Hell year: From coding to coma – and back again

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Hell year: From coding to coma – and back again

For the past decade or so, I’ve had a saying when discussing long-term development decisions and worst-case scenarios. We say it at Raven and you may say it at your office, too. It’s always some variation on “If I get hit by a car tomorrow…”

I never meant it. I don’t think anyone ever really means it. But many a developer has said it, either in regard to himself or another developer. I didn’t know it back then, but Raven would actually live the whole “if I was hit by a car” scenario – and so would I.

‘Deathblow’

Greg-before
Me before the accident, skating outside the Raven office.

Last summer I started skateboarding again after a long hiatus. It’s something I’ve done on and off for most of my life, and I started shredding again at night to try to grind some health back into my stationary computing life.

Skateboarding is not a sport you go diving head-first into after a long hiatus. Your muscles remember how to do the trick, but the strength to do it has left. I was eating pavement a lot. Eventually I decided I was too old to be slamming my body into the ground. I need to be able to use my fingers to work, and they were getting banged up.

I started looking into lower-impact forms of exercise and settled on bicycling. I got my hands on a relatively inexpensive cycle and hit the road for the first time last August, riding it up and down my quiet street.

On Saturday, August 27, 2011, I had a small window to get a few hours of exercise. I decided to bike to the store down the highway from my neighborhood, come back, hit the shower and then join the other Ravens at a party that night. The store was only 4 miles away, and the highway is marked as a bicycle route – I saw plenty of cyclists tearing down it all the time.

At the store I grabbed some water and downed it, then started the trek home. The heavy chorus of Deathblow by Deftones kicked in as I stood up with determination to pedal up a hill in front of a cemetery. I didn’t know that behind me a young man was traveling at 65 MPH, slowly drifting off to sleep and off the road.

Dream state

I don’t remember hitting the hood of the Mazda SUV, bouncing off the windshield and then falling face-first into the highway, my head in an oncoming lane of traffic. A woman who had been visiting the grave of a loved one at the cemetery ran out into the highway to wave off traffic. She probably saved my life.

For the next three weeks, my life became a very lucid dream. One minute I was in Hawaii. The next I was flying to meet Tony Hawk for a skating session. Then I was being kidnapped to fight in cage matches.

In reality, I was in a dream state as doctors at Nashville’s Vanderbilt Hospital began to repair my many injuries.

The right side of my body was devastated. Broken foot, torn ACL, torn LCL, torn PCL, shattered femur. My spine was separated from my pelvis. My index finger had a compound fracture. The doctors knew I had nerve damage in my arm and hand but weren’t sure the extent. I was in intensive care, but it looked as though I was going to make it through this mess with some new metal parts and a bunch of physical therapy.

Into a coma

Then came the first surgery.

The doctors still don’t see eye-to-eye on what went wrong during the process of putting a rod in my femur. One says fatty embolisms. One says low blood pressure from anesthesia. Another theory is that the sheer impact of the crash created tears in the brain that severed neurological connections.

Regardless of how it happened, something somewhere went wrong. I had internal bleeding that wouldn’t stop. My brain sustained damage comparable to a serious stroke. I fell into a coma.

Back at Raven, my coworkers were getting the news: no one knew if or when I would wake.

A daunting recovery

Six days later, I emerged from the coma. Doctors did an MRI to assess the damage. Parts of my brain that affect memory and processing cognitive abilities had suffered the most damage.
greg-therapy
Suddenly my length of recovery had become unknown. The doctors recommended to my wife, Tonya, that I go to a special facility that could handle that kind of injury, presenting her with options and information.

My poor wife. She had to figure out what to do to help her husband, who might possibly never be the same person. She had to figure out how to take care of our two girls: Liz, now 13, and Kate, now 8. How to tell them that their father was very hurt. How or even if to tell them the doctors had no idea if I would even come out of this as the father they knew. There were so many thing to figure out.

One thing that gave her a little breathing room was the support of Raven. Our CEO, Patrick, told Tonya not to worry about my job. They were not going to abandon us or force us to deal with this alone. Raven was going to stick with us for the long haul. They meant it. With that knowledge, she set out to take care of all the other daunting logistics facing her.

Three weeks gone

I ended up at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a state of-the-art facility specializing in traumatic brain injury and spinal injury rehabilitation.

I don’t remember my first three weeks there at all. It’s very disconcerting to have weeks of your life – important weeks at that – completely gone from your mind. It’s probably for the best, though. It was mostly spent with more operations, trying to figure out where the internal bleeding was – things you don’t want to even hear about. I don’t want the memories, I guess.

raven-photo
Looking at this photo of my coworkers at Raven helped me get through my recovery.

Around the third week in September, my first post-accident memory was created. I remember thinking: “What is going on?” I demanded to call my wife. Brain injuries have a special kind of confusion that is very difficult to explain. Everything is distant, even when it is in your face. I became very confused, but fortunately had my sense of humor.

