As part of his job, emergency medical technician Kyle Brown sometimes transported patients to Shepherd Center, the Atlanta hospital that treats serious brain and spinal injuries.
But about 14 months ago, the Flowery Branch resident became one of those patients being wheeled into Shepherd.
On Oct. 17, 2006, just before his 27th birthday, Kyle Brown was driving down McEver Road to his workplace, Priority EMS in Buford. Suddenly, an SUV going in the opposite direction ran off the road, overcorrected, and hit Kyle’s vehicle almost head-on.
It took rescue personnel almost an hour to extricate Kyle from his mangled car. They worked with a heightened sense of urgency, because they could tell by Kyle’s uniform that he shared their profession.
The crash broke his left collarbone and both femurs, the long bones in the thigh. One femur was completely shattered. But the most worrisome damage occurred in his brain. He suffered a shearing injury, in which the brain is stretched by the rapid whipping of the head forward and back.
Even before Kyle arrived by ambulance at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, he had slipped into a coma. And for his wife Robin, who rushed to his bedside, it was as though a dark shadow had fallen over their lives.
"I realized how bad it was when I saw him in the ER," she said. "I think I went into shock."
Robin Brown was seven months pregnant with their first child, and now she had to consider the possibility that their baby might have to grow up without a father.
But while she was as distraught as any wife would be in that situation, Robin had an advantage: She is an intensive care nurse, and was able to view her husband’s condition with a professional eye.
"When he was in the ICU, I was assessing his neurological functions, and I could see tiny improvements every day," she said.
Kyle remained comatose for more than a week.
"His eyes were open, but it was a blank stare," Robin said. "Then one day, he looked at me and grabbed his wedding ring, which I was wearing on a chain around my neck. Then he grabbed my hand and touched my own ring. That’s when I could tell he knew who I was."
But the swelling in Kyle’s brain left him extremely confused, and he still had almost complete amnesia. Doctors warned Robin that his prognosis may be poor.
"One neurologist told me, ‘You’ll never have your husband back. He’ll never be the person he was,’" she said. "I held it together at the hospital, but then went home and cried and cried."
Hoping to stimulate Kyle’s memory, she played his favorite music in the ICU.
"I brought a Johnny Cash CD, and he started singing along," she said. "I thought, how can the doctors say he’s not getting better? Look at him, he’s singing along with Johnny Cash!"
But she also wondered what she would do if he didn’t get better.
"Kyle and I had talked before his accident, and he always said if something happened to him, he wouldn’t want to be in a nursing home," she said.
Two weeks after the accident, Kyle was transferred to Shepherd Center.
"At times he was still completely confused," Robin said. "One time he thought we were out shopping for cribs. I thought, ‘Well, at least he remembers that I’m pregnant.’ I tried to see the humor in the situation."
For Kyle, much of his two-month stay at Shepherd remains a blur.
"I was still experiencing short-term memory problems for about a month," he said. "I’d wake up in the morning and not remember anything that happened the day before."
Despite these cognitive problems, Kyle had work to do. With two broken femurs held together by metal rods, he needed intensive physical therapy to learn how to walk again. Gradually, he progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane.
Meanwhile, Robin’s due date was fast approaching. Though still hospitalized at Shepherd, Kyle was able to attend Lamaze classes with her.
Their son, Colin, was born Jan. 4, 2007, at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. "I was ecstatic that I was able to be at my wife’s side for that," Kyle said.
After being discharged from Shepherd, Kyle went through outpatient rehabilitation and is back to normal physically, except for a slight limp caused by one leg now being about an inch shorter than the other.
Mentally, he’s also back up to speed. "I have no lingering issues, except I get tired on long drives," he said.
In March, he was able to return to light duty at work, and by June, he was working full-time.
"I was happy to be back," he said. "I love this job. I really like the idea of helping people."
Every now and then, he still transports patients to Shepherd.
"I tell them about what I went through, and I tell them they’re going to a wonderful place," he said. "I’m very sympathetic to their situation."
Seeing Kyle healthy and functional gives patients hope that they, too, can make a full recovery. But they should understand that Kyle’s case is not the norm. According to Dr. Darryl Kaelin, director of the brain injury program at Shepherd, less than one-third of patients are able to resume their previous jobs after sustaining a severe brain injury.
Kyle knows how fortunate he is.
"If I hadn’t been able to return to the way I am now, my wife would have had to be taking care of two ‘babies,’" he said. "I hate to even think about that."
Instead, he’s been able to embrace parenthood. Robin is a stay-at-home mom on weekdays, but works Saturdays and Sundays in the cardiac ICU at St. Joseph Hospital.
"Kyle takes care of Colin all by himself on those days, and he does really well," she said. "He’s a great dad."
Though she could hardly characterize Kyle’s ordeal as a positive experience, Robin does see a bright side.
"We were best friends before this happened," she said. "But we’re so much stronger now. We’ve learned so much about each other."