The evening of April 18, 2009 had already been bittersweet for Bob Vossoughi, but then it turned out to be the one that would change his life forever. Though he still missed his childhood friend Pat Tillman terribly, he found some consolation in just having completed Pat’s Run, a 4.2-mile race in honor of his now legendary friend who died in 2004 while serving in Afghanistan. He’d completed the run in just under 27 minutes and had gone out that night with friends to celebrate. When he stepped outside the bar to make a phone call, he had no idea his life was about to change forever.
“I was just having a good time with some friends, but there were a couple of guys there making a debauchery of themselves, and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Vossoughi now says, reliving the incident for our interview.
Some of the friends in his party had angered another bar patron and then fled, leaving Vossoughi to become the unwitting victim of an assault. The assailant, much larger than Vossoughi, stole his cell phone and began to harass him. As the argument escalated, another man began to physically assault Vossoughi, first shoving him and then punching him hard in the side of the face, sending Vossoughi’s head crashing down onto the concrete, knocking him unconscious.
Vossoughi sustained skull fractures and internal brain bleeding. He doesn’t remember much of the days that followed as he drifted in and out of consciousness while in intensive care at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn Medical Center. He credits his wife, Tiffany, his parents, and thoughts of his young daughter, Ellie, for helping him get through those difficult early days.
However, it has been the long-term consequences and strenuous rehabilitation that have proven to be the most challenging.
“The aftermath is challenging,” he says. “The instant aftermath is saying, ‘What happened? How did I get here?’” But that was only the beginning, he says. Vossoughi was unable to return to his job as director of development at the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University for three months.
Kelly Feunning suffered a traumatic injury in a car accident 13 years ago. He credits his artwork with helping to get him through the long recovery. Today, some proceeds from the sale of his art are donated to the Brain Injury Association of Arizona.
Vossoughi says he had difficulty remembering things, and due to the brain trauma he sustained, he even had to relearn how to speak and walk properly. “I just had to retrain my brain,” he says. At first, he dealt with things one day at a time, but he found that his recovery was becoming more challenging – not less – as time went on. He had expected to heal quickly. He didn’t.
“When I was going through it day by day, it got harder because I’d played sports all my life so I thought I’d be fine, but brain injuries are the most difficult ones to really understand,” he says. “You look fine, but really, your functions are not fine. You don’t operate at the same level.”
While invisible to others, traumatic brain injuries are one of the most prevalent and problematic long-term health ailments. As modern science advances, even more side effects from neurological injuries are discovered, and often the recovery from brain injuries is a lifelong struggle.
Healing the Brain
Someone in the United States suffers from a significant traumatic brain injury once every 15 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 2 million people sustain traumatic brain injuries every year, leading to 50,000 deaths and 80,000 new cases of long-term disability.
“Head injuries are a big problem today and unfortunately probably always will be,” says John Wanebo, a neurosurgeon with Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
Modern medical advancements are helping many to survive trauma to the brain, but this means there is a growing number of individuals who are dealing with the lifelong problems caused by brain injuries.
“There are two big parts of our population at growing risk of brain injury—the elderly and young people,” says Wanebo. “The elderly are prone to brain injuries because they fall and hit their heads, and sometimes they’re on anticoagulant medications or blood thinners like aspirin or Plavix. And young people injure their heads because they do silly things and take risks.”
Both the cognitive problems and the inability to recognize the severity of the injury are typical of many traumatic brain injuries, says Mattie Cummins, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Arizona.
“Many people with brain injuries like this can even lose housing or other necessities, because they can’t organize their brain long enough just to send in the renewal paperwork,” she says. “It’s like climbing a mountain.”
It was 1998 and, emotionally battered from a pending divorce, Kelly Feunning made the fateful decision to get behind the wheel of his Volvo after a night of drinking. The resulting accident nearly took his life.
Traveling at a high rate of speed, Feunning blew through a stop sign at 15th Avenue and Camelback and was broadsided by a cement truck. His car was propelled through a fence and finally stopped just before going through a home’s living-room window.
