Film brings back memories to brain-damaged patients Sinai patients view other side of their trauma.

July 26, 1991|By Elisha King | Elisha King,Evening Sun Staff

Pat Althoff can't remember the night a truck careened out of the darkness and slammed into her car, leaving her comatose for six weeks and brain-damaged for life.

But as she watched actor Harrison Ford's portrayal of a brain-injured patient in the movie "Regarding Henry," Althoff remembered the frustration she felt when she could not walk or speak, and the sudden fear that overwhelmed her when she realized how her life would change.

"It brought back a lot of memories," said Althoff, 44, who has been in a rehabilitation program since her accident last October. Althoff and 17 other brain-injured people watched the movie yesterday at the Senator Theatre as part of a Sinai Hospital brain-injury program.

Hospital staff members said they hoped the patients would gain inspiration from Ford's movie character, Henry Turner, who struggles through a difficult recovery to make the best of his life.

But the film also showed the patients a side of their trauma that they had not seen before.

"The most emotional part for me was seeing how the family reacted," said Althoff, 44, whose husband witnessed the crash that left not only his wife, but also their daughter, with serious injuries. "I don't remember anything from the first eight weeks after the accident, but I know it was so hard on my husband."

In several scenes of the film, Henry's wife and daughter help him with elementary tasks such as tying his shoes and buttoning his shirt. They look at the man who was once regarded as an extraordinary lawyer, and they cannot believe he now needs help tying his shoes.

As she watched Henry's wife and daughter shed tears over the man they lost, Pat Althoff cried a bit too, imagining the pain her husband Jim must feel as he helps her through recovery.

Survivors of severe brain injury typically face five to 10 years of intensive therapy, according to the National Head Injury Foundation. About half of all traumatic brain injuries nationwide are caused by motor vehicle crashes, while the remaining half are caused by falls, assaults, violence and sports.

Like Althoff, Patrick Deignan's brain injury was the result of an automobile accident.

Deignan was comatose for 11 days before he regained consciousness. When he awakened, doctors tried to determine how much memory he had lost.

"They asked me how old I was and I told them '28,' " Deignan said. "When they told me I was 32, I said, 'No way! No way!'"

Both Althoff and Deignan now can walk without help and hold complete conversations. But their lives are not the same as they once were, and never can be again.

Althoff once served as a vice principal at a Baltimore Catholic school, and Deignan worked as a salesman. Neither has been able to return to work, and the lost wages have made an impact on their families.

Lifetime medical costs for severe brain-injured patients can reach as much as $4 million. But most patients suffer more from lost pay than from medical bills because insurance companies usually cover brain injuries, said Thomas Fowlkes, a clinical facilitator at Sinai.

Reflecting on the many troubles they have faced since their fateful nights on the highway, both Althoff and Deignan said they try to concentrate on the good in their lives instead of the frustration.

Though both patients still face daily hurdles such as forgetting appointments and forgetting where they've put their shoes, they speak mostly of how lucky they are that life has given them a second chance.

"Your values change when you think about what would have happened if you had gotten killed," Deignan said. "Family is first, and the job goes way down on the priority list."

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