On a wintery Sunday afternoon in 1997, just four days before Christmas, Shawn Wieland suffered a traumatic brain injury that would change his life forever.
He was 17, a junior at Kenowa Hills High School near Grand Rapids, Michigan.
He’d spent the day helping a friend move when he got caught up in a slippery mix of snow on local roads. It led to a car crash.
“We got a call from Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, informing us that our son was in the ICU and that he had been in a bad accident,” said Skip Wieland, Shawn’s dad.
When Shawn’s parents got to the hospital, they heard what every parent fears.
“A neurologist informed us that he expected Shawn to die due to severe head injuries,” Skip said.
Two weeks passed. The grim prognosis persisted.
“The neurologist still believed that was the case, saying that if Shawn did somehow survive, he would most definitely be a vegetable,” Skip said. “I just said, ‘Hey … if you can keep him alive, I’ll take anything you can give me. Just get me survival.’”
And survive he did.
Today he enjoys a fruitful, active life with help from his family and therapists.
“It’s quite a miracle really,” Skip said.
Now 37, Shawn lives with his parents in Grand Rapids.
Each Christmas they head to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital’s intensive care unit to support other families facing tragedy.
“We visit to let them know there is life outside of this place,” Skip said. “And we show them Shawn as living proof.”
Shawn is more independent than not these days.
He has a girlfriend of more than three years. In his spare time he volunteers at a local store. He practices karate. He works out and takes visits from Spectrum Health music therapists, recreational therapists and occupational and physical therapists.
Before the crash, Shawn and his brother, Pat, played in a band together.
Music has always been in his blood. It breeds inspiration. He picks out a variety of CDs each morning and plans playlists while he readies for his day.
He manages to take care of himself with support from his family and an in-home therapy team from Spectrum Health Neuro Rehabilitation.
None of it is achieved easily, of course.
But it is achieved.
“Things just take Shawn a little bit longer,” Skip explained.
“Everyone says he’s lucky to have me,” Skip said. “I say I’m lucky to have him. He’s an inspiration. Every day is a rush. And we love having successful days with him. It’s all a matter of perspective.”
Three days a week, Shawn has two-hour sessions with a team of physical therapists and occupational therapists. He also has a vision therapist.
“One of his eyes goes right and one goes left,” Skip said. “It’s like he has a lazy eye on steroids.”
Shawn’s parents have created a special learning lab in their basement—a gym of sorts for his brain.
In one area, suspended on a string from the ceiling, is a ball outfitted with letters. By using his fingers to catch the ball, Shawn builds up his concentration and focus.
In another room, there’s a marker board where he can practice drawing circles, using both hands at the same time. There’s also a treadmill and other workout equipment for staying in shape.
“He likes his space,” Skip said. “We can’t be together 24/7. And it’s only natural to want some space from time to time. That’s where the recreational therapists really help our family. It gives Shawn an activity to do away from home and gives us some time to take a moment to ourselves.”
When Shawn is at therapy, Skip grabs a quick breakfast or runs some errands.
“Do the normal things you might take for granted,” Skip said.
Shawn suffers from severe short-term memory loss. He can forget things he learned just minutes prior. The location of the cat. A guitar chord mid-practice. These things flit in and then quickly out of his mind.
“We take photos to remind him,” Skip said. “We like to scout our day and stay two steps ahead of him.”
He has a “talker,” as his parents call it, which helps him communicate with people. It’s an iPad that can speak what’s typed into it. Shawn uses it in both English and Spanish. He even calls his girlfriend on the phone with it and types out what he wants to say.
Sometimes he’s the 37-year-old man, mature and emotional. Other times, he can be more child-like—impatient and difficult.
“We never know what we are going to get,” Skip said.
Shawn also practices karate twice a week with Brian Lentz, the sensei at Pro Karate in Grand Rapids.
“Karate works well with balance, posture and focus,” Lentz said. “Memory techniques come into play, too, as much of the art of karate is remembering specific moves.”
Early on, Shawn had issues with the left side of his body—with his specific brain injury, the left side of his body was impacted most from the crash.
Lentz has worked with many people who have various disabilities, including an amputee and one person who has hearing difficulties.
He knows how to build a relationship of trust, respect and commitment.
He and Shawn work in the studio on balance, coordination and flexibility. Shawn has been known to bust a move when one of his favorite songs comes on the radio.
“This sort of conditioning will ultimately help him with his focus,” Skip said. “He’s doing much better now than when he first started. We’ve got him thinking more about technique and all sorts of things.”
