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

But Ferguson would have to ask me the date and what had happened to me repeatedly; 10 minutes after I said something, I’d forget it. And what my wife wrote in the binder that chronicled my recovery wasn’t entirely encouraging: “When we told [Brian] he couldn’t have Gatorade, he hit himself in the left thigh. Brian said he ‘feels like less of a person inside.’ Brian wanted to stay in bed all day.”

The medical reports stated, “He’s a risk to himself and others.” My bed was encased in netting, and a nursing aide would sit nearby all night to make sure I didn’t try to stand up and walk around — I’d earned the red “danger” tag affixed to my wheelchair by trying to do that once. Since I wasn’t able to drink any liquid, except through the feeding tube going into my stomach, those aides received the brunt of my anger; I’d wake up at 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 a.m. and scream for ice chips, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew. Each morning, they told me later, they accepted a heartfelt apology from the guy who couldn’t remember that he’d yelled at them the night before, too.

I was coming around, in a way: When nobody was looking, I’d cover my face with a pillow and bawl my eyes out, not over the hole in my throat, but out of fear that I’d never write again; to my ridiculously confused mind, that was the equivalent of widowing my bride. But it meant that things were starting to click.

Then three things happened, with no apparent explanation:

My occupational therapist, Amanda Gartland, got me to move my right arm. “See? It doesn’t work,” I said while flailing it around. “Even after you saw yourself move your arm,” Gartland says now, “it still took you a couple of days to really believe that you were the one moving it. Because things were changing very quickly, you barely had time to adjust to your progress.”

Physical therapist Angela Jancosko tricked me into walking. “You told me Christmas Eve,” she says, “‘I don’t want to walk. I just want to go back to my room.’ We said that your chair was blocking traffic and asked you to get up and stretch your legs. You walked 20 feet, then wanted to go again.”

And, marking the first true happiness I felt, I started crying when, with Angie in the room, the Killers came on my iPod dock. “He says they were tears of joy,” she wrote in my daily log on December 31st.

My body and brain were recovering together, though it was up and down — I once called my grandmother at 2 a.m. asking to use her bathroom because the nurses pissed me off by withholding Vicodin and ice chips. But the sourness evaporated. My brain made like Zoltar in Big and allowed me to grow up and walk up and down the steps without holding the railing, eat solid foods, memorize the door code to get off the floor (you know, just in case), and hit deadline on an article the speech therapist asked me to write for the Magee newsletter.