Feunning had to be revived while en route to St. Joseph’s Hospital. He couldn’t be immediately identified due to his injuries and remained in a coma for two weeks.
“I woke up with a wristband that said ‘John Doe.’ That was crazy,” he recalls.
After eventually identifying him, medical staffers notified his family, letting them know that due to the severity of his injuries, there was a chance Feunning may not survive.
Feunning’s real work, however, came after the initial trauma. He had to learn how to talk, read and walk again. Maybe worse, his brain injury had robbed him of many of his life memories and damaged his ability to retain new information.
“I remember my very young days, but a lot of the years before my accident are gone,” he says. “I remember my childhood. That’s where I was when I woke up from the coma.”
When he first came to at St. Joseph’s, Feunning says he was asked what he would like to eat. He asked for a hamburger from a diner he used to visit while in the third grade.
“I was in third grade in my head when I woke up from the coma,” he says.
His ability to remember new information was severely impaired as well. As part of his rehabilitation, therapists would tell him a simple story and then ask him to repeat it. He couldn’t.
“I had it until the very end of the story, but then I just couldn’t recover it. It was blank,” he says.
The injury nearly eliminated Feunning’s ability to prioritize and carry out daily tasks, and had left him with severe social anxiety. He was reluctant to enter therapy at first.
“When I was first awake, that was it – I didn’t want to be there,” he says. “They put a wristband on me so that if I walked out it would set off an alarm, because I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t think I had any problems. Really, I had bad problems.”
A Long Road
In the years following his traumatic brain injury, family support and fitness fueled Bob Vossoughi’s fight to overcome the multiple difficulties he has had to face.
After his accident, the man who hit Vossoughi was put on trial, forcing Vossoughi to relive the incident in a courtroom, day after day, for six weeks. The suspect was ultimately acquitted.
Unlike some survivors of brain injuries, Vossoughi has as vivid recollection of everything leading up to losing consciousness, though it’s not a memory he enjoys revisiting.
“It was very emotional and raw,” he says.
Bob credits his close friends and family with supporting him. Today, he says he finally feels strong enough to talk about his injury from a peaceful place. Much of the anger has gone, because, he says, he has made a conscious decision to walk away from it.
Research in Arizona
Finding positive things to motivate and inspire can make a difference when recovering from a traumatic brain injury, says Dr. Wanebo of Barrow.
“What they need is time, more than anything else,” he says. “Beyond that, I think being in a supportive environment really helps.”
The most telling indicator of how well someone will recuperate from a traumatic brain injury, experts say, remains a function of how strong they are when they first arrive at the hospital. Still, there is no hard-and-fast indicator for who will recover quickly and to what extent.
“There are a huge number of factors to evaluate,” Wanebo says. “But how they come in really can dictate how they come out. It’s a moving target; if they improve quickly, then they tend to do better.”
Mattie Cummins of the Brain Injury Association agrees that it’s tough to deduce who will recover quickly and most completely, but adds that family support is very often a key factor.
“The family being there for the process and understanding what’s going on can be really helpful for the survivor,” she says.
A Never-ending Journey
It’s been two years since Vossoughi’s accident and nearly 13 since Feunning’s, and the physical healing is mostly complete, though as brain-injury survivors, both will remain at a heightened risk for a variety of conditions for the rest of their lives. But both men continue to cope, and improve, daily.
Vossoughi plans to compete once again in Pat’s run this month. Last year, he says he ran the race in tears, and this year he is looking forward to running again. He says he is finally at peace with what happened.
“I’ve grown up. I’ve gotten a lot stronger. My family and my doctors and therapist have been incredible,” he says. “And this is just an unbelievable feeling. I’m really excited to run. Being around other people, working out, being pushed to your limit in a very positive way. It’s really helped me a lot.”
Feunning still struggles with socializing and remembering. He writes everything down and color codes his notes so he can find important information. Still, he has joy, and that’s enough for him.
“I’m still Kelly; I’m still weird as hell, but I’m more sensitive. I take things a lot slower. I notice things a lot more, I feel a lot more,” he says. “Very humbling and learning experience, and it’s not over. It’s just begun.”