PULLMAN – David Warner doesn’t remember much from his eight weeks in the hospital, not even the traumatic brain injury that put him there in the first place.
But he does remember a moment of clarity in the ICU: his mother’s voice, calling out to him through the darkness.
He doesn’t remember her face or where he was. He just remembers his mother, Cherie Warner, calling his name.
“I can’t visualize it, but I can remember it,” David Warner said, speaking at his Pullman home Tuesday.
Warner, 41, is an instructor at Washington State University in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies. He taught comparative ethnic studies and worked closely with minorities and marginalized students.
He received his doctorate in American studies in December and was applying for jobs across the country. The world was wide open for Warner, and colleagues and friends say he wanted to change it for the better.
But his life took an unexpected twist after being caught in a violent melee outside a popular bar near WSU’s Greek Row earlier this year. The injuries were so severe he was left comatose for more than a week.
Shortly after midnight March 30, outside Adams Mall in Pullman, Warner’s friend Lawrence J. McDonald, 31, got into a fight with three men. Warner played the peacekeeper and can be seen standing between them in surveillance footage of the incident.
The group fell to the ground in the struggle, and Warner was knocked unconscious. It remains unclear whether his injuries resulted from the fall, a blow to the head from one of the men or some combination of the two.
Doctors didn’t know if Warner would live after the incident. His brain was so swollen that surgeons had to remove a 4- by 6-inch square of his skull to manage the pressure.
“Where he ends up on the continuum toward a completely healthy brain, nobody can tell us,” Cherie Warner said.
Dr. Rasha Germain, neurosurgeon at Inland Neurosurgery and Spine, said Warner’s rapid recovery in such a short period of time is amazing.
“You’re pretty tough,” she said Thursday, as she removed surgical staples and stitches from Warner’s head.
It’s too early to say right now how well Warner will heal, Germain said, but the strides he’s made are a good sign for future improvement.
“This is a testament to him,” she said. “He’s a very hard worker.”
For eight weeks after the fight, Warner understood what people told him, but his speech remained obstructed.
“The one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” he said, holding eight fingers up. “The eight weeks that I’ve been in the hospital, I cannot hear myself.”
He returned home May 31, and the piece of his skull doctors removed was replaced about two weeks ago.
Today, he is unrecognizable from pictures circulated just a few months ago. On supportive posters and fliers scattered across the Pullman campus, he smiles, clean-shaven, with long black hair and a red shirt.
Now that hair is gone, shaved for the recent brain surgeries. His face hides behind a tufted beard. A scar snakes across his skull. He calls himself an “alien.”
The smile is still there, though, as is the tenacity that’s helped him recover. He laughs when he talks about his recovery.
Warner has been speaking more since surgeons reattached the removed piece of his skull. He holds the index fingers of each hand together. With his right hand, he draws a straight line in the air. This is his vocabulary before the surgery, he explains. Then he raises his right hand into the air, tracing the growth of his abilities.
“Spectacular,” he said with a warm smile.
He still struggles, though. The word “cranioplasty” comes easily, but others aren’t so simple. He stumbles over “effort” and “descriptive.”
He quickly becomes frustrated when he can’t come up with the words. He repeats several phrases again and again, louder and faster: “No, no.” “Oh my goodness.” “Whatever.” “Uh, what?” “Really?”
Warner’s mother describes his brain as a black box with words inside.
“Now he has to train himself to reach in there and pull these words out,” she said.
Three times a week, Warner goes to therapy, a combination of physical exercises and speech training. He refuses to be defeated by the injuries, he said.
“We’re really pleased at the progress he’s been making, and he’s working hard,” said his father, Dennis Warner.
At home, David Warner reads and visits with friends to stay busy. The outpouring of support from the community has been tremendous, Cherie Warner said.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “Every possible thing they could think of that might help the family, from mowing lawns to buying groceries.”
Joshua W. Nantz, a 23-year-old WSU student, John “Matt” Cabanos-Soriano, 22, and Robert D. Bean, 23, face possible felony first-degree assault charges. Madeline A. Fouts, a 21-year-old WSU student, was with the three men that night and faces a felony charge of rendering criminal assistance for helping them.
McDonald may face misdemeanor charges of attempted fourth-degree assault and disorderly conduct for his involvement in the fight.
Charges have not been filed against any of the suspects. Bill Druffel, chief deputy prosecutor for Whitman County, said there are more than 500 pages and 230 CDs and DVDs of evidence to sift through before moving forward.
The Warners don’t talk about the assault or the hours in the courtroom that are likely to come. It’s not their priority right now.
“To be right honest, I’ve tried not even going there,” Cherie Warner said. “I’ve tried to just focus on David, and that’s been our focus all along – is to make sure that he’s doing what he needs to do and make sure he’s where he needs to be.”