Health & Wellness

After a brain injury ruined his memory, student beats the odds, returns to class

After suffering a traumatic brain injury, Brett Becker faced a long recovery, but was determined to return to college. And he just did.

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After a traumatic brain injury, this 20-year-old is back at college

Play Video - 0:57

After a traumatic brain injury, this 20-year-old is back at college

Play Video - 0:57

It's been a long medical journey that began in January 2016, when Becker was skiing with his family in Wisconsin. As he and his father, Bryan, skied down a run, Bryan slowed to watch Becker as he headed toward a jump. But something went terribly wrong.

“He overshot the landing... and hit his head,” Bryan told TODAY. "He didn’t pop up."

Courtesy of the Becker family
When Brett Becker first emerged from his coma, he could only communicate by blinking his eyes for "yes" and "no."

When Bryan reached his son, Becker was unconscious and blue. After being rushed to the hospital, Becker spent three weeks in the intensive care unit.

The fall caused a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which occurs when something bumps, hits, jostles or penetrates the brain, ruining normal brain function. While it can be mild, it became clear Becker’s injury was serious. He experienced post-traumatic amnesia and slipped in and out of consciousness. But Becker was a fighter.

“He started opening his eyes … just opening them and tracing us in the room. That was our first sign that we were getting him back,” Bryan said.

While he couldn’t talk, Becker started blinking “yes” and “no” to communicate. After his stay in the ICU, he was moved to an inpatient unit at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, designed to help him regain consciousness. In early March, he woke up.

Courtesy of the Becker family
While Becker struggled with his memory, he felt determined to return to college once it returned.

The TBI caused physical limitations, too, and Becker had to relearn basic skills, such as sitting up. Therapists taught Bryan and his wife Peggy to care for Becker, showing them how to lift him from bed and shower him.

“They were literally training us to bring Brett home in the wheelchair,” Bryan said. “But Brett really doesn’t have limits to what he can do.”

Becker wanted to be independent and walk and he worked hard toward his goal. By the time he left for outpatient therapy, he moved with a walker. Yet, he still struggled with memory.

“It was like being a new baby,” Becker, 20, told TODAY. “It was a new day every single day.”

As he focused on improving, his parents weren’t surprised.

“Brett’s always had that determination,” Bryan said. “He always believes that he can do it.”

In outpatient therapy at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab Wheeling DayRehab, Becker said he wanted to ride a bike and run — and return to Indiana University where he was a pre-med student. The therapists wanted him to encourage him, but they felt wary. People with a TBI often don't regain the same abilities they had before their accidents.

Courtesy of the Becker family
Becker quickly gained strength during his recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

“Every patient’s progress is going to be different,” said physical therapist Kyle Koselke. “He came in here and was here so often … and put in extra amount of effort. He did make great progress.”

By October, his memories started returning.

“Brett came into our room at 2:30, 3 in the morning saying, ‘I had a dream, but I don’t think it is a dream.’ And he was right,” said Bryan.

He was remembering.

“It was a great breakthrough,” said Becker.

By this time, his strength improved so much that he went to the gym with his father or siblings after six hours of therapy. He can now run, ride a bike, and goes to the gym daily.

Still, being able to store memories remained a problem and his comprehension was slow. He’d rely on his phone and notes, and was determined to go back to college.

“He always knew a task he wanted to accomplish,” said Laura Kinsey, a speech language pathologist.

Kinsey encouraged him to try classes at a community college to ease him into school and temper his expectations. Becker took an introductory course in sociology last fall and received an A. That success encouraged him to take two classes in the spring: oceanography and American Sign Language. Again, he did well.

Courtesy of the Becker family
Thanks to the support of his family and girlfriend Maddie, Becker worked hard to improve his memory and return to college.

“I had never seen a kid who met such goals,” Bryan said. "He will try anything and fight and get to that level."

Not even two years after his accident, Becker has returned to Indiana University this semester and is taking three courses: yoga, ecology, and sign language. He's considering becoming a physical therapist.

“It’s been challenging because it is just me … no one else is here to help me. But at the same time, it is awesome,” Becker said. "I can handle anything."

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