When Steve Mishkin was brought into the emergency room in December 2014—his skull smashed in several places, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, his face discolored beyond recognition—he was not expected to live through the night. Over multiple surgeries, doctors removed sizeable chunks of his dominant frontal lobe and temporal lobe, including the areas that govern speech and movement. They told his wife, Amber, that even if he survived, he would never be himself again.
Less than a year after that horrific night, after a weekend of playing soccer with his children and socializing with friends, Steve returned to work full-time as a business analyst for a major bank.
True, he is not exactly the same as he once was: He’s more affectionate and effusive with Amber, more open with strangers, spilling his story to anyone who will listen. He occasionally struggles to find the word for, say, the toaster. But he has defied every prediction for what happens to a person after his brain has been severely, traumatically damaged.
Each year, in the U.S. alone, an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury, the leading cause of death in children and young adults. Who recovers, and why, is still a mystery to scientists. “Prognostication is something we do very poorly and we have very poor tools for it,” says Deborah Stein, a brain-injury expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “There’s so much we don’t know.”