Credit: BILL MCKELWAY/TIMES-DISPATCH
After Hugh Rawlins was injured in a bicycle crash, Rosemary Rawlins wrote “Learning by Accident,” an account of his recovery and the Henrico County family’s struggle.
By: BILL MCKELWAY
Published: September 21, 2011
The return of everyday life for Hugh Rawlins is something many people thought never would happen.
But he is sitting across from his wife in the breakfast room, his piercing blue eyes steady and shining, the household a quiet, orderly place off Springfield Road in western Henrico County filled with pictures and family mementos at every turn.
Samuel Adams’ Octoberfest.
Everyday life for a man who’s the chief financial officer for an area engineering firm. A near-miracle.
Today the couple will present a powerful story of their family’s fight to regain their footing and bring Hugh back to a productive life. The couple will be the main attraction at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital’s celebration of National Rehabilitation Awareness Week.
A bicycle crash in 2002 nearly killed Hugh; hit from behind on Nuckols Road near the Interstate 295 interchange by a car, he was tossed more than 100 feet. The impact shattered his skull and left him a bleeding hulk.
But the story, too, is one of weeks and weeks of medical care at VCU Medical Center in Richmond, of Rosemary’s devotion and fears, and of teams of faithful friends.
The ordeal produced a book by Rosemary, “Learning by Accident.” It has been honed into a fast-paced, anecdotal blow-by-blow account of lost brain function, of rekindled love, medical genius, laughter and pain, of setbacks and redemptive renewal.
“I actually had a book written in 2003,” Rosemary says. “It was a terrible book. We called it ‘A Crash Course in Friendship.'” She had taken the advice of a nurse who suggested that Rosemary keep a diary. “I was toldHugh would wake up and not remember anything for a long time, so I started writing every day, even my efforts to interact with him.
The coma lasted a week and Rosemary fantasized about the first moments of Hugh’s consciousness, “a magic moment,” she writes, that she’d imagined hundreds of times. Hugh would come to hearing his wife’s voice. “Honey, what happened?” he’d ask.
This came instead: “Near noon, he opens both eyes in a startled unblinking stare, a lifeless gaze. The absence of his soul — his blankness — hits me like a jab in the chest.”
Hugh would stay in the hospital 33 days. When he speaks of his injury, he likens his brain to a computer. “It wasn’t just the knob that was broken off; the whole computer shut down,” he says. “It was back to binary for me.”
A key was establishing a frame of mind that recovery can take years and is never a certainty. Rosemary said that at first, she considered her husband’s injury as she had manifold others.
“I picture injuries as physical bruises and broken bones,” she writes. “I have no idea what’s ahead. I feel as unprepared as an unsuspecting beachgoer before a tsunami.”
“Take some time to grieve for your old life,” a doctor advises, promising that most patients find a degree of happiness in the people they eventually become. Five percent of the people with injuries the severity of Hugh’s are confined to a nursing home and cannot feed themselves, the doctor says.
Hugh turned down a job at a reduced level of authority at his old firm, eventually landing a top job elsewhere. A court settlement over the crash helped create a cushion of financial help.
Hugh, who like his wife is 55, is now on track to get a degree through Virginia Commonwealth University’s MBA program. And he’s back on a bike, riding with friends who’ve cemented their loyalty through hours of help coaching Hugh back to health.
Seven months after the accident, Hugh was officially released from the day program at HealthSouth but needed cognitive and speech therapy for several more months. Swimming and cross-training helped coordinate brain-to-movement transitions.
Some deficits materialize in odd ways. A loss of over-the-head peripheral vision became apparent in volleyball games. “The ball kept hitting him in the head,” Rosemary said.
“I learned a lot about who my real friends are,” he said of those who stuck by him, Rosemary and their daughters through thick and thin. His devotion to surfing, which he picked up as a kid on Long Island, has returned with a passion. It helps his spirit as much as his mind and balance.
He has become a board member of the Brain Injury Association of Virginia and is determined to advocate for returning soldiers who have swelled the ranks of brain-injured citizens. Doctors at VCU Medical Centerdescribe him as having one of the most successful recoveries in their experience.
“I can remember the look in the girls’ eyes,” Rosemary said. “It was a look that said, if something happens to mom, we’ll be all alone.”
For her, writing is the pain relief, the soothing balm of for an overwhelming anxiety that threatened home, work and family.
Rosemary’s mother tried to explain what was going on in words the ever-curious Hugh Rawlins could understand.
“Her words are your waves,” she said.