Data from more than 10,000 brain injury patients -- including hundreds of variables and outcomes -- is being tracked in an ongoing government project that began 26 years ago. A Palo Alto veterans' hospital shows how important this information has become in helping patients establish and meet expectations for recovery.
"You've been blown up, dude."
Those were the first words Corporal Toran Gaal heard upon awaking from a coma in a hospital bed in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Gaal was grateful that his brother, a former Marine, was so blunt.
A month earlier, right before dawn on June 26, 2011, the 24-year-old Marine squad leader had stepped on an improvised explosive device in Sangin, Afghanistan. When he opened his eyes at Walter Reed, Gaal wondered why he wasn't in country. Who was leading his men?
He says his limbs were an afterthought. The left leg would be amputated above the knee. Doctors would unsuccessfully try to salvage the right above the ankle, but it would eventually be taken at the hip. His brain's left frontal lobe was severely damaged. In less than a second, the trajectory of Gaal's life had changed. The infantryman, the college basketball player, the man always in control -- that person now lived in the past.
Gaal somehow manages not to dwell there. Still in recovery at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, he walks on prosthetics, rows, drives a car, and has plans to become an emergency services dispatcher. "I can't go back," he says. "I can't say what if, what if, what if. I'm happy with what I have. I'm alive."