beau’s case I think he’s going to be better than that.”
“He has his personality, and that is the best thing,” Linda said. “He’s kind, he’s funny, he’s a little slower on some things … but considering where he could have been, we’re definitely going to take what we can get.”
Faith has also become more prominent in his life, Lee said, and it’s helped him find answers in his speedy recovery. “I have to say I’ve become a lot more open-minded to religion after this,” he said. “I don’t think it’s by chance that I’ve had a remarkable recovery; I think there’s some divine intervention.”
Beyond that, Linda added, “I think it’s kind of made the whole family a little bit more spiritual. … For Beau to jump back from this type of severe injury, it’s just amazing.”
As for the drinking, Lee said he’s never been known as a party animal, and the stories surprised his closest friends. “Maybe I make some mistakes, but I’m not the crazy party animal who does handstands off decks,” he said.
Linda, picking up where her son left off, said he’s always been a responsible son and student. She said she hopes the accident can be a lesson to other kids his age, especially as graduation approaches, including her son’s in early June, when Lee will walk onstage and accept his diploma with a little more purpose than many of his classmates. “I sure wish and hope that kids think about it. That split-second decision can sure make a difference.”
Reach correspondent Jacob Livingston by e-mail at email@example.com.