Wayne Dove remembers feeling energized and happy as he climbed the steel ladder in a Michigan factory. He might have been in a hurry, mentally making dinner plans, when he missed a rung, tumbled 10 or so feet and landed on his head.
Dove, 62, regained consciousness two weeks later in a Grand Rapids hospital. He could have died, doctors said. He could have been paralyzed. But there he was, given a second chance to jump up and cheer when the Detroit Lions scored the next touchdown.
In October, his daughter Jennifer, who lives in St. Petersburg, moved Dove to NeuroRestorative, a Clearwater rehabilitation center for people with brain injuries. They hoped the center could help restore his impaired cognition.
"Most memories have come back now," said Dove, who recently advanced to outpatient speech and occupational therapy. "I've liked it just fine here. No conflicts or anything. I get better all the time."
Dove is one of 26 patients on the quiet, tree-shrouded campus off Whitney Road. It's one of four of NeuroRestorative's facilities in Florida and is, staffers say, "an unintended secret." Residents live in four houses and an apartment building. There's a volleyball court, a woodshop and a chef who said he once cooked for the Kennedys.
"We're more of a family here," said speech pathologist and brain injury specialist Janet Strobel. "We do everything we can to make this place feel like home. We try to make therapies fun."
Depending on the location and severity of a brain injury, head trauma can damage a person's memory, reasoning, focus and ability to communicate. Specialists tailor speech, occupational and physical therapy to meet each patient's needs, Strobel said.
Computer exercises like the Interactive Metronome, commonly used by doctors across the country, employ an auditory-visual platform to promote synchronized timing in the brain, she said.
Physical activities, such as cornhole and a jumbo game of Jenga, improve hand-eye coordination and help socialize patients whose injuries may have left them feeling isolated. Residents are given daily tasks around the campus to replenish their sense of confidence and responsibility.
After a year of working there, Strobel said she has seen lives transformed. People who wouldn't talk or make eye contact now laugh and fist-bump, she said.
NeuroRestorative's mission, she said, is to continuously improve a patient's quality of life and ease his or her transition back into the community. Some patients return home or to work. Some have signed up for college classes.
"We see miracles happen every day," Strobel said. "Truly, every day."
About three years ago, Wendy Flanders' husband, Chris, was gravely injured in a motorcycle accident and suffered a massive stroke. The Valrico mother of two teenagers wondered if she'd ever again be able to have a conversation with Chris, "the class clown," she said.
"He would just stare, and laugh at inappropriate times," she said, recalling the weeks after his head injury. "We didn't know if he knew what was going on around him. It was heartbreaking."
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recommended that Chris, who was in the Army, try treatments at NeuroRestorative and helped cover the cost. Wendy, unsure what to expect, enrolled him in February 2010.
Weeks later, Chris began to smile and use hand signals. He went from blank and stern, Wendy said, to warm and attentive. Suddenly, she said, they could easily converse.
"We started taking him to church on Sundays, and he'd raise his arms and sometimes cried during the music," she said. "It's absolutely amazing. It was like he came back to life."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.