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Sharp Health News

Astonishing recovery follows traumatic brain injury

June 15, 2021

Ethan Roche (center) and his father, Steven (far left), pictured with the rest of his family.

If a movie were to be made about 19-year-old Ethan Roche's life, its most dramatic scene would be met with a swelling musical crescendo as Ethan awakens from a coma, eyes still swollen shut. The actor portraying Ethan would slowly turn toward his movie father's voice and whisper, "Dad?" Then he would begin an air guitar performance to accompany the music.

It might all sound "too Hollywood" for some, but it's precisely what happened. And Ethan's real-life father, Steve Roche, wouldn't have it any other way.

Ethan's miraculous performance followed a horrific car accident, traumatic brain injury and 8-day intubation. Having been told that Ethan's injury was among the worst frontal lobe head traumas ever seen by his care providers, Steve and the rest of Ethan's family did not know what to expect, and his condition upon awakening was nothing less than amazing.

"When he first woke up, one of the things I was asking him was, 'Hey, can you remember how to play the guitar? Can you finger the chords?'" Steve says. "And he had his hand in the air and he was fingering the chords. I obviously couldn't tell if he was doing the right chords, but he was definitely playing a song."

Act 1: The collision
Ethan, a college student, was much like many other Southern California teens. He would list music, playing competitive soccer, skateboarding, surfing, and hanging out with his girlfriend and friends among his favorite activities.

Until one early, wet morning in March 2021, when his vehicle collided with a tractor-trailer. Ethan's small, sporty car was no match for the massive truck, and was crushed under the weight of the big rig.

Ethan Roche's vehicle was crushed after a collision with a tractor-trailer.

Ethan's vehicle was crushed after a collision with a tractor-trailer.

Ethan experienced a traumatic frontal lobe brain injury; bone and glass were embedded in his brain, his sinuses were broken, his cheek was displaced and his orbital sockets were crushed. He was rushed to the Trauma Center at Sharp Memorial Hospital, where his family was told his injuries were severe and possibly life-threatening.

"We really appreciated his doctor's frankness," Steve says. "She told us it was the worst frontal lobe injury that she's seen. We were obviously hopeful, but we definitely weren't thinking that it was going to turn out as well as it did. But she and everyone else who took care of him were awesome."

Ethan's awesome doctor was Dr. Gunjan Goel, a neurological surgeon affiliated with Sharp Memorial. She performed Ethan's 6-hour brain surgery, during which a bolt was placed through his skull to continuously measure intracranial pressure. He also received treatment for his other injuries and reconstructive surgery on his face, performed by Dr. Stone Thayer, a board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon. Ethan was in a coma for 8 days before wakening to greet his father.

Act 2: The miraculous recovery
"When he woke up in the ICU, we weren't sure what was going to happen," Steve says. "They pulled the breathing tube out and his first word was 'Dad' - it was amazing. It was a really good sign because we didn't know if there was any kind of brain activity or whether he'd ever be able to walk or talk again."

And just like in a movie, where the protagonist triumphs over his greatest challenges, Ethan would do both - and far more.

Ethan was moved to a regular room in the hospital shortly after coming out of his coma. A few days later he was transferred to the Sharp Allison deRose Rehabilitation Center, where he was treated for the next 11 days. Ethan then began 4 weeks of outpatient brain injury rehabilitation, designed to assist him with the physical, emotional and social side of recovery.

The program provided occupational, physical, cognitive and speech therapy to prepare Ethan to return to his life as a student at San Francisco State University. After he was discharged, he began the remainder of his rehabilitation at home, once again playing the guitar, spending time with his girlfriend, taking walks, watching movies and joining his family members in video game challenges. He also enrolled in a finance class offered online through his university.

Ethan performed 4 weeks of therapy following surgery designed to prepare him to return to his life as a college student.

Ethan performed 4 weeks of therapy following surgery designed to prepare him to return to his life as a college student.

"He walked out of the hospital 27 days after brain surgery," Steve says. "There were no other physical injuries, no spinal injuries. The injuries from his accident were basically just from the top of his skull down to the bottom of his nose. It still blows my mind - it was a miracle."

Act 3: Love conquers all
Steve said he was also blown away by the care and support Ethan and the entire family received throughout his treatment. From the first responders who treated him at the scene of the accident to the Sharp trauma, emergency, ICU and rehabilitation teams and all of the other doctors, nurses, therapists and case managers who supported him through each stage of his recovery, Steve describes them all as "awesome, just really, really cool."

He is also incredibly thankful for the support of friends and loved ones. Ethan lives with his father and stepmother, and his mother and siblings live nearby. All join in to help Ethan in his recovery. His girlfriend and friends also play integral roles.

"I didn't really realize that we have such a good support system until this," Steve says. "People I haven't even talked to in years offered support, prayers, gifts and donations toward Ethan's care. We are really very incredibly appreciative. Everyone - our friends, family and all the people who treated him at Sharp - and everything about his recovery was amazing."

So amazing, some might even say it sounds like a movie plot.

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