Family celebrates mom's recovery from brain injury

January 07, 2018 - 9:00 am

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Miracle is an overused word.

Often used to describe an unexpected, but welcomed occurrence, the true essence of a miracle is an event that defies known cause because of divine intervention.

For the people who know and love Judy Bryant, miracle is the only word to describe the last four months of her life.

On Aug. 26, Bryant suffered a brain injury that doctors said she would never recover from. Life support was ended and she was moved to hospice so she could be kept comfortable until she took her last breath.

That breath never came.

While at one point Bryant only took two breaths a minute, she kept on breathing. Then she wiggled her toes. Then she squeezed her daughter's hand. Six days after the accident that fractured her skull and injured her brain Bryant, then 69, opened her eyes and began to mumble.

On Dec. 16, nearly fourth months after the accident, Bryant celebrated her 70th birthday surrounded by family.

Bryant has only one memory from the first weeks in the hospital.

"I remember praying, 'God, whatever your will is I'll be happy with it, but my children still need me," Bryant said.

"She felt her life was unfinished," said Bryant's daughter, Tammy McLamb.

An achiever

Bryant has always been an achiever, even with odds were stacked against her.

She left school after the ninth grade. She later obtained a GED and went to work as a receptionist at Eastern Radiology. When she retired more than 35 years later, Bryant was the practice's chief executive officer.

Not content with retirement, Bryant became become a real estate broker.

Bryant had been working with a couple six years to find their "dream home" in Greenville.

The couple had asked her about a home that was under construction in the Ironwood neighborhood. Bryant decided to give it a quick once-over and drove out there on a Saturday afternoon. It was Aug. 26.

"It's the only time she had been to a house without them," McLamb said.

As is common with most people who sustain traumatic brain injuries, Judy doesn't remember what caused the accident. It appears she was walking up a flight of steps, misstepped and fell backward, striking her head on the concrete flooring.

She remained there for nearly 24 hours.

The first people to realize something was wrong were the members of her church family.

Bryant is a devout church-goer and was scheduled to do a scripture reading during that Sunday's service, said Pastor Keith Gardner with First Free Will Baptist Church.

Gardner called Bryant's mobile phone but got no answer. So he called her children.

Bryant's grandson, Christopher Bryant, was the first to arrive at her Irish Creek home. When she didn't answer the door, he broke out a window and climbed inside. She, and her car, were gone.

His dad, Bill Bryant, soon joined him. They called McLamb, who was in Charlotte at her daughter Kasey's soccer game.

Christopher had briefly lived with his grandmother and she had installed the "Find My Friends" app on both their phones. Christopher activated it and it took him and his father to the Ironwood construction site where they found Judy bleeding and unresponsive at the foot of a staircase. Her body was covered in insect bites that were later determined to have come from fire ants.

"She couldn't talk, couldn't anything. She just made a moaning noise," Bill Bryant said.

Severe injuries

The family later learned Bryant sustained injuries that likely saved her life and allowed for her recovery.

The skull fracture was so complete that the bone shifted when her brain began swelling, lessening the buildup of pressure. The bones in her inner ear shattered, which allowed some blood to flow out, again lessening pressure on her brain.

And the fire ant bites, "her back looked like third-degree burns," Bill Bryant said, kept her system stimulated enough that it didn't shut down.

"The bad was always offset by another bad that turned out good," her son said.

None of this was obvious when Bryant first arrived at Vidant Medical Center.

While McLamb and her daughter were driving in from Charlotte, the doctors were telling Bill Bryant his mother's injuries were non-survivable. This is a difficult memory for McLamb.

"I was so angry with the trauma doctor because I felt they just wrote her off," she said. However, McLamb said she suspects if her mother's brain scans had been shown to 10 other doctors most would have arrived at the same conclusion.

Later, during Sunday night services, Gardner and about 50 members of the church gathered at the altar and prayed.

"We said Lord, we need her here," Gardner said.

