Comebacks: Dead Man Talking

Local journalist Brian Hickey was lost to the world for a month after being left for dead on a South Jersey street by a hit-and-run driver. He reports his own story of what happened and his miraculous recovery

As a pack of relatives waited for the verdict on the bilateral craniotomy — in which pieces of skull are removed in a last-ditch attempt to reduce potentially fatal brain swelling — in the building where my mother died as we debated the life-support machine almost three years earlier to the day, a lighter moment arrived in the ICU waiting room; Tom McGuire had to explain the text he’d sent my father from my phone.

“It was the only time anybody laughed in two days,” Tom says.

The surgeons came out six hours later saying the surgery had gone very well, but that I’d been placed in a medically induced coma. They didn’t know if I’d wake up.

I’M TOLD I was unrecognizable, a Wonka factory mutant with my eyes swollen shut and nothing but the tip of my nose and slivers of my ears visible. People who saw me — two hours of visiting per day in trauma — said my head was the size of the stand-up globe in my living room.

“Looking at you in that hospital bed, I thought the Brian Hickey we all knew was gone forever,” Tom says. “ I was 100 percent sure that if you did survive, you’d be Terri Schiavo.”

I had a bite plate in my mouth, and tubes going into a hole in my throat and a pair of places that don’t bear mentioning.

They kept me chock-full of morphine and Versed while I was comatose, plus a menu of meds all along the way. I can’t really remember a lick of my initial stay at Cooper, other than being in a drug-addled fantasy world. I vividly recall the coma dreams, from traveling to a bar in dusty Texas with the cast of Friday Night Lights to going to Seattle, Alaska, Center City, Chicago and Pittsburgh. The cops busted a dance party on the floor; there was an underground passageway to get to the Phillies game in Tampa Bay; and I was being treated, alternately, in an underground lab off Roosevelt Boulevard and upon Michael Nutter’s personal jet.

When I woke up roughly eight days after surgery, my eyes were open, and glazed, but nobody was home in the Hickey noggin.

“They said the worst case was that you’d never wake up from the coma,” Angie remembers. “At best, you’d have to relearn everything, like you were an infant. You were the infant.”

She was right.

“You had no emotion,” my wife tells me. “You were totally flat. There was nothing we could do.”

I saw the faces of people visiting me, the anguish in their expressions, but it didn’t register. I didn’t know why people were coming from Maryland or Washington State or San Francisco to see me.

One emotion arose within days of waking up, though: inexplicable rage.

Looking back, I think I knew I was in a hospital bed, but I had zero clue as to what had landed me there, or the fact that I’d been comatose, or the extent of my physical injuries. Visitors talked, and I just stared, and probably drooled — especially when Joe the Bartender showed up with a mini bottle of Jäger to cheer me up.

At that stage, the upper limit of my mental agility was smacking my left arm on the bed or my leg if someone tried to turn Divorce Court off. (It was the only option, since my right arm and leg weren’t working.) Although the same spasmodic reaction would result from just about anything.

 THE ENTIRE FIRST month, I couldn’t communicate with anybody, other than flashing a thumbs-up from time to time. I didn’t fully comprehend that I’d been hit by a car that first month, not until they loaded me up with another round of morphine and transferred me to Center City’s Magee Rehabilitation.

The second day there, December 20th, Angie broke down crying because life had replaced the look of death in my eyes. I spoke on my own for the first time — once, a Cooper nurse had put a finger on my trach and, following her instructions, I’d said to Angie, “Hello. I love you, wife” — telling physical therapist Joe Ferguson that I knew it was December. And when he asked what I did for a living, I said, “Journalist.”