Although his official birthday is July 2, Aug. 17 is Eric Guzman’s “rebirthday.”
On that day next month, the 19-year-old will celebrate three years of progress since his traumatic brain injury.
Nearly three years ago, Guzman fell off the back of a car in Gates, hitting his head against pavement. Within hours, doctors had placed two titanium plates in his head, and Guzman was recovering in a medically induced coma. At one point, doctors told Eric’s parents, Lisa and Feliciano Guzman of Rochester, that their son’s chances were not good.
His mother credits his doctors at Strong Memorial Hospital, who worked on him for two weeks, and those at the brain-injury unit at Unity Health System’s St. Mary campus, who worked on him for two more, for giving Eric world-class medical care.
But Lisa, a parishioner of St. Monica Church, credits Mary with his survival. During every free moment at the hospital, Lisa’s fingertips traced the beads of her rosary, as she asked Mary to save her son’s life.
Now, with a report card full of As and Bs, Eric has plenty to celebrate on his rebirthday.
Outwardly, his injury has healed into a thin pink scar that loops through his hair. Inside, he has taken longer to heal.
Brain injuries can have lifelong effects on a patient’s ability to think, said Tony Wong, director of the neuropsychology program with Unity Health’s brain-injury unit, which offers in-patient acute rehabilitation and an outpatient clinic.
Wong, who has a doctorate in psychology, said it’s common for brain-injury patients to have problems with attention spans, mental focus, short-term memory, slow thought processes and multitasking.
They also can have long-term emotional or behavioral problems, including depression, anxiety and irritability. Treatment may include medication, counseling and coaching, Wong said.
Eric had both cognitive and emotional changes. Although his IQ is only a few points lower than it once was, he had to learn how to walk again and suffered from chronic migraines and double vision. His thinking was slowed, and he had forgotten how to use a bar of soap.
“That’s when it hit me that it’s not going to be as easy as I thought it would be,” Lisa said.
He still has severe executive disorder, which means he can forget to turn off the stove and go to appointments, but the injury has brought out a sparkling sense of humor, his mother said.
In addition to dealing with the brain injury, the Guzmans have had to learn to navigate the health-care system, Lisa said. She suggests parents in similar situations seek help from the state brain-injury association and area support groups.
Such assistance is available at the state and local levels, experts noted. For example, the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities has a waiver program to provide reimbursement for health-care costs for people younger than 22 who suffer a traumatic brain injury. There also is a Medicaid traumatic brain-injury waiver that reimburses health-care facilities and service providers for care of brain-injury patients between 18 and 64 years old. People older than 65 typically can apply for Medicare, advocates said.
The Medicaid waiver was set up in 1995 to help Medicaid-eligible brain-injury patients stay out of nursing homes, where Medicaid was paying for their care. State officials said independent living is less expensive and can empower individuals to make decisions about their care.
“It allows that person to assess on their own what they may need further help on,” said Keyla Hernandez, community relations and press manager for the state Department of Health.
Those who qualify for a waiver are assigned a service coordinator to help them set and achieve goals. They then work on those goals with the help of such service providers as Irondequoit’s Catholic Charities Community Services.
In 1997, CCCS started a traumatic brain-injury program which now serves about 95 people of all ages in several area counties, providing service coordination and about 170 different services to its clients.
Tracy McNett, director of the agency’s Traumatic Brain Injury Services, said CCCS aims to train a person to the point where they need no further services.
“We want to work ourselves out of a job,” McNett said.
Even with the waiver, Medicaid reimbursement levels to service providers are lower than the actual cost of care, she said.
“Funding is the biggest issue,” McNett said. “We have struggled with the funding for a long time.”
Even before people are accepted into the Medicaid waiver program, they may qualify for help from the Independent Living Services team of the Regional Center for Independent Living and the Center for Disability Rights, said Sadie Gilbride, the organization’s assistant director.
“We help them get through the entire process and help them with housing and advocacy,” Gilbride said.
Advocacy is a big part of Shari Bartlett’s job as well. She is the state Brain Injury Association’s Family Advocacy Counseling and Training Services coordinator for Monroe, Livingston and Wyoming counties. Her job is to connect families with service providers and support groups.
Bartlett primarily deals with children with brain injuries. She said their needs change as they grow and become responsible for keeping a schedule or organizing a paragraph.
“Children hit walls as they grow older,” she said.
Wong, the neuropsychologist, said he continues to see children and adults needlessly suffering brain injuries, noting that many such injuries could be prevented if more people used seat belts and helmets. He predicted that traumatic brain injuries will become more common because advances in medical care have allowed people to survive more severe injuries.
That’s especially true in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers wounded by explosive devices often are surviving with brain injuries, Wong said.
“All the VAs are getting patients, veterans, back with head injuries,” said Wong, who recently spoke about the injuries at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Batavia.
As of April 2007, the VA nationwide has treated more than 350 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for traumatic brain injuries, according to the VA’s Web site said. Several VA sites nationwide, including one in Syracuse, are specializing in treating brain injuries, the site noted.
Journalist Bob Woodruff, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while reporting in Iraq, recently brought awareness of the topic through a book and television special, Lisa Guzman said, noting that the struggles of Woodruff’s wife hit home.
Now she said she has faith that the increased attention will bring better treatment in the future.
Eric has faith, too, noting that he wants to open his own restaurant. When asked if that goal is attainable, Eric said, “Oh, yeah.”
He speaks with the air of certainty of someone who has fought for his life — and won.