Fighting Back from a Traumatic Brain Injury
Jack Cavanaugh was in his senior year at Bloomsburg University, taking summer classes and staying at his parents’ vacation home in the Poconos. It was August 12, 2013.
Cavanaugh’s best friend and another friend were coming to visit.
After spending a few hours catching up, they decided to go to bed around 12:30. After going upstairs, Cavanaugh and his friend started talking. Cavanaugh sat on the balcony rail as they talked. He leaned out as they spoke and lost his balance. He fell 12 feet onto the floor below.
His friends watched in horror. “My friend Kevin worked at a nursing home, so he recognized that I was pretty dazed,” Cavanaugh recalls. “He said all I wanted to do was go to bed.”
Cavanaugh’s friend recognized that injuries from a fall that high were likely to be serious, so he called 911.
Cavanaugh was airlifted to Geisinger Medical Center in Wilkes Barre, Pa., where doctors placed him in a medically induced coma. He was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury.
A month later, Cavanaugh was transferred to MossRehab in Elkins Park, the renowned physical and cognitive rehabilitation arm of Einstein Healthcare Network. He remembers regaining full consciousness in October. “It was around Halloween,” he recalls. “The first memory I have is something like talking about a Halloween party, or watching a football game or something. I’d tune in and out. Basically, I was out for a while.”
Months of rigorous inpatient rehabilitation followed, after which Cavanaugh was released. Nearly five years later, he continues to receive outpatient therapy in MossRehab’s Running Clinic.
While Cavanaugh was in MossRehab, he recalls a conversation with his mother, Anna. “When she saw that I was becoming aware, she said, ‘You get one week.’ I said ‘One week for what? She said, ‘One week to take it all in and feel sorry for yourself. After one week, your job is to get better. You will work harder than you have ever worked in your life, but you will get better.’ And I’ve been following that game plan ever since.”
Back to School
Cavanaugh, now 26, a lanky young man with glasses and dark hair, is picking up where he left off—and then some.
To get back into a classroom setting, Cavanaugh first went to Delaware County Community College and earned his associates degree in business administration with honors, in less than a year.
He is now a junior at West Chester University, starting over again with a major in business management. It’s slow going for now, with two classes per semester, but he is determined to finish, and finish strong. He has been inducted into a National Honor Society fraternity Phi Sigma Pi on the strength of his grades. “Some people had to try out two or three times for this,” he says.
In the years before his injury, Cavanaugh was quite athletic. “I was always told I was built like a runner. I did cross-country and track, and I played soccer since I was 6,” he says. “In high school, I went out for the freshman soccer team. Then I decided, I’ll just do track year-round. I was pretty fast.”
He’s not fast enough for track these days, but learning to run again was one of many goals he set for himself. “At the beginning, I set a bunch of short-term goals. Early on in my recovery I made it a goal to walk a mile,” he says. “So I checked that one off. Then, I thought, what’s next? I put down: run a race. That probably took me the longest time to complete, but I did it, and I checked it off.”
A more recent goal was to learn to drive again. He did that, and driving is what made it possible for him to return to school on his own. This gave him the independence he longed for.
Nothing about his recovery has been easy. Cavanaugh has just tackled one goal after another with grit and determination. In so doing, perhaps, he has inspired others to do the same. Once a gravely injured patient at MossRehab, Cavanaugh now volunteers there, in the place he credits for getting him started on his post-traumatic brain injury journey.
“I volunteer primarily with the occupational therapists,” he says. “It can be just putting equipment away for them, straightening up the gym, and talking to patients and families—to reassure them, and to tell them that it’ll be OK. It really just takes time. Most of them can’t believe it when I tell them that I was there about four and a half years ago. I tell them, ‘You know the room across from the nurses’ station? That was my room. The bed over by the window was mine.’”
Cavanaugh also volunteers every summer at “They Will Surf Again” in Wildwood Crest, N.J. The event, sponsored by MossRehab, gives people with disabilities the opportunity to tackle the surf on specially adapted surfboards, with assistance from more than 400 volunteers, including dozens from MossRehab.
“I did that for two years as a participant,” he says. He describes volunteering as both moving and emotionally rewarding. He recalls the moment when he first wanted to move from a participant to a volunteer.
“I remember they wheeled this little kid, I think his name was Carlos, down to the water,” Cavanaugh remembers. “He had to be 6 or 7. They put him on the board, and he raised his fists in triumph. He hadn’t even ridden a wave yet. I was just like, wow. That’s really what it’s all about. I want to be a part of this and make a difference.”
Cavanaugh’s own triumphant attitude and desire to pay it forward haven’t escaped the notice of his friends at MossRehab, who nominated him for the annual Empowerment Award. Julie Hensler-Cullen, MossRehab’s director of quality and education, explains:
“With incredible support from his family,” she says, “Jack has worked hard to regain abilities that had been severely compromised. He has been a real star in his therapies, and was determined to become as active and successful again as he could. And he has always asked us at MossRehab how he could give back.”
The award, Hensler-Cullen says, is presented to patients who have displayed “extraordinary tenacity during the rehab process, achieving goals beyond what people think would be expected—and also a commitment to serving others with disabilities and/or MossRehab.”
Ellen Goldberg, manager of volunteer services at Einstein, agrees that Cavanaugh richly deserves the honor. “Jack has a special spirit around him, one that he is able to share with those who need it,” Goldberg says. “His support and caring for the patients and the help he gives to the occupational therapists is priceless. We are so proud and fortunate to have Jack as part of our MossRehab volunteer family.”
Adds Thomas Watanabe, MD, Clinical Director of the Drucker Brain Injury Center, and Director, MossRehab Stroke Center, who nominated Cavanaugh for the award: “Jack has, and continues to, recover from deficits related to a severe brain injury. Initially, he struggled to perform basic skills such as walking, eating and communicating. He always set high goals and continues to meet or exceed them. Where walking was once a challenge, he is now working on developing running skills. He is truly an inspiration.”
The award will be presented April 12.
Also receiving an award is active volunteer Alysse Einbender.
Einbender had a spinal injury that resulted in paralysis of both legs.
Einbender was the first person in the U.S. to test the ReWalk, a device that allows her to walk once again years after her injury. As a result of her participation in the ReWalk trial, she became involved as a member of the MossRehab Advisory Board and the All About Art show, eventually becoming the project manager for the event.
Among her many other activities, Einbender is a founding member of the United Spinal Association of Philadelphia, a board member for Inglis Foundation, and is also a member of the wheelchair dancing group at MossRehab, teaches wheelchair dance to students of Widener school, and volunteers at Einstein in the newborn nursery.
Cavanaugh is also receiving an award from his gym, Fighting Back—a community post-rehabilitative exercise program. He is both modest and thankful to have been recognized.
“Getting those two awards is a big deal,” he says. It’s just so reassuring. It says to me, ‘you’re not just going through this by the seat of your pants. You’re actually taking the right steps and people are taking notice. It’s OK for me to pat myself on the back.’”
As for anyone else facing similar challenges, Cavanaugh has this advice: “Just be stubborn as hell and just always try to keep working, improving on something. That’s basically what got me this far.”