The first of two parts
ATLANTA — “Alright kiddo, we’re going to stand up and get some of this energy out,” Jared Antle’s therapist Allison Carroll said before hoisting the 19-year-old up and out of his wheelchair.
On Jared’s busiest therapy days, hospital staff whisk him away from his room at around 8:30 a.m. to work on strength training, hand-eye coordination, balance and speech during a dozen different sessions.
With Carroll’s help, Jared stood in the physical therapy gym at the Shepherd Center here. Every step Jared takes toward a full recovery is fraught with unpredictability as he recovers from a traumatic brain injury.
Minutes after midnight on Aug. 24, Cathy Antle got a phone call and learned her youngest son Jared was on his way to Sentara RMH hospital in Harrisonburg with critical brain injuries and a collapsed lung after a motorist hit him and drove off.
Cathy had dropped him off in Harrisonburg just two days prior so he could begin his sophomore year at James Madison University. They’d gone to Walmart together to stock his first apartment with food.
Within hours, he was flown to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville and Cathy drove two-hours there. When she arrived she saw her son wheeled by on a stretcher on his way to emergency surgery.
“I said ‘I just have to touch him,’” Cathy said.
Jared underwent one emergency surgery, and then another as his brain swelled. Doctors didn’t know yet that Jared’s brain was damaged on the side that hit the pavement and the side the SUV struck, Cathy said.
Cathy feared he wouldn’t survive. The family prayed.
The family are parishioners of Waters Edge Church and believe God would oversee Jared’s survival and recovery. It wasn’t his time to go.
“I don’t think I let my mind go in that direction,” Jared’s father Ed Antle said of his son’s life-threatening injuries. “I’m surprised how your faith doesn’t get questioned. As far as taking care of him; it’s automatic.”
Every day since the crash, either Jared’s mom or dad have been by their son’s side as he recovers.
On Sept. 21, the Antle family trekked from Charlottesville to Atlanta to take Jared to his best shot at a full recovery: the Shepherd Center.
The nonprofit hospital deals strictly with brain and spinal cord injuries. It has 152 beds and treats 900 inpatients and more than 7,000 outpatients each year.
Outpouring of support
At the Shepherd Center, Jared was placed in the intensive care unit upon arrival; he later moved to the brain injury unit and now lives in Room 245.
Jared’s doctors diagnosed him with a disorder of consciousness and motor perseveration — a lack of consciousness and an attention deficit that causes limbs to shake and repeat previous motions.
Jared’s room is a revolving door of siblings, relatives, friends and even complete strangers.
The outpouring of support for the Antle family took them by surprise.
Folks have taken photographs and shared them on social media with the hashtag #StayStrongJared.
On Dec. 6, a GoFundMe account to help offset the costs the family has incurred reached its goal of $50,000. That goal has since doubled to $100,000 to cover the family’s expenses as Jared’s discharge date continues to be pushed back.
One person rented an apartment for the family in Atlanta, while another paid for a week’s stay at the Embassy Suites just 3 miles from the hospital, Ed said.
Williamsburg’s generosity and support has been overwhelming, Ed said.
Jared’s three brothers and one sister visit frequently. The Antle family has grown ever closer, ever more devout as days pass and Jared recovers.
Family members go with Jared to his therapy sessions. Ed and Cathy calm him down when he becomes frustrated — he has punched or kicked a few therapists out of frustration.
On Dec. 14, Jared’s closest sibling visited. Andy Antle is 24 and played baseball with Jared at Lafayette High School.
Andy wrote out “I have some new music for you” on a small whiteboard. Jared’s eyes tracked over each letter and word. Andy said it aloud, too.
The family, especially Ed, feels certain Jared can understand what he hears, what he reads and the photos he sees. Ed thinks Jared can recognize the faces of loved ones.
Andy said he hoped reading aloud what he has written will help Jared connect words with sounds so that he’ll be able to better communicate.
One of Jared’s favorite songs, “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers, plays in the background. It also helps calm him when he’s agitated.
Andy told his little brother his visit would last through Christmas. “I’ll be here for two weeks,” Andy said.
Jared shook his head “no,” so Andy repeated himself. With probing blue eyes, Jared stared at his brother and the whiteboard he held.
“Yes I am,” Andy said to Jared. “I am.”
When ‘no’ is good
In the past three weeks, Jared has taken to shaking his head “no” far more than nodding “yes,” his parents said.
The hit and run that nearly took his life took his voice, for now.
At a one-on-one therapy session Alexes Venuti, Jared’s speech-language pathologist at the Shepherd Center, asked him if he wanted to talk.
With a rapid nod up-and-down, Jared said yes.
In a staccato voice, Venuti told Jared “make your mouth do what mine is doing.”
“No,” Venuti said while she contorted her face. “You try. Ready. Say it. Take a big breath.”
“Go,” Venuti said as she pushed Jared’s diaphragm and tried to help him force his breath over his vocal cords and through his mouth. Twice in the therapy session, Jared pushed air through his diaphragm in an attempt to speak.
“You’re moving your mouth,” Venuti said and Jared stared back at her. “Yes. You are.”
The process of re-learning how to speak and swallow is half experimentation and half following the textbook, Venuti said.
“This is big because the first part of this week anytime I’d push on his stomach I’d immediately get frustration,” Venuti told Cathy and Ed. “Did you see it? That one time he made his mouth move?”
Moments later, Dr. Andrew Dennison stepped into the therapy session to speak to Jared and his parents.
“Is this the start of emerging? Can we say that yet?” Cathy asked.
A turning point
Emergence is a transient term that describes the process of a person going from a coma, to a vegetative state to semi-consciousness and finally to lucid consciousness, Venuti said.
It’s a turning point. Jared’s rehabilitation program will change to focus on restoring his strength and ability to communicate.
“It’s functional object use to me,” Dennison said. “He’s trying to throw a ball. We’ve always suspected that because of some … issues that he really wasn’t able to show his emergence as well as he actually was emerged.”
Functional object use or functional communication — such as throwing a ball or answering yes or no questions — are criteria the hospital uses to determine whether or not Jared has emerged.
“I think he probably has been on that threshold of emergence and now he’s really showing it more,” Dennison said. “He’s moving right now. I don’t think he’s going to get stuck where he is … I think he has emerged.”
While he has emerged, doctors and therapists agree Jared is still in the early stages of his recovery.
“Therapists will always say there's a ‘look,’ ” Venuti said of patients such as Jared. “Their eye contact with you, you just know they’re in there more than they can show.”
While Jared has “the look,” his atrophied muscles have made him frailer than he should be. His traumatic brain injury has made it difficult for him to communicate.
“It’s hard just seeing him like this,” Ed said. “I don’t really let myself get too far in the future. It’s too easy to lose hope.”
The road ahead is long and uncertain. Jared’s parents patiently wait for the day — if and when it comes — he calls them “mom” and “dad” again.
But for now, with day’s therapy sessions finished, they wheel him back to Room 245 and help him prepare for bed by 10 p.m.
Jared’s recovery resumes at 8:30 a.m., and there’s work to be done.
Coming Wednesday: Jared is learning how to walk, talk — and catch a baseball.
How to help
To donate money toward Jared Antle’s recovery, visit gofundme.com/support-jared.
Read the Antle family’s journal entries at caringbridge.org/visit/jaredantle/journal.
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.