Brett’s Story: Back to College After a Traumatic Brain Injury - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Brett’s Story: Back to College After a Traumatic Brain Injury

Published on January 03, 2017

Brett’s Story: Back to College After a Traumatic Brain Injury

Brett Becker and his family were on a ski trip in Wisconsin, enjoying the remaining days of his college winter break. A freshman at Indiana University, Brett was studying biology, with hopes of one day becoming a doctor.

On January 4, 2016, a fun family vacation turned tragic. Brett went off a ski jump and overshot the landing area, falling sideways, landing on his head and shoulder, and breaking his clavicle. He was immediately transported to a local hospital, at one point requiring resuscitation. Brett spent one week in an intensive care unit (ICU) in Wausau, Wisconsin and was then transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago where he spent another two weeks in the ICU.

Brett was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury that affected memory, comprehension, speaking, mobility and activities of daily living. Brett’s Uncle John, a doctor, understood that rehabilitation and therapy would be crucial and he was confident that the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) was the best place for Brett's recovery.

When Brett arrived at RIC, he was admitted as a patient in the AMiCouS Program, which is designed specifically to assess and rehabilitate brain injured patients that are in a minimally conscious state. Within a few weeks, Brett was able to communicate by moving his eyes in response to "yes" and "no" questions from family and therapists.

Brett received daily speech therapy which consisted of auditory comprehension. This included answering questions, listening and reading news articles, and using a calendar and clock to determine orientation. Brett whispered his first spoken words on February 7. Within the next month, he was speaking extensively.

"Brett’s most surprising gain came during a music therapy session,” said Peggy, Brett’s mom. “All of a sudden, he started singing along to a song, belting out the words.”

Brett was considered to be “fully conscious” by March 4.

As Brett’s speech continued to come back, it became apparent that he had some difficulty with memory, as well as aphasia, a communication disorder that impairs the ability to speak, understand language, read and write. To address these challenges, his speech therapists (i.e., speech language pathologists or SLPs) worked with him on matching pictures with objects and words. They would walk the halls with Brett, encouraging him to identify objects and talk about them. He also practiced with Oral Reading and Language in Aphasia (ORLA), a computer program developed by RIC scientists that requires the person with aphasia to repeat sentences aloud, guided by a therapist.  

During his inpatient care at RIC, Brett relearned how to sit, walk and balance during his physical therapy sessions. These sessions focused on high-intensity, task-specific training, an approach pioneered at RIC and proven through research to yield better, faster recoveries for patients.

By the middle of February, Brett was beginning to walk with a walker. By March 5, he was standing and walking independently, only requiring someone by his side as a safety precaution. Brett was discharged from RIC on March 18, 2016, and walked out the front door on his own.

Brett continued day rehabilitation therapy at RIC’s Wheeling DayRehab Center, which was closer to his home. There, he engaged in physical, occupational and speech therapy five full days a week for nine months. RIC therapists worked with Brett on a range of tasks, from riding a bike to mastering learning and memory strategies that would prepare him for his return to school.

Brett took his first college course since the accident, Introduction to Sociology, in fall 2016 and earned an "A." He will be taking two more courses, Oceanography and American Sign Language, at the College of Lake County this semester. Next fall, Brett will return as a student at Indiana University.

Throughout this journey, Brett’s biggest support has come from his family (his mom, Peggy, his dad, Bryan, and twin sisters Megan and Haley), as well as his girlfriend Maddie. Megan, who is studying to be a physician’s assistant, tutored him throughout the summer while Haley and Maddie worked out with him at a local health club. In addition, Brett has been taking vacations with his family and Maddie and has been hiking, swimming and exploring new areas. He and his family are looking forward to the next stage in his recovery and are confident he will continue to reach additional milestones.

“The interdisciplinary care Brett received at RIC has made all the difference,” said Peggy. He wouldn’t be where he is now if it wasn’t for this level of expertise, support and encouragement. RIC gave Brett his life back.”