Keeping healthy outlook

Loyola High's Brooks makes progress one year after suffering a spinal cord injury

September 25, 2005|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,sun columnist

Van Brooks Jr. remembers just about everything about the toughest day of his life.

For some, purging the memory of something as traumatic as being paralyzed making a tackle might be first on a to-do list, but every detail of that warm fall day is burnished on Brooks' mind.

"I remember everything," Brooks said the other day. "I remember making the tackle. I remember laying there and not being able to feel anything. I remember talking to the trainer, who was asking me different questions. I remember getting into an ambulance. They cut all my equipment off, then they waited for the MedEvac [medical helicopter] to come. They transferred me to the MedEvac. I remember the ride down to Shock Trauma, but once I landed at Shock Trauma, I don't remember anything."

FOR THE RECORD - In Sunday's article on former Loyola High School football player Van Brooks Jr., Dr. Cristina L. Sadowsky's title at Kennedy Krieger Institute's International Center for Spinal Cord Injury was reported incorrectly. She is clinical director. Dr. John McDonald is director of the center. The Sun regrets the error.

By then, Brooks, at the time a junior defensive back at Loyola, was being rushed into surgery to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord caused when his head collided with the leg of a Georgetown Prep running back.

Today, one year to the day when he laid motionless on the turf in Rockville for 25 minutes, Van Brooks is a jumble of movements, making devices stir and rolling himself over from his back to his stomach.

Indeed, Brooks moved his left leg, ever so slightly, but oh so independently, for the first time last week. Those kinds of things don't get as much attention as the touchdown he scored in the game he was injured in, but they mean so much more.

"I felt it [the leg] jumping, but I kept thinking it was a spasm until I finally realized that it wasn't a spasm," Brooks said. "That just made my day. It was a big enough movement where you could see it. You didn't have to examine it. You could look at it and tell that there was movement."

Said Shelly Brooks, his mother: "The other day, he moved his leg, and just to see that big smile on his face. He was like, `Ma, look. Look.' He could move his leg and could feel it moving. That made my day. And his, too. He's making great progress."

Much of that progress has come in the second floor therapy room at the Kennedy Krieger Institute's newly opened International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, where Brooks undergoes three- to four-hour sessions twice a week.

Van Brooks Jr. has made great physical progress in the 364 days since the Georgetown Prep game. In that time, he has spent parts of seven months in two hospitals, the Shock Trauma Center and Kernan Hospital.

He has undergone rigorous physical therapy, relearned how to dress himself, as well as brush his teeth and a world of things that most people take for granted.

He has gone back to Loyola, where he regularly attends football practices and games and tools around campus in a spiffy, motorized wheelchair.

After spending the summer in class to make up for the work he missed, he is back on course to graduate and should receive his diploma next spring with the rest of his class.

Everyone around Van Brooks Jr., from his parents to his classmates and coaches, and even Brooks himself, says that nothing has changed about the carefree, happy-go-lucky kid he was before last Sept. 25.

"Van Brooks is still the same guy that lights up a room," Loyola coach Brian Abbott said. "Van Brooks is still the same guy that makes everybody better. He just happens not to be able to do the same stuff. But all his qualities are still there."

But surely, he must be stronger for all of this. How else can a previously callow 17-year-old come through life-saving surgery, then put his life back together all the while becoming a symbol of hope for a portion of a community that had never heard of him previously without being stronger and better than before?

"I've just learned how strong a person I am," Brooks said. "People have been telling me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I was taking things for granted before. Now that I've been hurt, I realize that nothing's promised. Today, you can have it and tomorrow it's gone, within that short a period of time. I live every day thanking God for the things that I am getting back."

Indeed, that Brooks was so upbeat in the lead-up to the anniversary of his accident is an example of his mental toughness.

"From my experience, the first year anniversary after such a traumatic injury is the same like after the death of a loved one," said Cristina L. Sadowsky, the director of the spinal cord center.

"You mourn the loss of your previous life. So, it can be very traumatic. But people separate into different categories. There are the ones who give in, and there are ones that fight. Definitely we have a fighter on our hands, and I'm sure the fact that he has lived his life the way he has, as an athlete and an exceptional student and as everybody's dream kid, is making him be where he is right now."

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