Giving up ‘was never an option’
You could understand if Todd Abbott wanted to forget about the anniversary of the day a brain aneurysm nearly killed him.
He survived, but the damage to his brain left him utterly helpless, unable even to move his toes. And doctors on the east side of Michigan told his wife, Kim, he would likely exist in a vegetative state.
And yet, as the sixth anniversary of that terrifying, life-changing day approached, the Abbotts had no intention of pushing those memories into the past. They looked for ways to mark it—and to celebrate how far Todd has come since then.
They chose to do it by reaching out to others who now face the same challenges Todd once faced and conquered.
You have to work hard every day and not give up.
On Dec. 4, 2017, six years to the day the aneurysm ruptured, Todd arrived at Spectrum Health’s Rehab and Nursing Center Avenue at 4118 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, the place where he went through rehab.
Steadying himself with a walker, he stepped into a room filled with patients recovering from brain injuries.
“You have to work hard every day and not give up,” he told the patients and their family members. “It’s a very slow process, but it will get better. Every day, it will get better.”
The Abbotts hoped to provide what they craved when Todd was inpatient at the center: a real-life example of someone who had recovered from a brain injury.
“You’re always looking for somebody who has been there, so you can get some sort of inspiration from them,” Kim said.
Todd has defied the initial grim predictions for his future and gone on to live a fulfilling life.
“I remember a girlfriend told me, ‘The brain is a miraculous organ.’ And it really is,” Kim said. “It has proven itself over and over. People can’t really predict what your future is.”
The Abbotts, who live in Romeo on the east side of Michigan, have returned several times to the Spectrum Health facility to reconnect with the therapists who helped him in recovery.
A life-changing headache
At the time the aneurysm struck, Todd was an active 51-year-old, a father of two who worked in marketing. A few years earlier, he had built their house. He had recently run a 10K race.
At 4 a.m. that day, a terrible headache jolted him awake.
Taken by ambulance to the hospital, he underwent surgery.
The doctors told Kim a ruptured aneurysm caused a grade 5 subarachnoid hemorrhage―the most serious category of brain bleed. Todd lay in a coma for a month.
Although his doctors said the odds were stacked against him, Kim was determined to give her husband a chance at recovery.
That is a message of resilience and persistence and joy. I think that’s an amazing gift.
As Todd began to slowly gain consciousness, she searched the state for a specialized neurological rehabilitation center that would work with him as an inpatient.
Todd arrived at the Inpatient Rehabilitation program at Spectrum Health’s Rehab and Nursing Center in March 2012. He could not speak, eat or even open his eyes. He began to work with therapists three to four hours a day to regain even the most basic life skills.
“I progressed every day,” he said. “Just real, real slow.”
“Sometimes people have delayed processing,” said Cindy Barrus, the program director for inpatient rehabilitation. “It takes the brain some time to heal.”
Barrus praised the Abbotts for their willingness to share their story with patients in rehab.
“To be in a room with somebody who has been there and done that, I would say is invaluable,” she said. “That is a message of resilience and persistence and joy. I think that’s an amazing gift.”
Despite the long road through recovery, Kim said she had faith Todd’s condition would improve.
“I don’t think I ever thought we weren’t going to get better,” she said. “That was never an option. It was just about what we needed to do to continue to improve.”
She and Todd learned to face challenges day by day, one at a time.
“You can’t start figuring out what the future will look like, because nobody can tell you that,” Kim said. “Everybody is different.”
Todd recalled struggling through the toughest days of recovery.
“There are many things, with the day-to-day stuff, that you get frustrated at,” he said. “But you do what you can do. You know if you can do something or not do something after you try. You get discouraged but you never, ever let that stand in your way.”
Todd said his wife and their two sons, Ryan, 24, and Danny, 22, gave him reason to keep working.
“They are pretty awesome,” he said.
Kim found inspiration in her husband, who has always had a positive, can-do attitude and embraced challenges readily.
“He used to tell me, ‘Kim, you can’t change the past. You have to keep moving forward,’” she said. “You have no idea how often that played in my head when he was going through (rehab).”
She would think of how Todd would handle the situation if he were in her shoes.
“He would be positive,” she said. “He would not be dwelling about ‘Oh poor me.’ He would just figure out how to move forward. That helped me a lot―his little voice in my head.”
On to new challenges
In the past six years, the family has celebrated many milestones, including both sons’ college graduations, a move to a new home and vacations.
Todd continues to exercise and work toward new challenges.
Although he has not resumed golfing, he has a golf cart and can accompany friends on the course.
He recently started woodworking again. With his wife’s help, he built shelves for the basement. His next project: building a table.
Sharing his journey with other patients and encouraging them also brings satisfaction.
“I enjoy it,” Todd said. “If we can help in any way, it means a lot to us. For sure.”