August 22, 2010 in City

Teen thriving after accident, coma

Once near death, he plans for college
By The Spokesman-Review
Associated Press photo

Kyle Lawrence, 18, sits with his mother, Jackie Lawrence, in their Bandon, Ore., home on Aug. 4. The teen was hit by a van last August and suffered severe injuries.
(Full-size photo)

BANDON, Ore. – Kyle Lawrence remembers only the morning’s soccer practice. It was a daily double. He remembers walking down the Pacific High School driveway toward Highway 101, toward his mother’s office. And that’s all.

“It just stops there,” he said.

What may never come back is any recollection of the van, traveling an estimated 57 mph, that struck Lawrence in the back as he walked onto the highway’s shoulder from the driveway.

He doesn’t remember flying 30 feet into the air, as high as the power lines. He was unconscious by the time he began bouncing, his head crashing against the pavement.

He landed in a crumpled heap 164 feet from where he was hit.

Lawrence, then 17, spent the next three weeks in a coma, so the worst of it – the crash, the ambulance rides, the flight to Portland, the surgeries – none of that will ever come back to him.

But his mother was there, bolting out of her office at Cape Blanco Cranberries the moment she saw traffic start to back up on the highway last Aug. 28, confirming “what I already felt in my gut.”

She saw her son lying in the road, bleeding from the head. She remembers one of the paramedics saying, “He’s unconscious, but he’s breathing.” She screamed and started to sink to the ground.

Because Jackie Lawrence remembers all that, she’s as stunned as anybody by her determined son’s dramatic turnaround. Despite missing months of school, despite the surgeries and physical therapy and brain damage and predictions that he would never emerge from a persistent vegetative state, the teen graduated from high school in the spring, with a 3.71 grade point average. He’ll go to college this fall. He plans to become an orthopedic surgeon.

“It’ll be worth the eight years of med school for a six-figure paycheck,” Lawrence jokes. “I’ve broken enough bones to know something about bones.”

The crash left him with a nose broken in multiple places, his eye socket fractured, his leg shattered, his lungs bruised, his thumb broken, his right shoulder dislocated – and covered head to toe in abrasions, bruises and gashes.

The driver of the van wasn’t cited, because construction crews had recently paved the shoulder on which Kyle was walking and had yet to stripe it, meaning the vehicle was legally within the roadway, Jackie Lawrence said.

Her son’s take: “I destroyed that van.”

As she traveled in the ambulance with Kyle’s soccer coach, Jackie Lawrence remembered the turnaround her son had undergone in the weeks before the crash, from “the laziest person on the planet” to a young man devoted to his soccer team and serious about his studies.

But the teen was about to make that transformation look like a wardrobe change.

After he arrived at the hospital in Portland, surgeons drilled into his partially shattered skull to relieve the swelling in his brain. They bolted a cage around the leg that was broken. They put pins in his left thumb.

They warned his mother first that he might not live, then that he might be in a persistent vegetative state for life. Every cell of his brain was damaged, including the brain stem, which controls all of the body’s motor functions – walking, breathing and talking.

“There was a great risk he’d never wake up,” Jackie Lawrence said.

“They just didn’t know,” Kyle Lawrence chimed in, “that I’m awesome.”

In the days after the wreck, Lawrence’s reflexes slowly began to return, although doctors kept him in the coma so he wouldn’t have to experience the excruciating pain he’d feel if awakened too soon.

Finally, three weeks after the crash, doctors started to bring Lawrence out of his coma, which is the first thing he remembers since that soccer practice.

In the days that followed, he struggled to return to normal, but the climb was slow. He’d use one word when he meant another. Medication caused hallucinations. He once tried to convince his mother that there was a man in the closet, which was no bigger than a high school locker. He swore that Seattle Seahawks wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was his surgeon.

“That confused my grandma to no end,” he said. “It was really weird.”

His mother did what she could to help him recover, plastering the hospital room with photos of friends and family members, quizzing Lawrence about his life, trying to trigger his memories. Slowly, remarkably, he got better. Seventy-five days after he was admitted to the hospital, on Nov. 11, Lawrence finally got to go home.

The following Monday, he was back in school, but still suffering from damage to his brain’s frontal lobe, the part that acts as a filter, controlling impulses, keeping him from saying and doing inappropriate things. His mom and the members of his individualized education plan team debated how hard to let him push, how realistic it might be for him to try to catch up to the rest of his class, whether there was any chance he’d graduate on time, or at all.

Lawrence just kept working, through the exhaustion, the frustration, the brain exercises, the physical therapy, the occupational therapy, the return surgeries. He ran through a program called Bal-A-Vis-X, a series of balance, auditory and vision exercises done with sand-filled bags and racquetballs, sometimes while standing on a balance board. He trained with a Wii Fit. He worked to improve his handwriting. And he drove away the very real fear that he might not see his 18th birthday.

“I was afraid I would just fall down and die,” Lawrence said. “If I rattled my head at all, or shook it, that I would die.”

His mother dealt with the insurance companies, watching medical bills run past the million-dollar mark, and she ignored the people who whispered that her son was just fine and should go get himself a driver’s license and go onto whatever university he wanted.

Week after week, he got closer to where he was before the accident. And, finally, it was clear he was going to graduate on time.

His plan now is to study at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay for two years and then transfer to Oregon State University, then medical school. Jackie Lawrence is confident that her son will be able to pull it off.

“A year ago, I was told my son wasn’t going to live,” she said. “This is a very determined young man.”

Six weeks ago, he had a grand mal seizure, a new development, and a concern for his doctors because such events don’t tend to abate on their own. But there have been no recurrences since, and mother and son are hoping it was a one-time thing.

After all, Lawrence says with a smile: “My brain is awesome.”

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