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Expecting the Unexpected - Sean Walks

CONNECT resident Sean and his mother Donna enjoy a walk outside.
Jaws dropped and staff cheered when CONNECT resident Sean stood and walked unassisted in August.

The 46-year-old, who is non-verbal, had celebrated his birthday on August 2. The very next day, after nearly two years in a wheelchair, he stood and walked on his own.

Donna, his mother, said she can't begin to describe the feeling of seeing her son walk.

"I believed this day would come," said Donna during an interview at CONNECT Lake Country on August 13. "But actually seeing him walk was the most joyful moment I could imagine."

Since the monumental stroll, Sean walks most days. CONNECT employees still have to do a double-take when they see him going by.

Brian Hall, an Independent Coach at CONNECT, said Sean walking is possibly one of the most unexpected things he has witnessed in his career.

"I wasn't there for the first independent walk, but when I saw him shortly after, he stood from his bed and simply walked forward. He had great range of motion and strength and control of his legs," said Hall, an occupational therapist, who has interacted with Sean since he moved into CONNECT in November, 2012. "None of us thought he would be able to piece it all together to complete a functional gate."

Sean was a liver transplant recipient in 2005. In 2012, he sustained a brain injury due to a misdiagnosis and surgery for a spontaneous bleeding problem. He spent 11 months in Vancouver General Hospital, two of those months in intensive care. Doctors initially did not think Sean would live and, after the bleed, diagnosed him as being in a vegetative state.

When the time came for Sean to be transferred out of the hospital his mother, Donna, did her research to find the best place for him to live and start his rehabilitation.

"I pushed for him to come to CONNECT because here they work with brain injury recovery holistically," said Donna. "He would have a comfortable, home-like environment that supports his emotional well being and they provide daily stimulation - absolutely necessary for the brain to build new pathways." 

From the time Sean was at VGH, Donna has been doing something she fondly refers to as "brain whispering." She puts on spa music and takes Sean through guided relaxation.

"Even when doctors said he was in a vegetative state, I knew he was there. I spend time creating a very calm environment and I simply tell him over and over, 'Sean, you are not your brain. Your master consciousness controls your body and your brain.' I would speak to him very softly and encouraged him to find the pathways again and communicate with his body. Through voice and touch I helped him slowly reconnect. By getting myself out of the way, I could hear him speak to me through his expressions. I want him to know he's being heard – even though he can't speak."

When Sean was at VGH, Donna had been living in a float home in Richmond – something that had been on her bucket list. Just one week after Sean was transferred to Lake Country, she uprooted and moved to Winfield too and was there to meet him when he arrived.

"At one point, he was dying and I had begun planning his funeral. I had a talk with hi and said, 'Sean, I don't want to lose you, but if you choose to go, I will understand. If you choose to stay, I promise I will walk side by side with you every step of the way on your journey to recovery.

Hall said Donna's dedication and belief in Sean is part of what has made his strides in rehab possible.

"She is incredibly dedicated. As much as we work with him and see progress, Donna has been incredible for Sean."

Donna encourages others with loved ones in the hospital to be vigilant and involved in care. She believes the medical system is flawed and requires us to act as watch dogs.

"Despite having such profound losses, Sean has joy about him. I feel like this experience has given me a chance to be the best mother I can be for him and we have developed an even deeper bond. I am very grateful to have him in my life and will be with him every step of the way."

Donna said she doesn't know what the future holds for her or Sean, and for the first time has had to suspend her own goals and dreams.

"Sean's path now determines mine, and while that can be incredibly challenging at times, I am OK with that."