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Van Brook's Success Story

Loyola High’s Brooks makes progress one year after suffering a spinal cord injury

For some, purging the memory of something as traumatic as being paralyzed making a tackle might be first on a to-do list, but every detail of that warm fall day is burnished on Brooks’ mind.

“I remember everything,” Brooks said the other day. “I remember making the tackle. I remember laying there and not being able to feel anything. I remember talking to the trainer, who was asking me different questions. I remember getting into an ambulance. They cut all my equipment off, then they waited for the MedEvac [medical helicopter] to come. They transferred me to the MedEvac. I remember the ride down to Shock Trauma, but once I landed at Shock Trauma, I don’t remember anything.”

By then, Brooks, at the time a junior defensive back at Loyola, was being rushed into surgery to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord caused when his head collided with the leg of a Georgetown Prep running back.

Today, one year to the day when he laid motionless on the turf in Rockville for 25 minutes, Van Brooks is a jumble of movements, making devices stir and rolling himself over from his back to his stomach.

Indeed, Brooks moved his left leg, ever so slightly, but oh so independently, for the first time last week. Those kinds of things don’t get as much attention as the touchdown he scored in the game he was injured in, but they mean so much more.

“I felt it [the leg] jumping, but I kept thinking it was a spasm until I finally realized that it wasn’t a spasm,” Brooks said. “That just made my day. It was a big enough movement where you could see it. You didn’t have to examine it. You could look at it and tell that there was movement.”

Said Shelly Brooks, his mother: “The other day, he moved his leg, and just to see that big smile on his face. He was like, ‘Ma, look. Look.’ He could move his leg and could feel it moving. That made my day. And his, too. He’s making great progress.”

Much of that progress has come in the second floor therapy room at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s newly opened International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, where Brooks undergoes three- to four-hour sessions twice a week.

Van Brooks Jr. has made great physical progress in the 364 days since the Georgetown Prep game. In that time, he has spent parts of seven months in two hospitals, the Shock Trauma Center and Kernan Hospital.

He has undergone rigorous physical therapy, relearned how to dress himself, as well as brush his teeth and a world of things that most people take for granted.

He has gone back to Loyola, where he regularly attends football practices and games and tools around campus in a spiffy, motorized wheelchair.

After spending the summer in class to make up for the work he missed, he is back on course to graduate and should receive his diploma next spring with the rest of his class.

Everyone around Van Brooks Jr., from his parents to his classmates and coaches, and even Brooks himself, says that nothing has changed about the carefree, happy-go-lucky kid he was before last Sept. 25.

“Van Brooks is still the same guy that lights up a room,” Loyola coach Brian Abbott said. “Van Brooks is still the same guy that makes everybody better. He just happens not to be able to do the same stuff. But all his qualities are still there.”

But surely, he must be stronger for all of this. How else can a previously callow 17-year-old come through life-saving surgery, then put his life back together all the while becoming a symbol of hope for a portion of a community that had never heard of him previously without being stronger and better than before?

“I’ve just learned how strong a person I am,” Brooks said. “People have been telling me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I was taking things for granted before. Now that I’ve been hurt, I realize that nothing’s promised. Today, you can have it and tomorrow it’s gone, within that short a period of time. I live every day thanking God for the things that I am getting back.”

Indeed, that Brooks was so upbeat in the lead-up to the anniversary of his accident is an example of his mental toughness.

“From my experience, the first year anniversary after such a traumatic injury is the same like after the death of a loved one,” said Cristina L. Sadowsky, the clinical director of the spinal cord center.

“You mourn the loss of your previous life. So, it can be very traumatic. But people separate into different categories. There are the ones who give in, and there are ones that fight. Definitely we have a fighter on our hands, and I’m sure the fact that he has lived his life the way he has, as an athlete and an exceptional student and as everybody’s dream kid, is making him be where he is right now.”

“What we do here is take away that rest, because that’s definitely not conducive to progress,” Sadowsky said. “We make the body get active so that the same [chemical] neural transmitters that are liberated by the brain and travel through the spinal cord and go into the muscles, keep on being liberated. This enhances the body’s ability to regenerate. It’s not miracle work. It’s just physiologic treatment.”

In a usual session, for instance, Brooks works on a “glider” machine that when fully operational makes the user appear to be cross-country skiing. When he first arrived at Kennedy Krieger, Brooks needed one of the therapists to “pump” the machine up for use. Now, he can not only pump the glider up himself, but Brooks can get into it with minimal help and get it moving. Soon, the staff will get him onto a treadmill that will support his weight, but give his legs exercise.

Of course, not every day is sunshine for Brooks. Even with his progress, there is a long way to go, and he is still a teenager, which means he is subject to apparently inexplicable grumpy moments.

For instance, when he arrived at the center Thursday for therapy, Brooks was tired and grouchy from a long day of school. His mother knew how to handle it.

“He doesn’t say anything, so I don’t say anything,” Shelly Brooks said. “I just say, ‘Hi. How are you doing? How was your day?’ ‘Good.’ ‘Do you have any homework?’ ‘Yeah.’

“From that point, I leave it as that. Then he starts listening to the music and his head starts bobbing and weaving and he starts to holler, ‘Hey, Ma.’ ‘Then, I’m like, ‘OK.’ But until then we are silent. It’s not like that all the time. Just sometimes.”

That Van Brooks Jr. has come through this ordeal so well is largely because of his parents, who have treated the youngest of their five children as normally as possible, given the circumstances.

Shelly, 43, an MTA transit driver, and Van Sr., 47, who works in home improvement, haven’t allowed their son to throw what his dad calls “pity parties,” or to have many “Why me?” moments.

“I wrote in his yearbook, ‘You’re only defeated when you allow yourself to be defeated,’ ” Van Brooks Sr. said. “You can beat me and knock me down a million times, but if I keep getting up, one time I might succeed. But if I have given up on myself, then I have given up. You can’t tell me anything if I give up on myself. I don’t care how much you talk.

“Early on, I said, ‘Why me?’ Well, why not you? What makes you any different? You’re not exempt. It’s life and in life, [stuff] happens. That’s the bottom line.”

Van Brooks Sr. says he doesn’t believe the doctors will ever come right out and say that his son will walk again, and surely enough, Sadowsky says that while she “doesn’t have a crystal ball,” because of his age, his strength, his treatment and the fact that his spinal cord wasn’t severed, Van, Jr. “has the potential to walk.”

Shelly Brooks has spent the past year at home with Van Jr. but hopes to get back to work soon, now that he has taken so many figurative steps.

Soon enough, they all hope, the literal steps will come.

“Every little step that I make is a big step for me,” Van Brooks Jr. said. “I just look at it as this is one more thing that’s going to help me get out of the chair. Now, I can move my left leg a little. That’s going to make me strive even harder to get out of the chair.”

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