Student returns to class after life-threatening brain injury
KENNESAW, Ga. (Jun 18, 2018) — When senior Michael Wolcott suffered a traumatic brain injury in a near-fatal car accident, doctors feared he might never wake up.
However, following months of intense physical therapy and with the support of his friends and family, Wolcott returned to Kennesaw State University in May to begin the final six classes needed to earn his management degree from the Michael J. Coles College of Business. With the summer semester starting less than a week after the one-year anniversary of his accident, Wolcott’s ability to walk back into the classroom on his own is an important personal victory, one that not long ago seemed impossible.
“I’m excited about getting to experience the art of going to class again and working with other students,” Wolcott said.
At 1:32 a.m. on May 23, 2017, Wolcott’s life changed forever.
He was riding in the backseat of his friend’s car on Merritt Road in Marietta when the accident occurred. The car slid off the road on a rain-soaked curve and fell down a 20-foot embankment, landing on its roof.
While Wolcott suffered no injuries to his body, he did sustain what doctors diagnosed as a severe diffuse axonal injury, or DAI, characterized by lesions spread over a large portion of the brain. According to published research, more than 90 percent of patients diagnosed with severe DAIs never emerge from a persistent vegetative state.
Wolcott spent four weeks in the WellStar Kennestone Hospital Neuro Intensive Care Unit before beginning to regain consciousness. He then began a rehabilitation process that included three weeks of inpatient care at the Long-Term Acute Care Center at Windy Hill Hospital in Marietta, followed by four weeks of inpatient care and another four months of outpatient care at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the country’s premier spinal cord and brain rehabilitation centers.
The damage caused by DAI prevents the brain from using existing pathways to perform actions. Treatment involves teaching the brain to build new ones.
“Virtually everything he has to do physically had to be relearned,” said Wolcott’s father, Mike. “From swallowing to talking to walking. He had to relearn everything.”
Wolcott’s recovery proceeded faster than doctors originally anticipated. By Christmas of 2017 – just seven months after his parents learned that their son might never wake up – Wolcott finished his final therapy session at the Shepherd Center.
A major milestone occurred two months later when he went back to the Shepherd Center to complete their Driving Program, furthering his recovery and helping him regain independence.
“I’m driving now, which is nice,” Wolcott said. “Apparently a lot of brain injury survivors never get to. One other survivor I met said he wasn’t driving again until six years after his accident. I realize how lucky I am to be driving after 10 months.”
It was around this time that Wolcott made the decision to return to Kennesaw State University in the summer. He and his parents had discussed waiting until the fall, but his rapid progress made Wolcott confident he could return sooner. His plan is to take one class in the summer, three in the fall, and then finish his final two in Spring 2019, before graduating in May.
Wolcott’s professors are excited to see him return to the classroom. James Wermert, senior lecturer in the Leven School of Management, Entrepreneurship and Hospitality, has taught Wolcott in two of his classes and hopes to have the opportunity to teach him again.
“What I remember about Michael is that he always brought a great attitude to the classroom,” Wermert said. “He is the sort of guy who enjoys learning and that enjoyment spreads to his classmates. It made my job much easier.”
Wolcott’s career goal is to work in hospitality. He developed a passion for it while completing a 14-week internship at the Secrets Vallarta Bay resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico during the fall before his accident. He rotated through a variety of roles, including providing concierge services where he helped guests plan weddings and honeymoons, all while earning class credit.
“What gave me the desire to work in this field is that the service you are providing is to give people an excellent vacation,” he said. “Your main job is customer service.”
Returning to Kennesaw State University is only the latest in a series of steps Wolcott has taken in recent months towards regaining his independence. He has also returned in a limited capacity to his job as an umpire for Johnson Ferry Baptist Church’s youth sports program, and recently traveled with his friends to the Okeechobee music festival near West Palm Beach, Fla.
“That was a big deal for his mother and me because it was the first time he’d been away from home in nine months,” Mike said, “other than to go to the hospital.”
Despite his readiness to return to his old life, Wolcott realizes that he faces some challenges related to his injury. He says he still struggles with memory and has insecurities about the changes in his speech patterns since the accident.
However, thanks to the efforts of his doctors and the support of his friends and family, he is confident that he will not let his injury derail his goals. If anything, he is more motivated to succeed than he was before.
“I’m a lot more thankful for my life now,” he said. “I used to take it for granted that everyone gets a life and has a chance to succeed. But, when you’re that close to dying, you realize that’s not true. Everything tastes a little better.”
Additional Information About DAI
Throughout the course of their son’s recovery, Wolcott and his parents have become advocates for brain injury awareness. Given how life-changing a traumatic brain injury can be – and how easy it is experience one – they recommend everyone visit organizations like Brain Injury Association of America, Adventures in Brain Injury and the Shepherd Center to learn more about surviving DAI.
Wolcott’s parents have also made it a personal mission to encourage parents to establish advance health care directives for their adult children. These legal documents allow individuals to designate others as the decision makers regarding medical care in the event they are incapacitated.
“Without this directive, we would have been unable to participate in Michael’s healthcare decisions while he was unconscious,” Mike says. “Leaving us at the mercy of the hospitals.”
Learn more about Advance Care Planning.
– Patrick Harbin
Photo by Catalina Calvo and provided by Michael Wolcott
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 35,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university's vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. A Carnegie-designated doctoral institution, it is one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.