A second chance at life

Recovering: After a freak sailing accident, doctors said a Harford County man would not survive. Four years later, and with the help of his family, `miracle man' James Odom Jr. is slowly reclaiming his life.

February 29, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

James Odom Jr. is living proof that miracles happen.

It was Labor Day in 2000, and 32-year-old Odom was sailing toward the Havre de Grace Marina with a canoe in tow. Rough, choppy waters and the weight of the canoe were more than the towline could handle. The line snapped, sending the metal hook like a slingshot into the lower right side of Odom's skull. The Harford County businessman and widowed father of a 3-year-old girl slumped over, motionless.

Several of Odom's relatives, including his daughter, Tori, were on board. They called for help. Odom was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, although paramedics suspected he might not survive the flight.

In the emergency room, Odom's family was told to prepare for the worst. Should he survive, the doctors told them, he would most likely be in a vegetative state. The brain injury was too severe, they said, to hope for anything more, his sister Lynn Stadterman said.

Traumatic brain injury is a common occurrence. In 2000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2 million cases of traumatic brain injury occurred, 51,600 of which were fatal. Of the total, 5,229 cases and 676 deaths occurred in Maryland. Motor vehicle crashes accounted for the majority of brain injuries, followed by firearm-related incidents and falls.

An estimated 5.3 million Americans live with a traumatic brain injury-related disability, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Last year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became the first Maryland governor to allot funding, $900,000, to help individuals with brain injuries.

Odom's brain injury was severe, and despite hours of surgery the doctors had little hope of his recovery. His family kept vigil, taking turns day and night. His father stayed beside him, determined that his son would pull through.

Odom's mother, who was fighting cancer, cared for Tori, whose mother had died of a heart attack when Tori was 9 months old.

Odom remained in a coma, and his brain was swelling -- a common response to injury. The swelling continued, causing mounting intracranial pressure. He was on a respirator, but was barely breathing.

The surgeon on duty made an abdominal incision from Odom's breastbone down, to relieve pressure on his swelling organs. Still, the swelling and intracranial pressure continued. On Sept. 14, 2000, Dr. Bizhan Aarabi performed a craniectomy, surgically removing the right side of Odom's skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. The portion of the skull was preserved for reattachment, in the unlikely event Odom survived.

"It was like something you'd see in a science-fiction film," Stadterman said. "But it was happening to my baby brother. And everyone kept telling us that he was dying."

After four months in a coma, five months in rehabilitation facilities and after multiple setbacks including two strokes, an aneurysm, several brain seizures and a bacterial infection, Odom persevered.

"I knew he'd pull through, despite what everyone was saying," said his father, James Odom Sr.

On April 26, 2001, Odom returned home. Today he lives with his father in the family's Churchville home. He attends landscape design courses at Harford Community College and has written nearly 60 short stories since his recovery. His daughter lives nearby with her aunt and uncle, as Odom recuperates. They see each other "all the time," he said, adding that she is his inspiration.

He can remember what life was like before. He knows he used to be a great skier and an avid golfer. He hopes someday to drive a car again.

Most of his friends lost touch during the recovery, and even now few remain in his life. But Odom says he bears no grudges.

Not all changes have been bad. "We call it the old Jim and the new Jim. Before, he hated country music. Now he loves country music. And he loves to sing. Now he belts it out at church and karaoke," Stadterman said.

Odom takes pride in defying the odds. "The head doctor at Shock Trauma, Dr. Thomas Scalea, was on staff that night [of the accident]. He took one look at me and said, `This man's not going to make it through the night,'" Odom said. "He called my family into the room and braced them for bad news."

Scalea now refers to Odom as "the miracle man."

Odom and his sister have been active in bringing attention to the plight and prevalence of those who suffer from traumatic brain injury. Stadterman recently was appointed to the board of directors of the Brain Injury Association of Maryland Inc., an association that she and Odom say provided invaluable assistance to their family.

Recently, she and Odom spoke about their experience to a group at the Shock Trauma auditorium -- not far from Odom's room four years ago.

Throughout the ordeal, Stadterman said, she battled Odom's insurance company, which at one point early in his recovery insisted that he be discharged and sent home "basically because they didn't want to waste money on someone they didn't believe would pull through," she said.

But Stadterman fought for her brother's care and won. Now Odom undergoes 50 physical therapy sessions a year.

The family remembers all the medical professionals who left little room for hope -- a sticking point for Odom and Stadterman, who insist that there could be many more medical miracles if loved ones and caretakers built on the potential for recovery by maintaining a positive mindset.

One nurse, Stadterman recalled, said Odom would never eat a Whopper again. "She was wrong," said Odom, smiling. He downed his first Whopper before leaving the hospital.

The words of another health care worker continue to egg him on. "She said I'd never walk again. She actually told me that while I was lying in the hospital bed. Well, look at me now," he said, taking deliberate steps with the assistance of a leg brace and walker.

Recently, Odom walked up the stairs of his father's home for the first time in years. "I can't wait to show Tori," he said. "She's going to be so proud."

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