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First Weekend Home

First Weekend Home: After the Coma

Tori Marlan

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Justin Logan in rehab with his son Michael
(Courtesy Judi Logan)
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Traumatic brain injury - or an injury caused by a severe blow to the head - is the leading cause of death and disability for children and young adults. One of the most common causes of those injuries is car accidents. That's how high school student Justin Logan wound up in the hospital a few months ago. As part of our series "First Weekend Home" reporter Tori Marlan follows Justin out of rehab and through his first weekend home in his mother's care.


On a recent Friday morning, 17-year-old Justin Logan and his mother Judi stand in a lobby at the Texas NeuroRehab Center in Austin. A tracheotomy scar peeks out from under the neckline of Justin's t-shirt. As he waits for his discharge papers, a rehab technician comes to wish him well. "Take care, OK?" she says. "Come back and visit me. You remember my name?"

"No," Justin says. "Sorry."


"Hi, Lisa. I forget every time."

"I know! You gotta remember."

Justin doesn't remember a lot of things these days, including the terrible accident that landed him here. Three months ago, he was riding shotgun in a friend's pickup truck when it veered off a state highway and flipped several times. The driver and another boy survived with minor injuries. The girl sitting behind Justin died at the scene. Justin was ejected and suffered a severe traumatic-brain injury. He says he's glad he forgot this particular experience: "I'm sure I would have bad memories."

Justin was in a coma for three weeks after the accident. When he came to, he couldn't speak, walk or even swallow. He would get easily agitated and hit people. And he would say bizarre things. "One of the weirdest things he said was, 'I don't want to go back to Vietnam,'" Judi recalls. "Or he'd think he was older and he was out of college already."

Actually, at the time of the accident, Justin did seem older than his years. He'd become a father at 15 and was working two jobs to pay for his two-year-old son's diapers and day care.

In other ways, though, he was a typical teen in Llano, a small town in central Texas. He enjoyed playing video games, hanging out with his friends and fishing. He also played linebacker for his varsity football team, the Yellow Jackets. But now his gait is uneven. And the muscles in his right arm are stiff. Its default position is bent at the elbow.

"He misses playing football and he wishes he could do it again," says Judi. "But it's out of the question. He won't be doing that."

Justin's physical challenges seem minor compared to his memory loss. He has forgotten some life-altering events - like the fact that his father was murdered last year. In the hospital, Judi had to remind him over and over about it.

"He would ask, 'Where's my daddy?'" she explains. "And I'm like 'Justin, don't you remember he died a year ago, and you went to the funeral?' And he goes, 'No, I don't remember.'"

Hearing repeatedly about his father's death wasn't like reliving it. It was more like being reminded of a distant event until it became a remembered fact. "It was kind of sad," he says. "Even though my dad didn't live with me, I still loved him."

On Justin's first weekend home, Judi finds herself in the role of caregiver. When he showers, she plants herself outside the bathroom door, ready to help if needed. She also has to drive him everywhere and keep him under 24-hour supervision. "I can't walk out the door and leave him here, like we're so used to doing," she says.

Judi and Justin have always liked to tease each other, and they seem to cope with their new situation with humor. Justin's memory loss is fair game. On Saturday afternoon, at Justin's favorite BBQ restaurant, Judi tries to convince him that he likes onions and pickles - condiments that have always repulsed him. He doesn't fall for it.

"I tried," Judi says.

"Yeah, you tried, but you failed," Justin cracks.

Joking may help keep things light, but Judi has her limits, like when Justin fakes a stumble or pretends to choke on his food. Over lunch, Judi asks him to stop doing that. "You're the only one who thinks it's funny," she says.

She tries to explain why his family might not appreciate the scare. "It was different for us, waiting and waiting and worrying while you were just kind of out of it."

"I don't remember," Justin says.

"I know. We do."

Justin, though, can also be sensitive to what his mother is going through. He worries about holding her back from her life. She tries to reassure him. "It's not a hold back. You're more important to me than that."

"I know," Justin says. "But still, I'm saying if I didn't need supervision, you could just go do whatever you want."

"It's OK," she tells him. "It won't be like this forever."