A life possible
One thing the Wieland family is eternally grateful for is Michigan’s auto no-fault insurance requirements.
“Auto no-fault insurance makes Shawn’s entire life possible,” Skip said. “It covers doctors’ visits, medicines, therapy and more. Without this insurance, our family would have certainly gone bankrupt after Shawn’s accident.”
Shawn’s mom, Peg Wieland, said Shawn’s “happy ending” would have been impossible without the no-fault insurance.
“It has made it possible for Shawn to be the healthy, productive member of society that he is today,” Peg said. “And for that we are grateful.”
Each year for the past 10 years, the Wieland family has attended the Brain Injury Association’s Capitol Day in Lansing, where they raise awareness about the auto no-fault insurance that helps with Shawn’s after-care.
“I’ll talk to anyone in Lansing who will listen,” Skip said.
Peg remembers that first Capitol Day visit a decade ago.
“I was a nervous wreck,” she said. “But as we have done it so many years, it is not that way anymore. This has really made us grow.”
Three times a week, Shawn gets a visit from Monte Chivis, an in-home rehabilitation technician at Spectrum Health Neuro Rehabilitation.
The two-hour sessions entail some light physical therapy and occupational therapy, as well as elements to help his vision.
“I even help him clean up his bedroom, make his bed, organize,” Chivis said. “But we also do customized exercises that focus on peripheral vision and hand and eye coordination.”
On one recent visit, Chivis focused Shawn’s attention on an image of a bird.
“Do you have your eye on the bird?” Chivis asked. “Focus on the bird and point to S while keeping your eyes on the bird.”
Chivis aimed to get Shawn to use his peripheral vision.
“Now point to the island,” Chivis instructed. “Good job, good job.”
Quick, easy and painless. That’s how Chivis describes the therapy.
Shawn’s mom might add another word: essential.
“It’s amazing to continue to see progress even after all these years,” Peg said. “It’s exciting.”
Later, when Chivis and Shawn headed to the workout space in the basement, Shawn took a stand on a balance board his father had built for him. He then began hitting a ball back and forth with Chivis, one hand to the other.
“It’s like getting back on a bike,” Skip observed.
They moved to the next exercise: drawing circles, but using both hands on a white board while focusing on a separate object.
“Concentrate on your left, Shawn,” Chivis said. “That’s the side that needs the most attention.”
Shawn and his family attend an annual evaluation of sorts with the rehab team and the care team, including doctors and therapists. They make changes based on progress and needs.
Chivis has noticed plenty of improvement.
“He’s graduated in a lot of ways,” Chivis said. “I have seen him get better in a lot of different areas after nearly three years of working together.”
Memories of music
Before the crash, Shawn always loved vacationing in Mexico with his family. He can still speak some Spanish.
His doctor long ago stressed the importance of connecting him with what he loved before his injury. So his family has taken a trip there each year.
“We try to take him to Mexico once a year to connect with memories he enjoyed from the past,” Skip said. “The people in Mexico are amazed at how he can speak Spanish with the help of his talker.”
Shawn still has his guitar from when he played in the band before the crash. He nurtures a love of music to this day.
These days, his musical endeavors come in the form of music therapy, with the team at Spectrum Health Neuro Rehab. He gets an in-home visit once every two weeks, practicing guitar chords and strumming out a tune or two.
Spectrum Health music therapist Alika Seu started with Shawn in 2014. He uses his craft to help him with fine motor coordination.
Guitar playing, for example, calls for fine motor and upper body coordination. It also demands visual coordination, putting hands to the work of music.
Shawn’s short-term memory can present its challenges. But they overcome.
“He has shown major improvements throughout the course of our therapy,” Seu said. “He isn’t as distractible as he was and definitely works very hard at what he does.”
On one recent visit, Seu and Shawn practiced in the living room while his mom and dad tended to some household tasks nearby.
Shawn worked on a Tom Petty tune, “Free Fallin’,” which involves a succession of chords.
“Sometimes he can’t remember which chord is next,” Seu said. “And that’s when we direct him back. His short-term memory can often be just a few seconds, so music is really an important tool in this recovery.”
Given her son’s love of music, Peg has been particularly appreciative of the music therapy program.
“Shawn played music a lot before his accident,” she said. “It was such a big part of his life. When he wasn’t doing well, the music was really helpful in his recovery.”
As much as anything else, music has guided his progress, Peg said.
“I never thought we’d see Shawn playing the guitar again,” she said.