Jake Rodgers was an ordinary kind of 16—he loved skateboarding, playing guitar and hanging with his friends.
Returning home from a friend’s house on Dec. 23, 2014, everything that rocked his world, got rocked, like a dynamite blast to his soul.
As he crossed Fuller Avenue in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at about 7 that evening, a car driven by a 20-year-old woman struck him in the crosswalk. Jake’s head pounded the pavement. The bright, blue-eyed boy his friends and family had known and loved, became a boy who could no longer respond.
He would heal quickly from the broken shoulder he suffered that evening. He will likely live with the reverberations of his traumatic brain injury for the rest of his life.
Jake’s dad, Jeff, will never forget that night.
“We were getting ready to have a bunch of people over for Christmas,” Jeff said, sitting at the dining room table of the family’s northeast Grand Rapids home. “I got back home and around 7:30, the phone rang. The police told me I needed to get to the hospital because Jake had been hit. I was freaking out.”
Less than two years prior, on Jan. 8, 2013, Jeff had lost his wife to cancer.
“It was just me and him,” Jeff said of his only son. “We did everything together—hunted, camped, fished. We went boating and tubing up north at Hardy Dam.”
As Jake lay in a hospital bed, unresponsive, Jeff thought he would have to say another devastating goodbye.
“The day he got hit, he had both skull caps removed (to relieve pressure),” Jeff said. “The next day, he had a blood clot on his brain stem. They told me he might not make it through that surgery.”
But he did. And he spent months in therapy at Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Center on Kalamazoo Avenue before finally returning home in early January and continuing care with Spectrum Health’s Neuro Rehabilitation Services Homecare.
The family living room is his home now. His hospital bed faces the picture window. He’s surrounded by family photos of happier times, baseball hats and care instructions taped to the wall.
Jake has therapy every weekday. A medical transport van picks him up at 9:30 and brings him home by 3:30 p.m.
And even though Jeff said his son “will never be the same,” he sees glimpses of the old Jake. Like on a recent Wednesday afternoon when Spectrum Health music therapist Alika Seu, toting a guitar case, tambourine and harmonica, paid a visit to the Rodgers home as part of the home care program.
The traumatic brain injury robbed Jake of movement on his left side, speaking ability, memory and reasoning, but there’s one thing the TBI couldn’t touch—his love of music. It’s as if that part of Jake resided deep inside, unaltered by his malfunctioning brain.
Seu unpacked his guitar next to Jake’s wheelchair. He and fellow Spectrum Health music therapist Erin Wegener worked with Jake when he was at the Rehab and Nursing Center.
“Alika has known Jake from the beginning,” Jeff said. “I can remember Alika coming in when Jake had no movement and was minimally responsive to anything. He hadn’t really opened his eyes yet and was very out of it.”
On this day, Alika played some Black Sabbath tunes for Jake on his acoustic guitar and asked the youngster to shout out, “Oh Lord, yeah.”
“I need to hear your Ozzy yell,” Seu urged Jake.
“Oh Lord, yeah,” Jake said in a voice that sounded like it was seeping up through a gravely river bed.
“You’re an awesome guitar player,” Jake added in a hushed, guttural voice.
But Seu wanted more. “When you talk I can hear you, but I want to hear it louder,” he told the boy in the hooded University of Michigan sweatshirt as he handed him a harmonica. “I want you to practice getting it as loud as you can.”
Jake blew, took a deep breath, and exhaled again into the mouth organ.
“I want to hear some Ozzy-worthy, ‘Oh Lord, yeahs,’” Seu said.
Jake tried again, louder this time.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” the therapist yelled. “I like that volume. It’s nice. Much, much better.”
Seu then asked Jake to drum on a tambourine-like device. Seu moved the target as Jake drummed, stretching the boy’s limited arm strength and enhancing his tracking ability.
Jake grew tired and yelled for his dad to come help him into bed. Jeff unstrapped his son’s legs from the wheelchair, lifted him to a standing position and placed him on the bed. He then maneuvered Jake’s weak body into a reclined position.
“Thank you so much,” Jake told his father.
No one knows what the future holds for Jake. It could be a satisfying symphony. It could be a few riffs of dischord.
But he’s trying. He’s striving. He can hear the music. He wants to someday make it his own again.
“We’re still working on getting movement back in his hands,” Seu said. “If he does get some of that back, it would be great to start working on guitar some day. He could get his grip strength going and improve coordination playing both sides of the guitar.”
Some day came sooner than anyone expected. On a whim, Seu asked Jake if he was able to hold a guitar pick. The maize-colored pick fit neatly between the fingers of Jake’s right hand.
Seu placed the guitar neck in front of the boy as he lay in the hospital bed, and Jake began strumming as Seu worked the fret board. A broad smile flashed across his face as he and his old musical friend became reacquainted.
“Is this the first time you’ve played since the accident?” Seu asked.
“Yes,” Jake said. “This is freakin’ awesome.”
Jeff stared in awe, his eyes tearing up.
“Wow, does this bring back memories.”
Seu took the moment a step further and placed the guitar in Jake’s lap as he reclined in the bed.
Jake strummed, rhythmically this time. His smile grew.
“That was awesome, Jacob,” Jeff said, grabbing Jake’s hand and kissing his son. “That was so good buddy. You’re amazing, boy.”
Jake didn’t miss a beat. “Like father, like son,” he said. “You’re amazing, too.”
The young man continued massaging the strings. The notes reverberated back to a time before a horrific accident, like a familiar hello from a long-lost friend, and echoed forward with a sense of hope.
“Heck yes,” Jake said, his smile reaching its biggest crescendo of the day. “This brings back good memories.”