George speaks with slow deliberation, drawing out words in a manner that recalls an audio player in need of fresh batteries. He worries that stepping into the bathroom for a moment would be enough distraction to erase his memory of our meeting. George, 51, has required assistance to help him lead a productive and fulfilling life since being hit by a car at age 13. Learning new skills requires his concentrated effort, but George easily assumed the mantle of protester when state budget cuts threatened the mental health programs critical to his livelihood.
George Birk doesn't remember seeing the car that hit him in 1971, when he was a carefree 13-year-old riding his bike delivering newspapers. He doesn't remember rolling over its hood, crashing through its windshield, breaking the steering wheel with his head, then somehow ending up on the pavement more than 100 feet away from the wreck. He doesn't remember anything from the month-and-a-half coma from which doctors and his parents never expected him to awake.
Coming out of the coma with serious brain damage and partial paralysis on his left side, George had to relearn life skills like a newborn baby. After a year-and-a-half of rehabilitation, he was able to feed himself, walk with assistance, and speak, though only at a rate of one word every 30-60 seconds. The brain damage left him with Swiss cheese memories, though he vividly recalls the shame and frustrations of trying to express himself to people who didn't understand his problem. "They would say, 'Come on George Just spit it out.' But I couldn't. The words would fall out of the damaged part of my brain before they made it to my mouth," he tells me with a smile.