This is what 17-year-old Seth Barronian remembers about his last regular day:
He and a friend were long-boarding (riding long-version skateboards) near Tacoma, Wash., a good distance from his home in Normandy Park. Because he loved to feel the wind in his hair, he ditched the helmet his parents insisted he wear. He was cruising downhill at about 20 miles per hour when his board hit a twig or rock and stopped cold.
But Seth kept going.
“I remember saying all the bad words I know,” says Seth. “I remember an explosion when my head hit the ground.”
After that, he remembers nothing at all.
When Seth woke up in the intensive care unit of a community hospital, he and his family started a new chapter in their lives: living with traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Eighteen days after the accident, Seth’s parents moved him to the Rehabilitation Unit at Seattle Children’s to begin the long, hard, slow process of re-learning the basic skills that most of us take for granted.
Since then, the Barronians have learned that it takes more than medicine to heal an injured brain.
Sometimes, it takes art.
Meet Marcos Boaz
When Seth arrived at Children’s, he was very confused and disoriented, says Rebecca Politis, a speech pathologist who worked with Seth during his seven weeks here.
At first, Seth, an honors student, could barely see or hear, let alone read or write, add or subtract. As he started to recover, he ran into other challenges typical for people with TBI, like trouble controlling his impulses and a tendency to mix up real memories with imagined ones.
At Children’s, Seth started an intense rehabilitation routine, spending hours each day in the School Room with speech therapists and teachers.
While his classmates at Seattle Christian High School pushed through end-of-term projects and final exams in May and June, Seth faced very different tests, like processing basic information, rebuilding his memory and learning problem-solving skills.
“There is no cookie-cutter way to work with kids with TBI,” says Rebecca. “We build a therapy around who they are and what motivates them.”
What motivated Seth, it turned out, was creating a story for younger kids at Children’s.
Brian Ross, manager of Educational Services, found the perfect medium for Seth’s message – an app for creating audio books on an iPad.
Brian, Rebecca and Beth Novak, another speech pathologist, built Seth’s speech therapy and school lessons around “The Adventures of Marcos Boaz,” the story of a stuffed bear whose candy craving leads him on a big adventure.
With a little help from Marcos Boaz, and a lot of help from his therapy team, Seth started connecting the dots to rebuild his life.
A little bear helps Seth reach big goals
When Seth talks about the audio book, his pride shines through. And, it’s no wonder. Writing, narrating and art directing “Marcos Boaz” was no small accomplishment.
That’s what made it the perfect centerpiece for school and therapy, says Brian.
“This type of therapy naturally reinforces positive outcomes,” says Brian. “Because the project was fun for him, he was invested in it. In the end, it helped him gain skills that he will use every day.”
The project allowed Seth to reach concrete goals set by his speech and school team:
- Increasing his attention span and the time he spent on a task
- Understanding what his therapies are and why he does them every day
- Helping him recognize and control his words and actions
- Learning about sequencing and planning what comes next
- Improving his memory
Seth also gained a sense of independence from the project, and he had a great time.
When Brian watches the finished audio book, he sees more than a little bit of Seth in Marcos.
“Marcos is lost and alone in an unfamiliar environment, and someone he loves brings him back into the fold,” he says. “All those things are happening to Seth, too.”
Seth’s recovery is far from over, and his hard work will continue in the coming months and even years. The work he completed at Children’s will provide a solid foundation as he and his family move forward.
Marcos’ story ends happily, with the little bear already dreaming up another adventure. Seth, too, is making plans for the future. When he left Children’s last week, he was looking forward to his mom’s home cooking (“It’s heaven on a plate,” he says). And, much to his mom’s dismay, he hopes to eventually get back on his long board, but this time with a helmet.