TBI: 'Better and better and better.'

The young man in striped hospital pajamas grins at the camera, his Bronze Star citation in one hand, Purple Heart in the other. Something is gravely wrong with this picture. About a quarter of the man's head is missing. That he could even be alive, the way the curve of his skull sharply gives way to a sudden 45-degree angle, seems impossible. That was the picture of Portray Woods in 2004. Since then, nearly everything has changed.

Woods has spent the past four years redefining the possibilities for recovery from severe traumatic brain injury. The 36-year-old retired Army sergeant first class was wounded on April 18, 2004, when a roadside bomb turned him from a strapping former college basketball player into a comatose amputee missing his right arm, left thumb and a quarter of his head. He was not expected to recover. He listened to doctors speak of his grim prognosis and grew frustrated, unable to speak out in protest. He remembers his young daughter singing to him at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. He remembers his own first words after the TBI, to his mother who was constantly at his side after the injury. He remembers every step on the road to getting "better and better and better."

In time, through perseverance, family support and help from VA, he talked again, walked again, and proved to all around him just what's possible for those with TBI. "Portray is awesome," says Robin Paul, one of his health-care providers at Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis. "If I could multiply him by 100, that would be great."

During the past year, the father of two has begun working on a volunteer basis at the VA medical center and travels the state as a public speaker, telling his story of triumph over TBI. His goal is to write a book about the experience and share a message of hope to a broader audience. He recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine.

Q: How were you wounded?
A: I was riding in a Humvee, and an IED hit me. I was in a coma for two months. I couldn't remember nothing at all. I don't know what happened. Then, the first thing I remember was my little daughter singing to me. "You Are My Sunshine." And I smiled. Then I looked down and saw my arm was missing. Now, I couldn't talk. I looked down, and it's like, "Aw, man ...." Then I saw my thumb. It's like, "Man, what's going on?" I never did see my whole picture, my head. Then they took pictures of me ... how I was looking. I had a "trach" - a tube in my throat.

Q: At least you knew you were alive.
A: I heard them talking, saying I would never walk, I would never talk. I had 15-percent chance of living. I couldn't say anything. It made me mad. It made me perform.

Q: You knew at that point you had a long way to go.
Yeah, but I got better. I went to OT - speech - to try and get better. They said, "Say A."
I couldn't say "A." It was like "uhh, uhh."
They said, "Don't worry about it ... take your time." I got better and better and better.
Then I went to Walter Reed, this time to work on my brain injury. My head got all fixed up (cranioplasty). What happened was my head was lopsided. They fixed it up. I was blind in one eye.

Q: Can you see through that eye now?
Yes, I'm good to go.

Q: You lost an entire portion of your brain.
I sure did. My head got all messed up. Staples and all kinds of stuff. I can't smell either. People don't know that. I put on cologne, and people will say, "That smells good." I say, "Thank you," but I don't know what it smells like.

Q: You couldn't see much, walk at all, or talk.
Yeah, I was scared. What got me the most was my family. They came to see me all the time. I mean all the time. I was happy because they were with me. And I saw my kids. Dameir was 4 years old, and Jayden was only 1 and a half, turning 2.

Q: How did being a parent affect your recovery?
I thought about it all the time. I was determined. I thought, "Let me do it for my kids." And I got better and better and better. I thank my kids all the time.
I was sad at first. They grabbed my arm and they saw my hand was missing. I couldn't talk ... couldn't tell them I love them. My mother talked for me. Jayden, he was real scared. Now, they understand what happened.

Q: Your mother was there when you first spoke again. What did you say?
My mom said, "Say something to me ... say something to me." My mother was with me the whole time. I told my mother, "I love you."

Q: What about other family members?
My older brother. He told me to get up and walk. I was in a wheelchair. He said, "Get up and walk."
I just looked at him. "I ain't going nowhere."
He said, "Get up and walk."
I was in a wheelchair. I said, "I can't walk."
He said, "Get up."
We're just looking at each other, and I said, "I ain't movin'."
He said, "I ain't movin' either. We ain't doing nothing until you walk."
We just looked at each other. Then I said, "Oh man ... OK ... Let me try to get up." I got up out of my wheelchair. It took a long time. But I started walking. That made him happy. So happy.

Q: The problem was just that your brain was not able to send signals to your legs?
Exactly. I was paralyzed in the knee, but then I started walking.

Q: That was four years ago. Describe the process.
Really slow.

Q: You could have gotten depressed. Did you?
When I got divorced, I got really mad. I couldn't talk at that time. I wanted to say something, but I couldn't talk. My mother was doing everything for me, and that made me mad. But after that, I began doing a lot better. I get my kids six times a year, and I'm happy, very happy.

Q: Have soldiers from your unit stayed in touch?
All the time. One just called me today. One staff sergeant got married in Maryland. I went to see his wedding. But there was a moment there, when they told me, "Seven people you trained had died." I went outside to cry.

Q: Today, you own a home, mow your lawn, operate a computer, hold down a job, you have a place in the lives of your kids. And you have a message for others who have TBI.
I tell them, "Do not give up." Look at me. I came a long way. Some people, when something bad happens, they want to get out. I tell them my truth. My truth is that I love the Army, and I'd go back.My message is that I did it. You could, too.

– Jeff Stoffer