A Sweet Summer Finish on Kelleys Island

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A smiling Matt Sosnowski past the finish line

Traumatic Brain Injury survivor finishes 5k flanked by his UH therapists

Four years after his car plummeted 87 feet down a mountaintop in Colorado, Matt Sosnowski crossed the finish line at the Kelleys Island 5k. Walking by his side on every step of the 3.1 miles were University Hospitals’ physical and occupational therapists – the same team that has steered him through years of relearning how to stand, walk and navigate life again after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“I couldn’t have done it by myself,” says Matt, who was only 38 when he fell asleep driving to Aspen after a long day of traveling following a music festival. He recalls his desperation after emerging from a medically induced coma to a changed world. “I was in really bad shape. I went through a long time after the accident when I wished I would’ve died.

“To have a team really dedicated to my recovery has been invaluable.”

Back to Ohio

Returning to his Ohio roots and now using a wheelchair, Matt found the help of UH neurological experts, including neurologist Hesham Abboud, MD, neuropsychiatrist Rajeet Shrestha and neuropsychologist Jill Winegardner, PhD. For more than three years, UH physical therapists have worked with him twice weekly as he learned to stand, walk and move through life again. Dr. Winegardner has helped Matt navigate the less tangible aspects of his life.

Dr. Winegardner explains that people who suffer injuries or illnesses affecting the brain, such as strokes, brain tumors, encephalitis, degenerative diseases or car crashes, also experience emotional and behavioral changes. In traumatic brain injury, the brain is affected in many ways when it is shaken in the skull like Jell-O, banged from side to side and twisted on its core. Injuries can range from concussion to severe TBI.

TBI patients must work hard physically to regain mobility with a goal of functional independence. But TBI also can cause cognitive changes such as problems with attention and memory. It also can affect executive functioning skills, such as planning, time management, organization, self-monitoring and control, abilities that help a person achieve goals.

Dr. Winegardner meets weekly with Matt to address cognitive and emotional changes, as well as to help him manage his weekly tasks to avoid mental fatigue. The former seasonal service worker is now a utility clerk at Giant Eagle grocery store. He has received formal compliments from customers for his friendly and engaging manner.

“Fatigue after brain injury is not just normal physical fatigue,” says Dr. Winegardner. “It also results from cognitive and emotional effort.

“Matt has been so dedicated to working on his physical well-being. My work has largely been helping him to tolerate other consequences of the injury and how to understand and manage the cognitive changes and emotional adjustment. Matt and I work together, managing his week so fatigue doesn’t set in.”

Looking back to his life before the 2018 accident, Matt says he now realizes that he suffered from depression for years and would have benefitted even then from medication. Anti-depressants have lifted his mood, making him more amenable to the serious work at hand. Even his physical therapists have noticed a significant difference in how he approaches PT now that his anger and frustration are eased by medication.

The first time he came to Dr. Winegardner’s office at UH Cleveland Medical Center, Matt’s father was pushing his wheelchair. Matt is now walking and even driving again with a temporary tag, eager to get his license. Virtual appointments initiated at the start of the pandemic removed the physical effort of getting to appointments that can make them seem insurmountable and even not worth it for some impaired patients.

“He’s made so much progress” says Dr. Winegardner. “When I first met Matt, he was a very unhappy and angry person who felt the world was trying to control him. He felt I was the one restricting him from moving out into his own place and living his life. Now he sees that this is within his power.”

Focused on the finish line

Matt, now 41, is taking control of his life. Throughout his journey, he’s had the ongoing encouragement of his UH St. John Medical Center therapy team: Tim Leo and Emily Ludwig in Physical Therapy and Katie Dickinson in Occupational Therapy, all of whom helped him cross the 5k finish line.

They have been supportive in celebrating the small steps that can be huge accomplishments for their TBI patient. A year after his accident, Matt was able to move with a walker. Now he is walking more often without one.

“We tend to take advantage of the things we’re able to do – stand up independently, transfer from one surface to another, bathe ourselves,” Tim says. “When an accident like this happens, it takes away your autonomy, your individuality, your personhood. Those automatic movements become very cerebral.”

At the 5k, Matt started without his walker for more than a mile and used it for a while. Then he told his team he wanted to let go. They supported him with a gait belt as he pushed the walker aside. He was greeted with a swell of support from the crowd, who were enthusiastically clapping and cheering. Kelleys Island police sounded their sirens as Matt approached the finish line.

“The magnitude of his recovery is because of how much effort he has put in,” says Tim. “He’s determined to get better.”

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