July 20, 2017
The first thing he remembers is a nurse asking if he knew what a sitcom was. Not the rescue workers. Not the tree. Not the crumpled bike. Not the accident at all.
All of that was simply blank. It still is – even now.
Charlie before his accident in 2014
In 2014, Charlie Eaton was at an exciting crossroads in his life. He had just graduated from high school, won a state championship cycling road race, and had travel plans in place before beginning college. Little did he know just how much of a crossroads this time in his life would actually turn out to be.
Charlie winning his division in the Maple Hill Race for Wishes 2014
In July 2014, while visiting family in California, Charlie – an experienced cyclist – hopped on his cousin’s bike to explore the California landscape. So he’s told. He doesn’t remember even going for a bike ride that day.
Charlie exploring the California landscape three days before his accident.
Later, Charlie learned that shortly after he began his ride, he took a corner too fast and crashed head-on into a tree. No one knows for sure; Charlie was alone at the time. But what they do know is that Charlie was rushed to Sutter Roseville Medical Center as a full-trauma alert; unable to breathe on his own, incoherent, with multiple facial and skull fractures, and a traumatic brain injury.
Charlie in the hospital days following his accident.
Charlie was only 18 years old. A positive, determined young man who now faced an uncertain future. However, it may be that positive, adventurous spirit that saved Charlie’s life.
“I remember feeling rather safe,” Charlie says now as he reflects upon his time at the hospital in California. “I knew I was in the hospital. My parents told me that if I did what the doctors told me, I would get better.”
So that’s exactly what he did.
After nearly two months of acute inpatient rehabilitation in California, Charlie’s condition stabilized enough to allow him to move back home to Kalamazoo, MI. It was then that he met his new treatment team at Hope Network Neuro Rehabilitation.
Nearly two months after the accident, Charlie returns home where he begins outpatient therapy at Hope Network.
Despite the progress made in California, Charlie still faced significant obstacles: he struggled with balance and cognition, he was no longer able to safely perform activities of daily living such as cooking or driving, and facial fractures left him blind in one eye. Plus, he had to wear a helmet to protect the area of his head where his skull was removed to accommodate brain swelling.
But, it was his lack of memory that Charlie recalls being the most challenging consequence of his accident. “My memory was horrible,” Charlie says. Not only was he unable to recall the events leading up to and immediately after his accident, his short-term memory was gone as well. “But there was never a doubt in my mind that I’d make a full recovery.”
Charlie attended therapy three days a week, where he received physical, occupational, and speech therapies. His therapy team recognized his strong work ethic and positive attitude, and was not at all surprised to watch Charlie begin to heal within months of his accident.
“No matter what we were doing in our sessions, Charlie gave 110%,” says Jacque Dauch, Speech-Language Pathologist and part of Charlie’s treatment team. “I bombarded him with homework and things to work on at home, and he never fell short. It was incredibly rewarding to watch him find himself and his strength again, and to witness his perseverance to return to life as Charlie knew it.”
Despite the odds, in January 2015 Charlie enrolled in college. He finished the semester with a 4.0 grade point average; a significant achievement for someone who was on life support just six months earlier. He believes the strategies he learned in therapy – saying things out loud multiple times, using acronyms, writing things down – helped him early on to overcome memory limitations that may have impeded his academic success.
“My therapists were great,” says Charlie. “Even when I didn’t want to, I would do everything they told me. It was hard, but it was so worth it.”
Today, Charlie continues to attend college with plans to graduate with an accounting degree from Davenport University. He has his memory back. He can drive. He can do everything he did before the accident.
Including ride his bike.
“I remember the day when Charlie signed up for his first college courses,” recalls Jacque. “As well as the day he began riding his bike again. I remember thinking what an inspiration he was to not let his accident slow him down. To not be afraid to continue moving forward doing the things he aspired to do.”
And that’s what comeback stories are made of.
Enjoy the rest of your journey Charlie. May you continue to inspire others along the way.