One gift I got while I was at Shepherd seems small but was amazingly huge to me. The team at Raven had taken a picture of the staff and framed it so everyone could sign it and leave me a message. I kept it where I could see it. It was a piece of my life that was normal, fun and exciting. That picture was such motivation to get out of Shepherd and get home. Especially towards the end of my stay.

Help all around

While I was in Shepherd, there was a flurry of activity going on at my house. The doctors guessed that I would be in a wheelchair for six months to a year, so my wife had to get the help of friends and coworkers to make our house wheelchair accessible.

My inlaws stayed there throughout the week and many weekends. The folks at Raven kept my freezer packed full of food so my wife didn’t have to worry about cooking. They even started a plan to come build ramps into my house if the contractors couldn’t do it in time for my return home.

My wife made the 4.5-hour trip back and forth from Columbia, Tenn., to Atlanta several times a week, spending most weeks at home and weekends at the Shepherd Center with me.

A flood of despair

During my last few weeks at Shepherd, my new reality really sank in. I remember when it hit me the hardest. I was bored rolling around in the wheelchair one evening. With Skrillex playing on my cell phone, I rolled into the therapy gym and looked around at everyone there.
greg-sculpture
The injuries surrounded me. Almost everyone was in a wheelchair. Several were catatonic, looking off into space. All the pain. All the suffering. The overwhelming panic of not knowing how this was going to end for me.

I went back to my room. There I was, sitting in my wheelchair, playing the same song over and over. Unable to move my arm. Unable to even get into my bed without help. A flood of despair drowning me.

All I could do was look at the picture of my team and the sculpture I had made of my children’s faces and hope with everything I could that I would one day be home.

greg-first-steps
Taking my first steps after the accident.

 

My prison transfer

The next week I was given a release date. October 20, 2011 was, as I like to call it, my prison transfer.

I came home to even harder work. There was at least one doctor’s appointment a week, usually three. Occupational and physical therapy several times a week.

Doctors told me it would be six months to a year before I would be able to climb stairs. It took me four. I also returned the wheelchair way before the estimated date. There is something about not being able to take a shower or sleep in your own bed that will encourage you to beat the doctor’s estimate.

Mostly it was hope. The desire to have fun with my family again. The desire to get back to work. To be as normal as I can be after this.

Knowing that Raven was by my side, doing everything in their power to help me, was key to my survival. There was no gap with insurance. I had the support I needed to succeed – everything from food to new floors so I could roll around with ease. Everything I really needed came from either Raven directly or someone attached to the company.

Those endless days of doing hours of exercises were not coupled with fear that I might not be able to eat or afford my treatment in another month. I knew I was going to make it.

Greg-Raven-office
Back at work after rehab.

 

The silver lining

As I struggled to get through my new physical limitations and challenges, I also faced the mental limitations the brain injury caused. Programming? Heck, I couldn’t even remember the last projects I was working on before the accident.

But then I started researching SEO more in-depth. I started paying attention to what was going on in the world of online marketing. I took a step back from my role as a developer and for the first time began thinking about the “why” more than the “how.”

This shifting of gears landed me in a new position: on Raven’s product team. There, little by little, I started to work. There was no pressure, which was key. Anything unreasonable could have had permanent ramifications. But slowly it started coming back to me. Every day it got a little easier.

My new role on the product team has been a silver lining in this nightmare. I’ve been working on a secret project that is very, very exciting. It has been what’s renewed my enthusiasm and diminished my fear. It is also going to kick so much ass.

greg-hilton-head

A new normal

As the days turned to weeks and months and now to one year (“hell year,” as I started calling it), I have worked hard – constant work that has no end in sight. My knee is still very weak. My hip doesn’t like too much activity. My bicep is paralyzed, which is possibly permanent. My right hand can’t even be used for typing. Pain is constant.

The doctors and therapists at the Shepherd Center were certainly miracle workers. I am very thankful for how much they helped me, and I am thankful that I work for a company that helps them.

Last year, the center received a $5,000 gift from Raven in honor of my family, and Raven is sponsoring the Shepherd Center and Beyond Therapy fundraiser from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on September 8. (If you are in the Nashville area, please join us!)

I’ll never be or feel normal again, but I have a wonderful family both at home and at Raven. The things they did for me were imperative for my healing and resurgence into this lovely world we live in. For this, they have my love, my loyalty and my thanks.

The Shepherd Center is a not-for-profit hospital. Learn more about their work or make a donation to help fund their programs and care.

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Tell us what you think

  • Joan Kinnischtzke

    very touching story!

  • Jason Bean

    What a great story! Thanks for sharing this so publicly and letting us get to know another member of the Raven team.

  • Anita Campbell

    What an inspiring story – read it if you think things are bad in your life.