Bryant had a living will with a "do not resuscitate" order. She also gave her son her medical power of attorney. Believing he was honoring his mother wishes, Bill Bryant wanted to end life support. McLamb wasn't ready to make that decision.

"I was looking for closure," she said. She was thinking about Kasey, the only girl among four grandchildren. Kasey is very close to her grandmother and sat constantly at her bedside, holding her hand.

McLamb said she kept asking for a sign to show her what was the right decision. She thought she got it when her mother briefly opened her eyes. McLamb said she saw no recognition, no awareness in her mother's eyes and agreed withdrawing life support was the correct decision.

Other family members protested, Bill Bryant said, but on Tuesday, Aug. 29, Bryant was transferred to palliative care. Her breathing tube was removed and family and friends gathered to say goodbye.

Her older sister, Linda Wallace, was devastated.

"I went to stand by her bed and my thought way, I'm going to be by myself," she said. "But looking at her now, I realize God has performed a miracle few people get to see."

'We're seeing a miracle'

That Wednesday, Aug .30, four days after the accident, Bryant was taken to hospice where the plan was to keep her comfortable until she died.

Kasey, 17, remained with her grandmother. Hospice staff brought in a therapy dog to comfort the teenager. It was during that visit that Bryant opened her eyes.

McLamb said she felt a surge of hope but medical staff, in an effort to control her expectations, said patients often display what is called "rallying," actions that appear to signal a turnaround but actually mean death is near. The staff pointed out Bryant's coloring was gray, which happens close to death.

But as family and friends visited and talked, Bryant started wiggling her toes.

"It got to when we asked her if could hear us and she wiggled her toes," Bill Bryant said. Her children kept talking to her and eventually Bryant started squeezing their hands in response to questions. She then opened her eyes and her family realized their mom was still with them.

Gardner received a text message from a church member who had been with the family.

"He said 'Pastor Keith I think we're seeing a miracle,'" Gardner said.

Bryant's children asked that she be returned to the hospital for treatment. They are still upset because no department initially wanted accept her. They were repeatedly told their mother's coloring and breathing — at one time she was taking only two breaths a minute — meant there was no hope. However, Dr. Quing Cao, a specialist in geriatrics, hospice and palliative medicine with the Brody School of Medicine, advocated for the family and she was returned to Vidant's medical intensive care unit.

By this time, Bryant was mumbling in an apparent attempt to communicate. However, new brain scans indicated the damage was worsening, Bill Bryant said.

Several nurses who the family described as a "rapid response team" took an interest in Bryant and advocated for her treatment.

In the 10 days following Bryant's accident she had received no water or food which lead doctors to believe her internal organs would be shutting down blood work taken at this time showed her organs where not only functioning properly, they were functioning as if she had suffered no injury.

"I asked the doctor, 'How is this possible?' and he looked right dead at me and he said, 'I don't know. It's not medically possible,'" Bill Bryant said.

News about Bryant's turnaround was spreading.

"Later on, when I went back to hospital I would say to the people at the front desk, 'I've come to see Judy Bryant' and they would say 'Oh, our miracle woman,'" Gardner said.

"They didn't even know Mom but the story had gone through the hospital," her son said.

Difficult rehab

Fourteen days after Bryant's accident, on Sept. 8, she was flown to Atlanta to begin rehabilitation therapy at The Shepard Center of Atlanta, a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in treating people with spinal cord and brain injuries.

It was another tough decision, McLamb said, because it meant taking her from family and friends and putting her in strange surroundings. However, the Workman's Comp Insurance representative they worked with identified it as one of the nation's top rehabilitation centers.

Bryant struggled. She didn't understand why she was in a hospital so far from home. Her children and the center's staff kept telling her she was recovering from a brain injury, but she didn't believe them because she didn't see bruises or broken bones.

She always had a reason why she had difficulties with certain tasks, her son said, but nothing was caused by a brain injury.

"I would argue with anybody; there was nothing wrong with me," Bryant recalled. It was only when she saw photographs taken shortly after the accident that Bryant began to believe something was wrong.

Her rehabilitation routine was intensive. It started when she woke up and staff would ask her what clothing she needed to get dressed, insisting she name every item.

