by Ian Hebeisen
In September 2012, celebrity nutrition and fitness expert JJ Virgin answered a phone call that no parent should ever receive. Her 16-year-old son, Grant, had been the victim of a hit and run car accident that left him with incredibly severe injuries.
At the hospital, JJ found Grant in a coma with several bone fractures, diffused axonal injuries, and a torn aorta. Doctors informed JJ that her son’s chances of survival were slim to none. They needed to perform surgery to fix the torn aorta and prevent rupturing, but the hospital where they were was not equipped to handle such a procedure. Doctors doubted Grant would survive either an airlift or the surgery.
But JJ refused to let her son die without trying everything first. “I thought, Is it possible, like the teeniest, littlest fraction of hope that he could make it? Any parent would go, I’ll choose that,” said JJ. And lo and behold, Grant survived both the airlift to another hospital and the surgery.
The victory ended up being short-lived. Grant’s neurosurgeons could not confirm whether Grant would ever wake up again. Again, JJ refused to give up hope. “I just made that decision standing there in the hospital, that I was going to do whatever was in my power … to help him get to be 110%.”
Grant did eventually wake up, but not in the way shown in movies. “He woke up, looked to the side, and started to move the one arm that was free,” said JJ. “Everything else was cast, and he just moved it back and forth all day long.”
They remained in the hospital for two and a half months, and then moved to a rehab hospital for an additional two months. During this time, JJ and her husband had to reteach Grant some of the most basic things,. for example: his name, how to use a toothbrush, how to get dressed, and how to use the bathroom. “It was like having a really big 150-pound baby.”
In addition, Grant’s emotions ran rampant. He became violently angry and suicidal to a point where he needed to be restrained with a guard posted outside his door. Survivors of traumatic brain injuries may experience an increase in suicidal ideation, and 30% are more likely to go through with it.
Despite all the challenges, JJ continued looking after her son, not giving up hope that he could improve. “Sometimes I get to that point where you’re like, ‘Is this as good as it’s going to get?’ And I wouldn’t let myself stay there,” said JJ. “I just kept saying what’s 110% of the next step?”
Over time, Grant started to improve with the help of a speech therapist. He also attended a program designed to strengthen his physicality and motor skills. He regained his memory and his awareness, and even taught himself hydroponics. “We’ve really had to kind of make the therapy together,” said JJ. “I feel like this is a forgotten group of people, that there really aren’t the resources, the places to go.”
At one point, they sent Grant to a facility in Utah that specializes in cases like his own. Now, he is capable of living on his own, but JJ’s biggest concern for her son is loneliness. “Loneliness is one of the worst things we are suffering in this country.”
JJ spoke about her time as a caregiver on the Faces of TBI podcast, and offered some advice to other caregivers who might be struggling with their newfound roles. “That person that you love is still in there, and you can’t let that go,” said JJ. She encourages looking for triggers and warning signs that may indicate your loved one might be getting overloaded, or that a certain treatment is not working.
In addition to caring for your loved one, JJ reminds caregivers to take care of themselves too. “If you’re a caretaker, make sure you’re taking care of yourself because this is a challenging thing.”
JJ’s memoir, Warrior Mom: 7 Secrets to Bold, Brave Resilience, is available online and in bookstores. You can listen to this episode of Faces of TBI on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Ian Hebeisen graduated from Saint Mary’s University in May 2020, earning a degree in Literature with a Writing Emphasis. Now living in the Twin Cities, Ian writes comics, graphic novels, and poetry. In his spare time, he enjoys playing board games with his family.