When Damon Szatkowski crossed the stage at Dallas High School to collect his high school diploma in the summer of 2013, he received a standing ovation. The festivities that followed were more than just a celebration of one young man’s academic achievement; they were a celebration of life.
Just 18 months before, Damon Szatkowski lay unconscious in a local hospital after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in a car crash. On reaching the hospital, Damon’s parents were given the devastating news. The doctors did not expect their son to live through the night. If he lived, they didn’t expect him to recover, to walk, to talk or ever move again.
After five weeks in the intensive care unit at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center, Damon was moved to an inpatient rehabilitation clinic in Philadelphia where he remained in a minimally conscious state for five more weeks. The small signs of brain activity that he showed – the flicker of an eye, the movement of a finger – were quickly dismissed by the doctors. Again and again, Damon’s family was told that there was little hope of a recovery.
Despite the bleak outlook, Damon’s family believed that their once vibrant teenager would return. They adopted a motto. “There is no option.” Damon would recover. Determined to reach Damon, they filled his room with family and friends, his favorite posters and music. They played slide shows of family photos, always searching for recognition in Damon’s eyes.
Then one day, Damon gave his family the gift they had been praying for. When his mother, Karen, asked him where his Family Guy poster was, he moved his eyes, focusing on the poster. They repeated this with another poster with the same successful result. From that point on, it was clear to Damon’s family that their faith was not misplaced. It was not, however, as clear to the professionals at that rehab. They suggested taking Damon home.
Undaunted, Damon’s family took him to another rehab, still 2 hours from home, where he underwent 5 more surgeries before becoming medically stable. Over the next few weeks, Damon began to show more signs of improvement, although barely moving and not speaking, but beginning a form of communication by answering questions with the thumbs-up, thumbs-down signs.
After 12 more weeks away from home, and some more minor successes, Damon’s family opted to bring him home and begin therapy at Heinz Rehab Center in Wilkes-Barre. He began therapy sessions as an outpatient in May 2012, working with speech, occupational and physical therapists five days a week. Karen and her whole family immediately noticed the difference in Damon.
“Since we started coming to Allied, the change in Damon has been miraculous. The people put their heart and soul into what they do.”
Initially, Damon’s oral muscles were so weak that he was unable to speak and had trouble swallowing and eating. With much hard work and the expertise of his speech therapists, Damon is now speaking in sentences. He’s using the phone, ordering for himself at restaurants and happily is back to eating all of his favorite foods. Now that Damon’s oral muscles are strengthened, he is lighting up rooms with his signature smile once again.
Damon’s recovery has continued to amaze his family and friends. A few months after attending Allied for therapy, he started taking classes at home. Intensive occupational therapy sessions helped Damon improve the dexterity and coordination in right hand, allowing him to use an iPad or laptop for school work, and to the delight of both Damon and his family, he is able to write again. By January of 2013, he was taking a chemistry class at Dallas High School and a calculus class at home, and against all the odds Damon received his high school diploma in June of 2013, alongside his peers.
Damon has also made great progress in physical therapy. At the outset, he struggled to maintain an unsupported sitting position. He needed assistance controlling his head and upper body in the standing position and needed the support of 4 or 5 people to make use of a platform rolling walker. He no longer needs support with his head and upper body; he can transition from sitting to standing with assistance of 1 person; and he’s using the platform rolling walker at home with the assistance of just 2 people. Damon is working towards the short term goal of independent mobility with a power wheelchair; and given the drive that Damon, his family and his therapists share, this is another goal that he’s sure to achieve.
Since the terrible crash in 2011, Damon and his family have spent thousands of hours in therapy. They’ve also celebrated hundreds of milestones, some seemingly small (smiling), others seemingly unachievable (going to his senior prom), but all life-changing. Damon is currently taking classes at Misericordia University and hopes to some day achieve his childhood dream of becoming an electrical engineer.
“Damon’s recovery is a love story. Love between a mother and a son, a father, sisters, a community who reached out to support him. But it’s also a love story between Damon and his therapists, because they make him work, they inspire him to work and they are a huge reason that Damon is as far as he is today.”