After breakfast, she attended physical, recreational, occupational and speech therapy sessions.

"There were days she was almost in tears, she was so physically tired," McLamb said.

Once she regained basic skills, Bryant was moved to Shepard Pathways, a residential treatment home.

The therapists had Bryant identify the activities she enjoyed the most so she could relearn the necessary skills. For Bryant, that meant cooking, her volunteer work within the church and driving.

Bryant's children, sister and other family members took turns staying in Atlanta to offer her support.

She made rapid progress until mid-October when she began forgetting things and started physically regressing. She started cursing, which her children had never heard her do. Her doctors attributed it to a negative drug reaction and stopped the medicine. They also discovered a urinary tract infection which — for reasons they can't explain — sometimes causes rehabilitation patients to regress, McLamb said. A course of antibiotics cleared the infection and Bryant's recovery continued.

Bill Bryant said doctors at The Shepard Center were hard-pressed to explain his mother's recovery. They had patients with similar injuries who were wheelchair-bound and had limited responses.

Bryant and her children attribute it to the overwhelming spiritual support she received.

McLamb had started daily Facebook posts shortly after Bryant's accident to keep people updated on her condition. As she recovered, people started sharing the posts with people who never met Bryant.

Gardner said he often heard people say they started their day "with coffee and a Judy story."

Her children estimate Bryant received about 500 greeting cards, a number from strangers, saying how much she inspired them.

"That is exactly what brought me through it," Bryant said.

She came home briefly for Thanksgiving. Bryant wanted to cook, as she always does at Thanksgiving, but couldn't remember her recipes for biscuits and for dressing. However, she does remember her recipe for divinity.

The staff as Shepard said there are some memories Bryant may never recover. There also are questions about what activities she'll be able to resume.

Coming home

Bryant returned to Greenville on Dec. 13. The next evening she attended a Christmas party at the real estate firm where she worked.

However, the noise and movement proved soon became too much and she had to leave. It's common for sight and sound stimulation to produce anxiety in brain injury patients, her children said.

Bryant's rehabilitation team warned her family that once they leave recovery, patients like Bryant have difficulty accepting the fact they still need recovery and cannot return to her previous routine.

Bryant experienced that difficulty on her birthday, Dec. 16. She went shopping with her son and realized she couldn't negotiate the escalator at a department store. It triggered a sensation that the clothing was moving around her and she became anxious.

Bill Bryant said he hated seeing his mother upset, but it showed her she needs to slow down and continue the recovery process.

Knowing something, and accepting it, are very different things.

Bryant is a supporter of Community Crossroads Center, Greenville's homeless shelter, and organizes and cooks the monthly meal the church serves.

Her birthday was the church's day to serve a meal.

"They are good people, they just need help and I hate that I'm missing this time of year," Bryant said. "I want to drive because people depend on me to bring them things."

Her family reminds it may be some time before she gets behind the wheel.

She still needs physical therapy, more rehabilitation assistance and eventually surgery to repair the damage in her inner ear, her daughter said. Doctors said it could be two years before her body completely heals.

Guided by God

Bryant said she is ready for what the future brings because she'll be guided by God.

"I know he heard me and he took care of me. I know there is something else he wants me to do. There is something else he has in store for me and I'm looking forward to finding out what it is," she said.

Her children and Gardner believe Bryant is already serving God's will.

McLamb said while she wasn't raised in the church, she is experiencing a renewal of faith that she wants to explore. And while some may say while would God allow such a tragedy to befall her mother, McLamb said she knows God didn't cause the accident but is now using her mother as a tool to spread his message.

Gardner said he thinks back to the concern people at Vidant had for Bryant.

"It really speaks volumes to the people there because they were seeing something that really defied human explanation because the doctors couldn't explain it," Gardner said. "If you look up the definition of miracle in the dictionary it tells you something that happens, occurs that is beyond human explanation.

"Everything from the very beginning until now fits into that category," Gardner said.


Information from: The Daily Reflector,

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