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Former Marianjoy Patient Chris Frank Shares His Story

May 22, 2005, began as a very special day for Chris. The young 23 year old joined his girlfriend, Jennie, at Wrigley Field where they watched his beloved Cubs beat the Chicago White Sox. This was the anniversary of Chris and Jennie’s first date, which had also taken place at a Cubs game. However this day would provide its own series of life changing memories, as during the seventh inning of the game Chris proposed to Jennie. She said “yes,” and for the couple the future shone brightly against the afternoon sky at the ballpark and for the many future plans they had yet to make together.

After the game, Chris and Jennie headed back to St. Charles on the train. Inadvertently, Chris had dropped his wallet, and another man found it. Using Chris’ driver’s license, the Good Samaritan tracked down his home phone number, and Chris didn’t hesitate to hop on his motorcycle and head back to Wrigleyville to retrieve it.

On his way back home from the city, this once celebratory day filled with plans and dreams of the future, would suddenly take a horrible turn. Exiting I-355 onto I-88, Chris lost control of his motorcycle and slammed into the guard rail. A police officer driving in the other direction had seen the accident and rushed to Chris’ side, calling for an ambulance.

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. Arriving at the hospital, Chris’ parents, Andy and Melody, were told that Chris was in a coma. Chris had been in full riding gear – helmet, gloves, leather jacket – attempting to offer his body protection against such an accident. Yet still his right foot had been badly injured, and actually been sheered almost completely off, remaining attached only by a thread of muscle. Melody and Andy remained in shock by the horror of it all, listening as the doctors explain that they rated traumas in the emergency room on a scale from 1 to 10; Chris’ being a 9.8. Chris’ foot was amputated.

The next several weeks would be a waiting game. Jennie and Chris’ family remained at his side. Chris remained comatose, and the doctors were having trouble arousing him from his unconscious state. Though he had been wearing a helmet, his brain had still sustained bruising and sheering. The doctors inserted a probe through his skull in order to measure the intercranial pressure in his head. On May 30, for the first time, Chris opened one eye, but remained unresponsive.

The news was not encouraging. The physicians were concerned that Chris was not alert and could not follow simple commands. Their diagnosis was that his brain couldn’t be rehabilitated, yet his loved ones remained insistent.

“I would tell the doctors that he looked like he was becoming more alert, but I’m sure they just chalked that up to me being his mom and wishing it was so,” said Melody recently. “I wanted to get him into rehabilitation as quickly as possible, but the physicians insisted that no rehabilitation facility would take him because he was too low level and in their words, ‘unresponsive.’ They wanted to put him in a nursing home. He’s 23 years old. He shouldn’t be in a nursing home. He wouldn’t get better there.”

However, the doctors insisted there wasn’t much to be done for him at the acute care hospital, and the decision was made to transfer him to a nursing home facility on June 8. Melody begged the physician to give Chris one last chance to show that he was improving. The doctor finally agreed and asked Chris to blink his eye.

“I watched my son gather all the energy he had inside himself, and slowly squeeze his eyes shut and open them again,” she says with great pride. “He then asked Chris to open and close his left hand and again, with all the strength he could muster, he did it. The final command from the doctor was for Chris to give him a ‘thumbs up’ sign. On the inside, I was screaming cheers of encouragement to Chris. He struggled and with all his strength, pulled his thumb up. I was elated! The doctor looked at me and said ‘Okay Mom, he can go to Marianjoy.’”

Ironically, when Chris was in eighth grade, he was required to do a service project as part of his curriculum. As the other kids in the class were mowing lawns and cleaning gutters in the neighborhood, Melody decided to take Chris and his three friends to Marianjoy to volunteer, giving them a different perspective on what it means to “give back.” Never in her wildest dreams did she think that her son would one day encounter Marianjoy again, especially not in such horrible circumstances.

Melody closely followed the ambulance as it took Chris to Marianjoy. “I vividly remember standing outside of Marianjoy, in the hot, humid air, watching these two ambulance drivers – strong, young, handsome men – lifting the gurney with my son’s limp body strapped to it. They were probably the same age as my handsome, motorcycle-loving, 23-year old son, who now wore a neck brace, had a GI tube in his stomach to help him eat, had a trach, was diapered, and was missing his right foot. I couldn’t help but feel jealous of the contrast.”

