Celebrating Thanksgiving will be easy for the Stone Allen family as their horn of plenty overflows with the continuing recovery of Forrest Stone Allen, now 25 and an enthusiastic student at George Mason University. Almost eight years have passed since Forrest’s snowboarding accident in 2011 when he suffered a fractured vertebra and near-fatal traumatic brain injury.
Airlifted that fateful day to the University of Virginia Hospital, specialists opted for craniectomy, removing the front third of his skull to relieve pressure on Forrest’s swollen brain, and prepared his parents for the worst. Forrest was unlikely to emerge from the medically induced coma and, if he did awaken, it was uncertain what his life would be like.
Forrest had great support from his parents, Drs. Rae Stone and Kent Allen, both veterinarians. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Rae, Kent and Austin, Forrest’s older brother. The intrepid leaders of Team 44, they created the blog that chronicles Forrest’s journey, “Thoughts and Prayers for Forrest Stone Allen” and refused to accept the initial prognosis. During that first week they had to go to court in Fauquier County to petition for legal custody: Because Forrest had just turned 18 and was considered an adult, his parents had no legal authority to make decisions about Forrest and his treatment. They won that round and, granted legal custody of their adult son, initiated the best possible support for Forrest.
“Team 44” became the proverbial village that “raised” Forrest. Composed of family, extended family, friends, medical professionals, and caregivers, Team 44 surrounded Forrest with powerfully positive thoughts, prayers, love, laughter, music, sheer faith, hope — and more hope.
When Forrest emerged from the medically induced coma on day 10, Rae had been sitting at his bedside, talking, holding his hand when she felt him squeeze her hand. Thus began the perilous but empowering journey of an 18-year-old determined to win back his life. That day’s post, written by Austin and Kent, set the tone for the coming years with love, incredible faith, and dogged determination for Forrest to regain his voice, locomotor skills, and essentially his very life: “We have become believers in miracles.”
Forrest spent that first year in hospitals, battling infections, various physical and cognitive setbacks, and six grueling surgeries. He could not speak or swallow and needed a feeding tube to his stomach. He couldn’t use his hands or turn over in bed by himself. He couldn’t walk. He had to re-learn language.
Rae and Kent refused to listen to the doctors’ grim words. They knew their son was still there, just trapped. They surrounded him with positive energy, faith, love, hope, prayer, perseverance, and more hope. The first flicker of his eyes to indicate he understood what they were saying led to more little successes – his trademark thumb’s up, first nerf ball caught, first words, first assisted steps, one day at a time, one step at a time. Hopes grew ever bigger as they celebrated the tiniest of triumphs.
“That’s really the curse and the beauty of a brain injury – there are no crystal balls,” Rae said. “Even when the prognosis was really bleak, no one knew what was possible. Within that uncertainty, there’s the opportunity for recovery and for hope. There’s no guaranteed path. When one of Forrest’s doctors would say, ‘I don’t want to get your hopes up,’ our response was ‘Then we have to find a different doctor.’ ”
The Stone Allen family can’t say enough good things about the combined benefits of Music Therapy with Tom Sweitzer, co-founder of A Place To Be, and Physical Therapy with Del Wilson, owner of Middleburg Physical Therapy. Both experts in their fields, they contributed far more than professional expertise. They brought to Forrest’s bedside their unfaltering dedication and passion for their work, “can do” attitudes, and genuine camaraderie. They banked on Forrest’s competitive nature and indomitable will to survive. Every effort he made, no matter how tiny, was met with cheers and loving encouragement by members of Team 44 led by Forrest’s equally indomitable parents and brother.
Routine and continuity can be considered contributing factors to this success story. When Forrest wasn’t able to work in person with Del or Tom, they would still have their sessions via Facetime. About ten of Forrest’s best school friends kept him connected to life. They spent hours with him in person and on facetime, sending messages, reading to him, reminiscing and filling in what his brain might not recall.
Laughter really is powerful medicine. It didn’t matter who was working with Forrest, they often brought humor and laughter with them. Tom and Del’s work complemented each other. It was more proof of Team 44 in action.
“Rae had all the support there you needed to work with Forrest,” Del said. “Everything that could be done to keep Forrest safe and protect his brain was in place. He wore a safety helmet just in case. No matter how hard it was he always tried. There are certain sequences that are foundational for moving your body around the planet. While Forrest was stuck in bed, we worked on rolling, getting up on all fours – movements that would help him to stand up and to walk again.
Babies and toddlers experience those foundational sequences as they roll, sit up on their own, get up on all fours, crawl, stand, stagger, fall — getting up again and again until they gain balance and can walk unaided. That’s much harder to do when you’re 6’2” tall, weigh only 120 pounds, your muscles are weak, stiff and uncooperative, and there’s only a flap of skin covering the frontal lobes of your brain. But Forrest learned to walk again.
