TBI Survivor Continues Making Progress

By Briana Vannozzi

We last caught up with John Francisco 16 months ago. The Rider University student survived a traumatic brain injury. He was paralyzed on the right side of his body, missing half his skull and unable to speak or swallow.

What a difference a year can make.

“I’ve made a great amount of progress. I used to not be able to walk. I know my voice isn’t like perfect yet, but I couldn’t even talk a while ago. So I’ve come a long way and I’m going to keep going a long way,” Francisco said.

He’s gone through intense, physical, occupational and speech therapy at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute to get him here.

“Things I used to take for granted, as simple as tying my shoe and putting it on, I’m happy and excited I can do these things by myself now,” he said.

“The hard part is the external community often looks at brain injury like it’s a fractured leg, you know like a bone fracture, where you have six or eight weeks of therapy and you get better,” said Dr. Brian Greenwald at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute.

Traumatic brain injury — once thought to be permanent — takes years for recovery. Francisco underwent 11 months of swallowing therapy using a combination of methods, including neuromuscular electrical stimulation.

“With each swallowing test that we did he changed, and he was able to have honey-thick liquids, then nectar-thick liquids and then finally in March of this year he was able to do thin liquids which was fantastic,” said Patricia Stuart Shanes, clinical consultant for the Department of Speech and Audiology.

But to provide that constant, coordinated care doctors say it’s not always easy to get insurers and the medical community at-large on board.

“Traumatic brain injury isn’t an event that happens to someone like a broken bone. It’s a disease process and we know for sure that people after traumatic brain injury besides their initial recovery being long and needing a lot of intensive therapies, that they’re going to need some level of medical follow up and supervision and therapies over their lifetime,” Greenwald said.

Those timid baby steps have turned into a full on sprint. Johnny is now enrolled in an online course through Ocean County College. With help from a cognitive therapist he hopes to be back on a campus by the fall.

“I offer support and reinforcement of compensatory strategies to help him do well with his online course” said Clinical Specialist for Cognitive Rehabilitation Roseanne Sevinsky.

“I wanted to test myself, so instead of telling the teacher about what happened to me, I wanted her to put me at the same level as everyone else so I could see where I’m at,” Francisco said. “So far I’m doing great. I have a B+ and I’m at the same level as everyone else in the class.”

He’ll need to keep up with his therapies and visit Dr. Greenwald once every three months.

“I feel like I have my Johnny back. I didn’t think Johnny was going to be here. He’s my Johnny,” his mother, Emilia Francisco, said.

Time we have, mom says, but not another Johnny.