Soon, Justin will return to school in a special-needs program and start outpatient therapy. How much more he will improve is unclear. Healthy nerve cells in the brain can learn to function for cells in damaged areas - though never as well. Justin's neurologist says that if you look at an MRI of his brain in 30 years, it will still be scarred and that he's likely to always have cognitive and physical deficits.

Judi, though, remains optimistic: "In my heart I believe he's going to be 100 percent. That's how I feel."

In the meantime, she manages to find silver linings. Justin used to talk about joining the Marines and wanting to experience combat. These days, Judi doesn't have to worry. The Marines wouldn't take him. And, besides, he seems to have forgotten he was interested. "You know," Judi says, "he doesn't mention it."

On Sunday, Judi's small duplex swells with family and friends who've come to welcome Justin home. Among them are Justin's two-year-old son, Michael, and Michael's mother, Cecilia.

Michael gives his father a quick hug before scrambling off into another room. Minutes later, the boy reappears with a small red football and hands it to Justin. Justin doesn't say anything. He just holds the football on his lap. Before the accident, he was teaching Michael how to catch.

Although Justin can't remember much about how he used to spend time with his son, the gaps in his shared history with Cecilia trouble him more. He doesn't remember basic things, such as how they met, what went through his mind when he found out she was pregnant, or that they broke up a year ago. Cecilia has had to remind him that they're broken up more times than she can count.

"If it's not every day, it's every other day," she says. "And sometimes it's like twice a day. He thinks we're a couple still sometimes, and that's been hard to deal with."

As she talks, Justin fixes his eyes on her. He seems to concentrate hard on every word. It's the first time I've seen his demeanor change. He looks forlorn. "I didn't believe her at first," he says. "It sucked. I wish we didn't break up."

As with his father's death, any insight or wisdom that came to Justin as a result of living through this heartbreak is now lost to him. The accident erased that. But simply knowing that he had grieved and moved on is a necessary step in his recovery. Justin is creating new memories now. And they will shape who he is and who he will become.

  • Music Bridge:
    Milk Tea
    Artist: Takahiro Kido
    CD: Fleursy Music (Plop)
More stories from our First Weekend Home series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Marilyn Cieszykowski NP

    From CO, 11/16/2008

    I went on a relaxing vacation to Ecuador in October 2007 and the hotel's bicycle brake cable broke while I was going downhill and after borrowing almost a grand for evacuation costs, which I will be paying off for the rest of this life I now live (of course I had health insurance and they tried not to pay stating I didn't have an "acute injury"!). I spent a month in a coma with two neck fractures, and nearly five months in rehab at Craig Rehab Hospital recovering. I have lingering left sided hemi-paralysis and 4th cranial nerve damage the gives me "double vision" for lack of a better description for my visual deficit. With a Vanderbilt college degree in Neurobiology and a Master's in Nursing, I am a nurse practitioner at a local rural health clinic (I interviewed with KSJD, our local public radio, when I went back to work!) As for press stories, I have now become much more aware that coverage of TBIs just doesn't quite give the public the most important info - brains are what make us unique individuals - Have you ever heard of a brain transplant? No, that sounds like a scary Crichton movie! So please keep supporting all TBI victims. These are so very common and do not get even a fraction of the funding that much less common medical issues like HIV and breast cancer get (it's true, look it up) I met people who were doing what they could be doing any day, anytime: a car passenger that was injured when kids threw a boulder from the overpass, a woman who slipped on ice she did not see, or me, on vacation using a hotel bicycle, and the hotel neither maintained their bicycles nor provided helmets, but just a short ride into town shouldn't change your life forever. The emphasis that military TBIs are getting from the press makes it seem like somehow, either by giving more money to the military, or by wearing a helmet on a bicycle, or a seatbelt in a car, gives the public the wrong impression that TBIs are something that can be avoided, and they are not unavoidable, but one can do things to reduce their risks and then hope that a random act of horror that is unavoidable does not happen to them. My neurobio major has really been tested and enhanced by this god awful injury and the "decade of the brain" was the "millennium of the brain" because research is growing all the time. Keep the public posted but emphasis that an injured brain can not ever be something one can know the outcome of - because brains are what make us unique and certainly acutely an injured brain often needs similar medical intervention and life support, but long term results are extremely variable. Thank you.

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