“Del is an amazing physical therapist and became a wonderful mentor for Forrest,” said Rae. “We have so much to be grateful for – Tom, Del, their camaraderie, skill, energy, and faith in Forrest.”
Tom helped Forrest to breathe better, to produce notes on a small wind instrument. Forrest was humming, but words still weren’t being formed. A few months before Christmas 2012, his mother Rae told Forrest that what she wanted more than anything was to hear his voice. He whispered “good morning” on December 11.
Forrest found his singing voice and soon was performing on stage. Meanwhile, Del’s sessions helped Forrest to gain strength and stamina, balance and locomotor control. All along, Del paid great attention to Forrest’s frame of mind so that he knew exactly when and how to ask for more. Both therapists played to Forrest’s passions and interests: music, performing arts, sports, and competition.
“My objective was always to give Forrest the benefit of the doubt and not assume he can’t do something,” said Del. “Forrest will always try. I took the approach of challenging him a little beyond what he was doing even if it seemed a bit much at the time. Rae had the support there you needed to work with Forrest and keep him safe.”
When Rae and Kent knew their son was coming home from the hospital for the first time in a year, they got ready for Christmas in a very unique way. They equipped what became known as the Man Cave with everything Forrest might need, starting with an electric hospital bed. They recreated equipment used during his PT sessions at National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Washington, DC. They modified an electric lift with a custom-welded part to support Forrest while he relearned to walk, installed safety rails on the stairs and a ForrestMobile, to name a few.
“When I began working with Del, I started from scratch after spending months and months in a hospital bed,” Forrest explained. “Muscle atrophy had begun all throughout my body after not using my muscles for such a long time. So many things motivated me when I began working with Del. He became one of the key people to help me recover.”
Credit his mother with addressing her son’s extreme weight loss, which helped Forrest gain the strength he needed to get better. “When things were bleakest with Forrest, we took control of his nutrition,” recalled Rae. “His feeding tube delivered a commercial hospital formula including corn syrup and preservatives – highly inflammatory and difficult to digest. We were determined to get real nutrients into his system and started in the hospital, sneaking organic green juice into his feeding tube. Then we created an organic, homemade formula and gradually took over his nutrition entirely. The body can’t heal without wholesome food. The hospital staff was very resistant at first, but when they saw the progress Forrest was making, a few commented that they wished more families would do what we were doing.”
Forrest is living proof that thinking outside the box can make a huge difference. The fact that he’s attending GMU is proof of the miraculous power of love, faith, hope, prayer, laughter, positive thinking, and more hope. His skull was rebuilt with grafts from his remaining skull and ribs. He speaks a bit nasally, but he’s able to scuba dive and play golf with Del. The sky really is the limit.
“College has been an incredible experience — ever since my injury, I’ve been longing for the ability to live my own life,” Forrest said. “Realizing that this is only the beginning is not a new thought but a welcoming one.”
Forrest is in the George Mason Life Program, and this first semester is about building skills. His studies include Banking, Mathematics, Mason Exploration, Literature, Writing, Art, and Independent Living: Meal Planning and Preparation, Residential Housing, Self-Regulation, Fitness (Water Aerobics), Human Sexuality and Relationship Fundamentals.
“I will be able to take core classes this spring on the main GMU campus,” added Forrest. “I plan to study the environment and business.”
That’s a lot for any first-year college student, but Forrest has always lived 140% gung-ho. His recovery has opened many minds within the medical world, and his story shines like a beacon of hope to others whose lives have been interrupted by brain injury.
Forrest’s Tribute to Del, posted on YouTube on January 12, 2016, honors the Physical Therapist with the song written and performed by Forrest himself: “Just Keep Walking.” Rest assured Del isn’t finished with Forrest, not by a long shot, pun intended. Del introduced Forrest to golf as part of his ongoing PT.
“Golf is very challenging, it won’t come easy, but Forrest is so competitive,” said Del. “He’s learning to use himself better stooping to pick the ball out of the cup, how to hit the ball to get a good drive, ways to lift the ball to get a few hops to the cup. Some days he walks, some days he drives the cart. Golf challenges every atom in his body. It’s the hardest game ever to learn to play, but I think it’s really good for Forrest and that he could be very good.”
This Thanksgiving, please spend some time contemplating your blessings and remember that, no matter what challenges you face, hope is the best way forward. Forrest and his family will return to NRH, this time to visit with and encourage other families dealing with brain injuries – letting them know they aren’t alone. Forrest is living proof that miracles can happen when you harness the power of positive thinking, faith, hope, prayer, and hope, always choosing hope.
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