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Traumatic brain injury leaves teen struggling to survive

By The Health News Team | October 25, 2021
San Diego teen Zachary Myers

Zachary Myers, a college freshman, hopes to be a firefighter — and is grateful to be alive.

Zachary Myers was enjoying his senior year in high school — skateboarding, playing the drums, practicing gymnastics and hanging out with friends. But a catastrophic fall while trying a backflip from a great height almost ended his future.

The teenager suffered a traumatic brain injury that day in May 2020 when he landed headfirst onto the concrete below. He was rushed by ambulance to Sharp Memorial Hospital, where trauma doctors were unsure whether he would survive, and if so, what cognitive function he’d recover.

“It was a difficult time for us,” says Dena Myers, Zachary’s mom, who was initially unable to visit her son in the hospital due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were updated constantly on his condition, but it wasn’t the same as being able to see him.”

Soon after he arrived at Sharp, Zachary was placed in a medically induced coma to help his brain heal. He underwent a craniotomy to determine the extent of his injuries and a tracheostomy to help him breathe. A craniotomy is the surgical removal of part of the skull, allowing a surgeon to access the brain. A tracheostomy involves creating an opening in the neck in order to place a tube into a person's windpipe to allow air to enter the lungs.

Fortunately, after three days, Dena was able to see her son. Within a week, Zachary’s doctors felt the pressure in his brain had decreased enough to begin waking him up. Zachary slowly opened his eyes and smiled at his mom.

“It was the most beautiful thing in the world,” she says.

“The scope of Zachary’s injuries was extreme,” says Dr. Christopher Wybourn, a trauma surgeon at Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Most patients in this situation don’t walk out with such a good outcome.”

Two days later, Zachary was able to move enough to give his mom a “thumbs up.” He couldn’t speak but answered questions by nodding his head. On the third day, Zachary began breathing on his own.

“Everything is blurry,” Zachary says about the accident and his hospitalization. “I don’t remember anything during that time. My mom had to tell me what happened.”

Ongoing recovery
After several days at Sharp Memorial, Zachary was transferred to the Sharp Allison deRose Rehabilitation Center in hopes that he would continue to recover.

One of his first hurdles was relearning how to speak with the tracheostomy tube still in his windpipe. He worked with speech language pathologist, Meghan Mallory, to use a Passy-Muir speaking valve (PMV). The device attaches to the outside opening of the tracheostomy tube and redirects airflow through the vocal folds, enabling a patient to speak.

“Patients in Zachary’s situation lose the ability to voice their thoughts and needs,” says Mallory. “Recovery from trauma includes communication, not just the physical aspects of therapy. Getting a PMV as quickly as possible, even if it only allows patients to speak a word or two, helps them find their voice.”

Another problem Zachary faced was the ability to swallow because the breathing tube hindered his throat muscles. Zachary worked through individualized swallow exercises that included holding his breath and focusing on his throat muscles, moving his tongue from side to side, and trials of food — starting with soft foods such as applesauce and yogurt, then building up to more challenging foods such as salads and popcorn.

“One of Zachary’s personal goals was to eat Lucky Charms cereal,” says Mallory. “He was thrilled when he was able to accomplish it.”

Living life again
Zachary, who no longer needs a breathing tube, returned home just in time to attend his graduation ceremony from West Hills High School. He soon began playing drums with his band and wrote several new songs. Zachary went back to work at Home Depot and is now attending Grossmont Community College. He hopes to be a firefighter and is grateful to be alive. “Overall, I’m glad that I went through what I went through, because it gave me a new perspective on life,” says Zachary. “It showed me how good I have it, how many people care about me, and that God is real.” Zachary’s mom, Dena, credits the Sharp staff for getting him to where he is today.

“We’re blessed to have such dedicated doctors, nurses and therapists working with Zachary,” says Dena. “The care and love that people at Sharp have for one another is incredible.”

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