  • Diane Kruse

    We at Rashford Kruse have the pleasure of working with Greg’s wife, Tonya. When the accident happened, she had just returned to our office after taking time off to raise her children and work part-time. I remember the night of the accident. My husband and I just started a vacation and were settling in for the night. Tonya called around 10 that night and was very calm but mentioned that she needed to tell me that she might not be into work for the next few days and was very concerned that we would be angry. She very calmly told me about Greg’s accident and it took the wind right out of me. That’s our Tonya. She is strong, loving, determined and loves her family life beyond all things. We have known them since before Liz was born, and am happy to say, we are glad that Hell year is over!

  • Chris Rashford

    My words are inadequate to say how I feel about your story. You write beautifully and honestly. It has always been a pleasure to know you Greg and your fantabulous wife Tonya. But the strength and honesty of this post is awe-inspiring. All my hope that you and Tonya and the girls continue to progress in your lives.

  • Allison Peacock

    Greg, what a triumph! That ability to find the silver lining – the opportunity – in life’s challenges will serve you well for the rest of your life. Teach it to your children. Spread the word. Life goes on even when it’s hard! Thank you for sharing. You’re lucky to have been at Shepherd. If you’ve not connected with my friend Saul Raisin of Raisin Hope Foundation, please look him up or ping me for an introduction. He’s another Shepherd miracle. Be well!

  • Gabriella Sannino

    Good to have you back Greg :)

  • Mary Emmarco

    Wow very beautiful! :)

  • Mary Emmarco

    Wow beautiful story! :)

  • Aardvocate Akintayo Olusegun Don

    I’m so happy I had tears in my eyes. So glad for your recovery. Meanwhile my wife must not read this, else my cycling days are over!

  • Jen Downs Uselton MEd

    Keep up the great work.

  • Samuel Crocker

    Really inspiring stuff – thank you for sharing your story. I’m really glad to hear that both you and Raven found a new role for you and that you can be helping build on a great product. Sometimes I feel like I could do with a bit more work on the “how” but I’m so glad to hear you’re learning more about the “why” side of things – you will be a force to be reckoned with knowing both!

  • Hayley Robison Osborne

    Proud of you, Greg! You are a huge inspiration to others!

  • Ken Uselton

    it is great to hear of the love and support of all those around you… my heart goes out to you. continue to be strong… you are here for a purpose..all my best wishes to you in the future!

  • Tamar Weinberg

    What an amazing story. You’re so lucky to be working for such an amazing company who has really helped you get through this. And your story gives us hope… thank you for sharing it, Greg.

  • Dwight Zahringer

    Inspiring story. Sorry that you have went through so much, that your family was dragged through this as well. Glad to hear that Raven is a great place to call home. Congratulations on your recovery and position – keep kicking ass!

  • Patricia Skinner

    Greg, so sorry to hear about your Hell Year. As you progressed further and faster than predicted, I hope that you also manage to prove yourself wrong about never feeling normal again. Wishing you the best of health. Also, congratulations to Raven for being the kind of firm we aspire to be. May there be many more of them in the world.

  • Thierry Andriamirado

    Welcome back home, Guy! With an “G”! Keep it up! H

  • Billy Ryan

    Moving story, it highlights the importance of building the right team who are not only good at what they do but are also caring and compassionate humans, all company’s should be like this.

  • Ken Fobert

    What an inspiring story. Good luck with everything Greg, you’re a true inspiration.

  • Janet Aronica

    <3 A beautiful story.

  • Courtney Seiter

    It’s been inspiring to watch Greg push himself further and further this year, and always with a joke and a great Greg smile. Great things are coming from his new role on Raven’s product team.

  • Samir Balwani

    An amazing story Greg. Glad you could share it.

  • Chad Waite

    Wow, what a story. Congrats on the recovery this far, Greg, and thanks for sharing this story.

    My company has exhibited next to Raven a couple times at some shows in the past (I still have one of their shirts I wear all the time), but this definitely sheds a new light on an already awesome company.

  • Elise Redlin

    Really moving story. So glad to see Greg back at it!

  • Esther Hastings Miller

    I am the daughter of a brain-injured father and grew up to be an occupational therapist. My hat is off to you, Greg, and to the company you are so fortunate to work for.

  • Phillip Hershkowitz

    This is a very moving story. Congratulations on your recovery and the inner strength that made it possible. You are blessed by a loving family and a supportive work team.

  • Alison Groves

    Greg is hands down one of the greatest people you could ever know in your life, and not only am I proud to call him a teammate, I’m even more proud to call him a friend. This world is a better place with him in it, kicking secret project ass and taking names.

  • The Espresseo
  • The Espresseo

    This is simply remarkable. Raven has set a standard of humanity every company should aspire to. May God continue to speed your recovery!