NRL News

Diagnosed as brain-dead, man now back on basketball court and pursuing college degree

by | May 20, 2014


By Dave Andrusko

Courtesy of Barrow Neurological Institute

Courtesy of Barrow Neurological Institute

I have no doubt that someone has already passed this amazing story of recovery along to Nailah Winkfield, the mother of Jahi McMath, the teenager whom medical authorities are convinced is brain dead. Ms. McMath won the right to move Jahi from Oakland Children’s Hospital to an undisclosed location where feeding and breathing tubes were successfully inserted into the 13-year-old Jahi.

McMath recently told a reporter, “She’s still asleep. I don’t use the word ‘brain dead’ for my daughter. I’m just waiting and faithful that she will have a recovery. She is blossoming into a teenager before my eyes.”

Over the weekend ABC News’s Susan Donaldson James reported the remarkable story of Sam Schmid.

She explained that two years ago his close encounter with death

“was called a ‘Christmas miracle.’ As he lay in a coma after sustaining massive brain injuries in a car crash, doctors were discussing organ donation with his parents and ready to take him off life support. Schmid astounded those at his hospital bedside who thought he was brain dead, raising two fingers to signal he still had life left in him.”

But after the wonderful news that Schmid, a business major at the University of Arizona when he was critically wounded in five-car accident in Tucson in 2011, would survive there was the question if he “would ever return to his studies,” James writes, “or even walk or talk again.”

And that’s where James’s story of Schmid’s almost unbelievable progress takes off. But before describing that, it’s important to give credit where credit is due: Someone believed when others didn’t.

Schmid was airlifted to Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Phoenix after the local hospital would not treat him; Schmid’s injuries were that profound. At St. Joseph’s specialists performed surgery for a life-threatening aneurysm.

“Schmid’s doctor, renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Spetzler, said that while others had ‘reasonable’ reasons to think Schmid was brain dead, he had a ‘hunch’ the young man would make it,” James reported.

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During surgery, Spetzler clipped the balloon-like aneurysm in the blood vessel — “as if I were patching a tire,” a procedure that eventually worked.

For days Schmid didn’t seem to be responding, but what puzzled his doctor was that he did not see fatal injuries on the MRI scan. So he decided to keep Schmid on life support longer.

“There was plenty wrong — he had a hemorrhage, an aneurysm and a stroke from the part of the aneurysm,” Spetzler said in 2011. “But he didn’t have a blood clot in the most vital part of his brain, which we know he can’t recover from. …”

So while the family was given a realistic picture of Schmid’s poor chances for survival, Spetzler ordered one more MRI to see if the critical areas of the brain had turned dark, indicating brain death

“If not, we would hang on and keep him on support,” he said. “But I didn’t want to give the family false hope.”

Schmid’s mother said no one “specifically” asked if her son would be a donor, but kept praying that her son would come around.

The MRI came back with encouraging news during the day and by evening Schmid “inexplicably” followed the doctors’ commands, holding up two fingers.

Schmid’s mother told James that his remarkable recovery is “a modern-day … Christmas miracle.” And what a recovery it is.

At 23 he is back on the basketball court, taking college courses, and hoping to be a veterinary technician. Recently discharged from the Center for Transitional Neuro Rehabilitation at Barrow Neurological Institute, he gives all the credit to his surgeon and the facility.

“I am surprised at the end result,” Schmid told James. “I was willing to comply with all the help at Barrow and my recovery is based on the hard work I did.”

As for his mother, she told James, “I have friends who are atheists who have called me and said, ‘I am going back to church.’”

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Categories: Brain Death