Bright-eyed, 22-year-old On With Life resident Zach Jackson is sitting in a recliner laughing at an episode of the Simpsons. He recently went to World of Wheels and had a grand time looking at the cars.
In 2009, Jackson was an average 18-year old. He was studying finance at Bossier Parish Community College in his home state of Louisiana and had been working at Home Depot, where he was named “Friendliest Cashier.”
Around 1 a.m. on April 17, he was driving his Cadillac Escalade (nicknamed the “Zachalade”) with two friends, when they were run off the road by a drunk driver. Jackson’s car hit a tree, and Jackson literally found himself wrapped around the tree.
None of the three were wearing seat belts. Eventually, his two friends recovered.
“When the second passenger was getting better, I thought, ‘OK, he’s next.’” said Jackson’s mother, Dana Johnston. Johnston waited patiently for Jackson to get better. Days turned into weeks. Jackson stayed in the trauma unit of Louisiana State University Hospital for nearly a month, then was transferred to an acute care hospital in Shreveport, La.
Jackson suffered an anoxic brain injury, in which the brain receives inadequate oxygen for several minutes or longer. There was multiple shearing and tearing in his frontal lobe, and inter-cranial pressure. An eventual MRI revealed the biggest problem - brain stem damage.
“They explained it to me as, it is like a limp piece of broccoli,” Johnston said. “You know ... how you can hold onto the stem of a piece of broccoli and the top just flops around.”
Jackson is one of 1.7 million people who are affected each year by traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to the Centers for Disease Control. Jackson cannot walk, eat, talk or do most other normal activities in which his friends engage. When it was obvious he wasn’t going to be better served by that hospital, the question for Johnston became, “What are you going to do with him?”
Johnston wanted the best for her son. In July 2009, they transported Jackson to the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research: TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston, Texas - the same rehabilitation center that served Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. At TIRR, Jackson received a treatment called serial casting, a process in which a well-padded cast is placed around the joints of the arms and legs to increase range of motion.
TIRR helped Jackson gain mobility, but by February 2010, Jackson was discharged because he had medically plateaued.
Once a brain has been damaged, it’s a hit or miss game for medical professionals.
“There’s no magic timeframe for recovery,” said On With Life Neurospsychologist David Demarest, Ph.D. “We want to be very careful about coming to conclusions. People will do better than you think they might.”
The reason for the unknown is that the brain is so central to life.
“The brain is involved in everything from the physical to the cognitive,” Demarest said. “(Recovery from brain injury) is unlike recovery from any other injury. If you bang up a knee, you will know six weeks later what will happen to that knee, how fully it will recover. With brain injury, it’s an odds and probability concept.”
Johnston wanted to increase that probability. She found out about a process called hyperbaric oxygen treatment, performed by Dr. Paul G. Harch in the New Orleans area. In this treatment, medical professionals forced oxygen into Jackson with the theory that trauma could be alleviated or reversed if enough oxygen is brought back into the brain. He underwent 90 treatments with Dr. Harch, during which Jackson became more cognitive, his mood improved and he became more alert.
Johnston was very happy see the improvements, but was at the same time discouraged.
“I didn’t get to see the big things I wanted,” she said. “I wanted to see him talk, eat, walk.”
After eight months, that treatment had done as much as could be done.
In 2011, Jackson spent three weeks in Mesa, Ariz., to undergo a treatment known as Snapp Therapeutic Massage, in which a therapist put Jackson into a sling in temperate water for eight hours a day.
While in Arizona, Johnston also took Jackson to Phoenix to try a stem cell treatment. In this treatment, Jackson’s own fatty tissue was taken from him (while he was awake) and injected into other parts, such as his arms. Like other brain injury treatments, this one’s a gamble, and it did not work for him.
The Snapp Therapeutic Massage treatment helped, but it became too expensive for Johnston to continue.
Meanwhile, Jackson was a resident at a nursing home in Bossier. He was unhappy. He wasn’t responding to treatments there, and he was losing weight. Johnston began searching for a new facility for her son.
“I tried to find someplace close to home,” she said. “I found a place in Austin, Texas, but they wanted him to be able to use his hands. Lafayette didn’t want him because he has a feeding tube.”
Finally an Internet search led her to On With Life in Glenwood, which specifically serves younger adults with TBI. Johnston’s husband, Dwaine, encouraged her to look at the facility, and in October 2012, the couple drove to Iowa.
“We fell in love with the place,” Dana said. “I noticed how friendly everyone was; I noticed how some people have timers on their doors so that the caregivers can check on people. I loved how the administrator was in and out and about.”
There was no question in Johnston’s mind that this facility could help Jackson, and he concurred.
“I asked him if he wanted to come, and he answered yes.” Johnston said. Without an ability to speak, Jackson raises his foot to answer questions affirmatively.
The family immediately applied to On With Life, and Jackson moved in on Dec. 31, 2012.
At this time, the Johnstons are living apart. Dana is in Glenwood with Jackson, Dwaine is in Louisana. They hope to soon sell their house and move to Glenwood permanently.
Dana is happy with the move, because Jackson is happier. He’s gained weight, he’s smiling, he’s more cognitive again. Johnston believes he has gained a little more range of motion.
“I feel very comfortable knowing that he is being treated with respect and dignity here,” Johnston said.