When Jana Blackwood looks at her 14-year-old son, the past, present and future collide in her mind.
Brandon Blackwood was an active, fun-loving kid who liked to hunt, fish and play drums at church and school in his hometown of Princeton, Ind. He was a champion wrestler, a YouTube vlogger, a Colts fan and a bit of a ladies’ man.
That was before the accident.
In December 2017, Brandon, then 13, was in a car driven by another teen when it veered off the road, flipped and hit a tree. Brandon was wearing a seat belt, but the force of the crash left him with a traumatic brain injury.
He spent weeks in a coma in an Evansville hospital before being transferred to a rehab facility in St. Louis.
More than a year later, he is slowly fighting his way back, with help from a team of Riley Hospital for Children therapists and the sheer force of his mother’s love.
It was his mom who refused to give up on him when the rehab team in Missouri said there was nothing more they could do. They suggested she find room for him in an adolescent convalescent home to live out his life.
But Jana Blackwood wasn’t having it.
“I told them, ‘If you don’t believe in Brandon 100 percent, I don’t want you working with him.’ The moment they told me they were giving up, I was done with them.”
Instead, she set her sights on Riley, a two-hour-and-30-minute drive from the family’s home in southern Indiana. After evaluating Brandon, the Riley team told her they believed he had potential for at least a partial recovery.
That was in March. At that point, he was still only semi-conscious, and he showed no signs of movement. He could not talk, walk or eat. He couldn’t hold his head up. His mom wasn’t sure he even knew who she was.
For nine months, mother and son came to Riley’s outpatient rehab center four days a week to work with occupational and physical therapists. They lived at the Ronald McDonald House, with Jana Blackwood taking responsibility for her son’s care.
Just before Christmas, they began transitioning back to their home four days a week, coming to Riley the other three days. Home is good for both of them. It’s simultaneously stimulating and comforting for Brandon.
“He helped decorate the Christmas tree,” Blackwood said through tears. “It was so amazing.”
The difference in Brandon from just six months ago is striking, at least in his mom’s eyes. He can hold his head up, move his right arm, stand with assistance and follow simple commands.
Riley physical therapist Sarah Johnson said brain injuries like Brandon’s are particularly tough.
“It’s a very complex organ, so you never really know what the outcome will be. But what we do know is that we can help build new connections even if the established ones aren’t working,” she said.
Building those new connections is made easier by using repetitive movements and different techniques and senses to tease out things he likes, she said. Like music, for instance.
“He had no active movement, no mobility at first,” Johnson said. “We found out he used to play the drums, so we got a drumstick and a drum pad. Just the feel and recognition of the drumstick in his hand, you could see it start. His posture changes, he’ll focus on the music.”
Indeed, watching Brandon during a PT session, he struggles at times to stay focused on a particular task, but hand him the drumstick and he taps one, two, three on the drum pad.
It’s music to his mom’s ears. She knows her boy is in there. She sees snippets of him, especially when he tries to smooth his blond hair with his one good arm.
“He’s always got to have his hair just right. He’s a cutie and he knows it.”
He’s got a girlfriend back home who has stuck by his side throughout the ordeal, Blackwood said.
Though her son sometimes got in trouble at school, she said the teachers still loved him. He was forever trying to get them to appear in one of his YouTube videos, she said. The town of Princeton has been a great support to the family, hosting fundraisers for Brandon and another teen injured in the crash.
No one can predict how far he’ll go in recovery, but Johnson said as his brain heals, his victories become more frequent. “He’s doing a ton more; it’s starting to snowball.”
He’s learning to write his name, and he’s beginning to move his feet, taking steps with help. Now, when Blackwood asks him “where’s mom,” he can point to her. He knows his dad and sisters, and his grandma and grandpa, the latter his longtime fishing and hunting buddy.
He’s not speaking yet, but he is beginning to mouth words, his mom said, and he can make the peace sign with his fingers.
Baby steps. But they’re all huge to Blackwood.
“It’s a long road, but it’s amazing to watch.”
-- By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist