Brain Injury: Eric Edmundson's Story - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Eric Edmundson's Story

A light at the end of a tunnel

Eric Edmundson, brain injury, patient at RIC.

Sgt. Eric Edmundson greets his
wife and daughter after walking
out of RIC with the help of his

Ed Edmundson pushed his son, U.S. Army Sgt. Eric Edmundson, then 26, onto the elevator at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) to return to the brain injury floor for his next therapy session. Before their floor, the elevator stopped and a woman entered. Eric coyly moved his thumb toward the screen of his new Dynavox communication device attached to his wheelchair and pressed one of the buttons. The Dynavox said, “Hello. How are you?” while Eric looked at the woman with his signature smirk. “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” the woman replied.

Ed, Eric’s father and closest companion through more than a year of medical treatments and hospital stays, was besieged by emotion. This was the first time since his son sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and an anoxic brain injury (ABI) that Ed witnessed his son engage a stranger. That charming and sly personality that Eric is known for to friends and family members was emerging for the first time in many months.

This is one of the many moments Ed remembers that illustrate his son Eric’s powerful recovery within the six months of acute inpatient rehabilitation that Eric underwent at RIC.

Seeking the nation’s best rehabilitation care

On October 2, 2005, U.S. Army Sgt. Eric Edmundson, 26, sustained shrapnel and blast injuries when his unit, the 4/14 Cavalry, 172nd Stryker Brigade, was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. While awaiting transport to Germany, Eric went into cardiac arrest and lost oxygen to his brain for 30 minutes, resulting in an anoxic brain injury.

When Eric returned to the U.S. military medical system, his family was devastated to hear from Eric’s military physicians explain that he likely would remain in a vegetative state for the remainder of his life as a result of the complex combination of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and anoxic brain injury (ABI).

Eric’s family refused to accept this fate. Eric was transferred to a VA hospital for rehabilitation care and the family continued to maintain hope.

Dissatisfied with Eric’s progress in the VA system, his family actively pursued alternatives for Eric.  Ed wanted his son at the country’s best rehabilitation facility.  Through research, he and the family learned RIC is ranked America’s “#1 rehabilitation hospital” by U.S. News & World Report and they then began their quest to have Eric admitted.

After weeks of struggle to secure the necessary military approvals, Eric was admitted to RIC for acute inpatient rehabilitation at RIC in January 2007.  With the support and guidance of RIC physicians and therapists, Eric began to set goals for himself that would allow him to take back his quality of life. 

As with all TBI patients at RIC, Eric’s medical team developed a customized treatment program to address his needs and goals. Immediately, RIC worked in conjunction with Northwestern Memorial Hospital to surgically reposition a baclofen pump, a catheterization device that delivers the medicine, baclofan, to Eric’s spinal column, which helped reduce spasticity and allowed Eric to better participate in his therapies.

Experts at the RIC Wheelchair Seating & Positioning Center assessed Eric and customized a new wheelchair for him.  Later, they would replace this wheelchair with a new one appropriately painted camouflage, which motivated Eric, on active duty with the U.S. Army during his entire stay.

Then, specialists in the Prosthetics & Orthotics Clinical Center designed splints for Eric’s arms and legs to help treat spasticity and tone challenges that affected the range of motion in his hands and feet. Eric’s therapy would be much more effective once spasticity was managed.

Eric Edmundson in physical therapy.

Eric Edmundson in physical therapy
four months into his stay at RIC

Physical therapists worked with him to regain flexibility, strength and balance.  They worked with him to bear his own weight and use his limbs to move and eventually walk.  One of Eric’s main goals was to leave with the ability to take his daughter, Gracie, on walks when they returned home.

“When Eric was first learning to stand again, I told him to stand tall and look me in the eye,” Ed recalled. “He stood so tall and looked me straight in the eye – I was so proud of him and he was so proud of himself. It was such a good milestone for Eric and he quickly progressed from there.”

Within weeks, Eric was walking with assistance through the halls of RIC’s brain injury rehabilitation unit with a big smile on his face.

Seeing results

Eric worked closely with his speech therapists to regain the ability to eat and drink. After more than 18 months with a feeding tube, Eric learned to ingest food and fluids and even enjoyed a piece of birthday cake on his 27th birthday.  By his discharge in June, Eric was able to ingest the necessary daily caloric intake and no longer relied on tube or supplemental feedings.

Occupational therapists worked to help Eric engage in daily life activities by preparing him to return to the things he loves. They worked to teach Eric to spin a fishing reel. As part of recreational therapy, they took Eric fishing on Lake Michigan.

Recreational therapists also worked with Eric in art therapy where he made a handmade frame for his wife as an anniversary present.

While Eric’s voice had yet to return, he worked with specialists in RIC’s Technology Center to find a solution that would allow him to communicate.  Eric became proficient at using a Dynavox communication device and was quick to tease his older sister, Anna. Through this tool, staff and therapists learned of Eric’s wicked and sarcastic sense of humor.

With the support and guidance of RIC physicians and therapists, Sgt. Edmundson began achieving his goals.  With each accomplishment, Eric became more and more motivated.  Eric approached his therapy with a courageous attitude and Army-strong will.

“I really enjoy working with Eric and the other servicemen at RIC. I look at it as my way of giving them something back for what they have given to this country,” said Qualandres “Q” Hamilton, R.N., one of Eric’s nurses at RIC. “Other injured and uninjured soldiers who didn’t even know Eric stopped by to visit him and a real sense of brotherhood came over me just through witnessing this and meeting the other soldiers. ”

Walking tall

Eric was discharged from RIC in June 2007 after six months of acute inpatient rehabilitation. He achieved his goals of eating, communicating and, most inspiring, walking out of RIC to greet his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, his wife and his extended family. He returned to New Bern, N.C., with his wife and daughter and continues outpatient therapy at a local hospital.

Eric is continuing to learn to do new things.  Now at home with his family, Eric is enjoying daily life with his family and outings like bowling. In September, Eric even walked to the alter of his church to receive communion.

On Oct. 6, Eric, his wife and daughter were presented with keys to their new home in a ceremony attended by two of Eric’s RIC therapists.  Their new home, also in New Bern, N.C., is fully accessible and was built by an organization called Homes for Our Troops.

Eric and his dad, Ed, have been on many fishing excursions and have big dreams of opening a bait-and-tackle shop in New Bern one day.

Nurturing the military legacy

RIC has had a long-standing connection to the nation’s military healthcare system. RIC's founder, Dr. Paul Magnuson, the former medical director of the VA health system, was instrumental in developing rehabilitation services for veterans in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He brought that clinical excellence to civilians in 1954 when he opened RIC in a warehouse on Ohio Street in downtown Chicago.

Today, RIC continues to nurture this vision of world-class care through a combination of research, education and quality patient clinical care. RIC is proud to provide these services to America's injured war heroes.

In July 2007, RIC proudly joined the state of Illinois in introducing a landmark TBI Screening Tool, developed by physicians at RIC, which will be used to screen Illinois National Guard members and veterans returning from combat for symptoms of brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

RIC will continue to work with the state of Illinois to train physicians and implement this process, which will be instrumental in providing a better level of care to injured veterans.