‘Your life changes in an instant’

As an EMT, Tim Hoffman was used to helping people. After a traumatic brain injury in an ambulance crash, he’s now the one being helped.

Time ticked toward 4:30 a.m.

Tim Hoffman had no idea his life would soon take a tragic turn.

Tim, 31, a paramedic with AMR ambulance service in Holland, Michigan, had just started his shift on the morning of Aug. 7 when dispatch asked his bus to move to a different location to await calls.

Tim rode in the back as the driver moved the ambulance.

He remembers none of what happened next.

“They were hit head-on,” said Tim’s dad, John Hoffman, also a paramedic. “He ended up getting launched into the cabinetry.”

Another ambulance arrived and rushed Tim to a nearby hospital, but when doctors there realized the severity of his injuries, they decided to transfer him to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, according to Tim’s wife, Kristen.

The impact caused a traumatic brain injury and multiple skull and facial fractures. The trauma also injured Tim’s optic nerve, causing blindness in his left eye and diminished vision in his right.

Literally everything has to be relearned. … He’s starting over.

Kristen Hoffman
Tim Hoffman’s wife

“They were ready for him at Butterworth and sent him straight to surgery,” Kristen said. “He had to have a craniotomy and had the bone of his skull removed (on the left side) to release pressure. His skull had been fractured and he had bleeding on his brain.”

Todd Vitaz, MD, chief of neurosurgery for Spectrum Health Medical Group, performed the delicate brain surgery.

“Tim suffered numerous facial and skull fractures, bleeding over the surface of the brain and bleeding between the brain and skull called a subdural hematoma,” Dr. Vitaz said. “He presented to the ER trauma bay in a coma with clinical signs of a severe brain injury. Many patients with this type of injury die from their injuries.”

During surgery, Dr. Vitaz removed the blood clot and a large piece of Tim’s skull because of swelling. A recording device was also inserted into Tim’s brain to help guide therapy over the ensuing days.

Relearning life

“It’s kind of all a blur,” Kristen said. “It was so scary. He was in ICU until Aug. 31 and later underwent additional surgeries to replace his skull.”

Her husband? He seemed like a stranger. He could not walk. He could not talk. He could not communicate or play with their then-13-month-old daughter, Anna.

After intense inpatient therapy through the end of November, Tim regained much of his former self.

But not all.

“He’s definitely improving,” Kristen said. “He’s able to walk. His main issue is his vision. He can see only a slit through his left eye. The right eye still has about 30 percent vision. He’s missing his peripheral vision on both sides.”

Tim, always the one to rush to the scene when someone else needed help, is now the one in need of constant help.

“He’s not allowed to be left alone,” Kristen said. “We have to keep an eye on him, making sure he’s staying safe.”

Kristen glanced at Tim, sitting on the tan couch next to her in their Zeeland, Michigan, living room.

“We’ve got to protect your head,” she said. “You’re getting there.”

Tim nodded.

“Yup, I get it.”

As Kristen talked, Anna, who turns 2 in June, romped around her toy kitchen placed against the opposite wall in the living room.

Little Anna likes to make pretend meals for her parents in the pink culinary corner. She specializes in grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese. It’s all part of the life learning process for a soon-to-be 2-year-old.

Like Anna, her father is learning to cook, too.

“It’s definitely a huge change since before the accident,” Kristen said. “He’s had to relearn how to do everything. He’s learning how to cook a meal again, how to be a dad again, how to help out with Anna.

“Literally everything has to be relearned,” she said. “He wasn’t talking for a few months. He couldn’t eat. He had to relearn how to swallow. He’s starting over.”

Tim smiled, but frustration flickered through his upturned lips.

“I really want my memory thing to fix itself,” Tim said. “That would be so nice.”

The injuries affected an area of Tim’s brain that controls communication skills. Kristen said it’s difficult for him to come up with the correct word sometimes. It’s difficult for him to come up with details, difficult for him to remember.

“But we figure it out,” she said, squeezing her husband’s hand.

It’s a love born of trying times, as much as a love born of happy times. They spent Memorial Day weekend camping, the first camping adventure since the accident.

Tim’s dad towed the 29-foot travel trailer to Holland State Park, since Tim is unable to drive, let alone haul anything.

The agenda? Campfires and s’mores, rest and relaxation.

Feeling the love

On a sunny Monday morning, Anna grabbed her daddy’s hand as they walked across the yard.

He could definitely feel the love from his blonde, curly-haired daughter. He hopes someday, again, he can see her more clearly.

“The areas of vision loss haven’t improved, but they still could,” Kristen said. “It’s just a wait and see type of thing. They can’t promise anything. Brain injuries are so different, one from another. It’s hard to predict anything with a brain injury. We’re praying it will come back.”

Tim, Kristen, their family and friends, have been praying a lot since Tim’s crash.

They’ve prayed through his four major surgeries, including plastic surgery to repair his facial bones.

They’ve prayed through tears. They’ve prayed through fears.

“Your life changes in an instant,” Kristen said. “The nurses were very comforting and understanding. Seeing him in ICU, you knew that it was pretty horrific what he had been through.

“Lots of people praying helped get us through,” she said. “Our church community (Ottawa Reformed) has been huge for us. They’ve hosted benefits for us, people came and helped with the landscaping, they’ve helped around the house.”

They laid the fresh brown mulch in the yard where Tim, Kristen and Anna walked on that recent morning.

Tim’s co-workers have showed strong support, too, creating red rubber wrist bands that read “Prayers for 201.”

That’s the number of Tim’s shift. The ambulance company has since retired that number, but told Tim they will reinstate it when he returns to work.

No one knows if that will ever happen. But again, no one really knew if Tim would even survive his injuries.

He’s not there, yet. But hope still is.

“They said the majority of healing happens within the first year, but there can still be huge gains within the first five years,” Kristen said. “It’s been nine months.”

Tim knows the miracle of a beautiful baby girl can happen in nine months. He’s confident with even more time, he can make a complete recovery, see his daughter’s blonde locks again, drive and tow his trailer again and help those in need again.

“I wanted to be able to help people out,” Tim said of his career choice. “I’m hoping someday to be able to get back into it.”

Dr. Vitaz said he’s impressed with the recovery so far.

“Tim was doing quite well last I saw him and he has returned home with his loving family,” Dr. Vitaz said. “He is quite fortunate to have recovered so well.”

To learn more about traumatic brain injury, visit www.spectrumhealth.org/patient-care/neurosciences/brain-and-spine-injuries/traumatic-brain-injury.

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Comments (3)

  • Tim & Kristen, your story brought tears to my eyes and brought back many emotions for me. Life certainly can change in an instant! My son suffered two broken legs, a TBI and other broken bones after a hit and run on his bicycle. So I know the fear and struggles of many months of PT, OT, speech therapy, etc. I am so inspired by your recovery and am praying for continued improvements and healing for you. Stay strong, many people love you and are supporting you and your family.

  • I am sorry! I had a traumatic brain injury when I was three and had shunts. I have had three shunt replacements since then. I have noticed after my last shunt revision, I lost more memory, my mood was down and I was easily confused. I tried neurofeedback for about a year and it has helped my memory and mood. It might be something worth looking into and it might help him in some way. Just thought I would pass along the info.

  • Keep trusting God and believe and don’t doubt God will bless you and your family and he will recover completely

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