Five months ago, Kellen Smith was on the eve of his junior football season at Upper Lake High School.
In the best shape of his life, strong and fit, he was prepped and ready to play backup quarterback on the Cougars' eight-man squad. But a late-night car crash ended his high school football season before it started.
He's no longer learning plays and staying fit through weights and workouts. Today, Kellen Smith is relearning how to use his body. He's improving his speech. He's working on his balance. His workouts are less about fitness and more about reintroducing his muscles to the memory of movement and coordination.
“To walk, to get out of this thing,” he said, glancing at the wheelchair he sits in. “I hate it so much.”
ut Smith's ability to complain about the wheelchair, his ability to razz his mom, Shannon Walker-Smith, as she waits through another hour of his physical therapy, and his ability to clown around with fake money as he relearns making change in his head is nothing short of amazing.
Smith was grievously injured when he lost control of his car late at night on Aug. 14. He sustained a traumatic brain injury and had part of his skull removed in the hours following the crash. In those early hours, Shannon and Kellen's dad, Mike Smith, couldn't know how bad it was or what their son's world would look like as he recovered.
When he arrived at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center's “Journey to Recovery” program in September, he was “unable to speak, unable to verbalize, his hand gestures were inconsistent at that time as well,” according to Dr. Henry Huie, chief of brain injury rehabilitation and Smith's primary attending physician during his stay in Santa Clara.
He had a tracheostomy tube to help him breathe. He was fed through another tube connected to his stomach. Much of his left side, the side that bore the brunt of the impact in the crash, was largely unresponsive. The surgeon who performed one of his initial emergency brain surgeries told Smith's parents that their son would have brain damage - it was just a matter of how much.
“He was so significantly impacted early on,” Huie said.
But Kellen worked his way back. After days and nights of never leaving their son's side, his parents began to read his eyes. Then he started snapping his fingers. He would point. When he was frustrated? He'd pretend to sleep through therapy or pull at the tubes coming in and out of his body.
It was all good, even the irritation, Huie said. “It's a big milestone when a patient can start expressing what they are feeling.”
Smith's tracheostomy tube was removed Oct. 23. The gastronomy tube through which nutrients were pumped into his body was taken out Nov. 13.
On Thanksgiving, the family rented a house near the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, took Kellen on a day pass from the facility and celebrated.
It was a day of both highs and lows. After months of not tasting any food, and then more than a week of institutional meals, Smith ate turkey, stuffing and berry pie - enough to make him feel ill. He got to hang around with family. He also had to learn how to cope when his young cousins expressed confusion about what was happening with him.
“He said ‘They don't want to come around me because I'm weird right now,'” Mike Smith remembered. “He handled it well and just believes he's getting better every day and improving every day.”
Kellen's focus on getting back what he lost is unwavering, according to his mom. He goes to hours of physical and occupational therapy sessions each week at St. Joseph Health Outpatient Therapy in Santa Rosa.
At a recent therapy session, Smith wore a significant brace on his left ankle to help keep his foot at the correct angle. Sitting in a recumbent bike, his left foot was strapped to the machine because he was not able to keep pressure on the pedal on his own.
But when the therapist said go, Kellen pedaled away, moving his arms in coordination with his legs. His breathing was heavy - not because of weakness, but because of strength. He was working hard. He then used a walker, with a therapist's hand holding a belt around his midsection for support, to move to a room down the hall where he worked to make change with phony money. Then he practiced his cursive, his face close to the paper because his vision is still somewhat blurred.