Nineteen Years after Accident, Brownsville Man with Brain Injury Walks Again Using Robotic Exoskeleton

Gary and Mary Seelye of Brownsville, Pennsylvania, know that life can forever change in an instant.

In 1997, Mary and son, Nathan, then 14, were on their way to school when another driver ran a stop sign, crashing into their vehicle. Nathan, an eighth grader at the time, was ejected from the car and suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He was life flighted to Presbyterian (now UPMC) Hospital in Pittsburgh and spent approximately two weeks in intensive care and three weeks in an inpatient step-down program. For much of that time, he was in a medically-induced coma to reduce brain swelling.

When Nathan was discharged, he was transferred to a local facility to begin rehabilitation. Nathan, who excelled at basketball and academics and was president of his school’s Jr. National Honor Society, was unable to respond, eat or walk. What had once been simple tasks were now major undertakings.

Equally hard was the impact the accident had on his siblings, Joel, Joshua and Bethany, and his many friends. Over time, with few exceptions, the once-numerous visits from friends dwindled. Gary and Mary empathize, adding that it is hard to understand the impact of a TBI unless you have witnessed the profound changes it can cause.

“We initially expected Nathan to bounce back to his former self and pick up where he left off,” says Gary. “Nathan was a really bright, outgoing kid. His body was recovering, but with the support of family and friends, we slowly had to accept that the person we knew was gone.”

After nine months of inpatient rehabilitation, Nathan progressed enough that he could return home. He could communicate but was in a wheelchair and had a feeding tube to ensure proper nutrition.

While life had changed, it also had to go on. One of the first priorities was to ensure that Nathan continued his education. The Seelyes believed, as did Nathan’s physiatrist, Richard S. Kaplan, M.D., of Uniontown, that mental stimulation was crucial to his recovery and insisted he attend high school.

After graduation, coincidentally with his younger brother Joshua, Nathan worked for friends who owned a restaurant, cleaning tables. It gave him a sense of purpose, according to the Seelyes. After the restaurant was sold, Mary and Gary attempted to find other employment opportunities for Nathan, without success. These days, Gary and Mary try to keep their son mentally stimulated with trips to the mall, the park or the YMCA, as well as physical therapy and (of course) watching every Steelers’ game.

Last summer, while visiting Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Nathan’s doctor was introduced to the Ekso bionic exoskeleton, a bionic walking device that helps spinal cord injury patients learn to walk again. Good Shepherd, the largest clinical Ekso user in the world, and Dr. Kaplan felt that the Ekso could help Nathan.

Like most things parents do for their children, the decision to bring Nathan to Good Shepherd for therapy every week is a labor of love. Gary started making the five-hour drive from Western Pennsylvania to Allentown for Nathan’s weekly Ekso therapy in May 2015. 

Without a doubt, say Gary and Mary, the travel has been worth it to see the progress Nathan is making. During his first time in the Ekso, Nathan walked 101 steps. Every week, the father and son joke about how far Nathan will walk that day. He recently walked his personal best of 685 steps.

Gary says that the therapy is making it easier for Nathan to get around at home. Everyday tasks, like getting in and out of the shower, are easier because Nathan can better balance himself.

“It’s hard to describe the emotion everyone feels when a patient walks again for the first time,” says Nathan’s physical therapist, Nicole Yenser, PT, NCS. “Eighteen years had passed since Nathan’s accident, so walking is an incredible accomplishment.”

Nathan also participates in Good Shepherd’s Vision Rehabilitation Program. Andrea Nichols, MS, OTR/L, occupational therapist, developed treatment to help Nathan overcome the left-sided vision deficit he still struggles with. Therapy is enabling him to read whole words and not miss the left side of words.

For the Seelyes, it is clear that the time Nathan spends at Good Shepherd is more than just a weekly rehabilitation session. After so many years, it is about never losing hope and never giving up. It is about quality of life and independence. It is about doing all you can do to give your child every opportunity to succeed. And that is the best therapy of all.

To learn more about brain injury rehabilitation programs at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation, call 1-888-44-REHAB (73422) or contact us online.