Chris was transferred onto the brain injury unit at Marianjoy and immediately a barrage of clinical staff was in and out of his room, completing their evaluations. “I watched this parade of individuals – checking vitals, evaluating his condition, suctioning his trach – and my first impression was that they weren’t looking at my son with pity. They looked at him with determination,” Melody notes. “They were looking beyond the tubes and machinery and assessing him for what they knew they could do for him.”

Melody remembers the respiratory therapist as she set up her equipment and began suctioning Chris’ trach. “She smiled at me. She said, ‘Mom, don’t worry. That trach will be out very soon. We treat very aggressively here.’ That gave me hope.”

The next morning Melody arrived at Marianjoy to accompany Chris through this new chapter of his recovery – his first day of rehabilitation. Upon arriving on the unit, Melody stopped short and took a breath. There was Chris, sitting in a wheelchair, in his own clothes. “You have to understand,” she says, holding back tears. “For 18 days of this horrible ordeal, my son had been in a hospital gown. This day, there he sat in a wheelchair, showered, wearing his own shirt and his own pants, and looking more like himself. I cannot describe the boost it gave me. I was finally beginning to feel hope and optimism that he would get better.”

Chris’ rehabilitation would be slow. His brain needed to be retrained in telling his body what to do. His entire right side was immobile, as if he had experienced a stroke. He couldn’t speak. Every day his speech therapist worked with him on making simple “ooh” and “aah” sounds.

Eventually his physical therapists would place Chris’ limp body into a piece of equipment that would slowly pull him into a full standing position. Melody could tell by her son’s face that it felt good to be standing up again. His occupational therapists would also place him in Marianjoy’s pool, using the warm water to help coax the damaged muscles of his right side to respond. Melody could tell that Chris looked forward to these warm water “swims” and would sleep soundly afterwards.

On August 8, 2005, a total of 58 days had passed at Marianjoy. Chris was finally ready to be discharged from inpatient and go home. Today, he continues his therapy at Marianjoy on an outpatient basis and has made unbelievable progress. He speaks in full sentences, and his voice is loud and strong. There is still a bit of a slur, but it lessens everyday.

“I don’t remember much of my time as an inpatient at Marianjoy,” Chris said recently. “But now, I’m receiving physical and occupational therapy, working on walking again. I left here in a wheelchair and now I’m using a walker. My therapists are working with me so I can graduate to just using a cane.” The medical staff is working diligently on tweaking Chris foot orthotic to make sure it is the best fit for him to help him reach his goal of walking again, unassisted. In the meantime, Chris and his dad go every morning to a local mall, walking longer distances, practicing and getting better.

“The people here are really good,” Chris says assuredly. “I’m getting better and my goal is to get my voice back even better than it is now. They’ve told me that it will come with time. I was a motorcycle mechanic before the accident, and I want to get back to working again.” For Chris and Jennie, who has remained by his side throughout the ordeal, the future is again filled with endless possibilities. They are planning an August 2006 wedding.

“Everything about this place has made it possible for Chris to get better,” Melody says. “From the clinical staff, to the case manager, to the people who bring the linens and food trays into the rooms, everyone was truly concerned about my son and how he was doing.”

Melody notes that they had considered another rehabilitation facility before coming to Marianjoy. However upon talking with staff from the acute care hospital where Chris began his journey, she knew that they were making the right decision in transferring him to Marianjoy.

“The care here is outstanding,” Melody explains. “And the campus really was a big part of his healing and recovery. Our entire family was able to visit with Chris in the evenings and weekends, walking the paths, spending afternoons under the trees. The fresh air did him good.”

“I cannot say enough about the care my son received, and continues to receive, at Marianjoy,” she concludes. “The staff were aggressive in his care and didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, especially when it came to pushing Chris to do what they knew he was capable for doing – and that was getting better. As he continues through his outpatient therapy, I’m just comforted by how the nurses, doctors, volunteers and others, still recognize him, call him by name, and wish him well. It’s a special place.”