Brain injury doesn’t keep Ohio man from hating Michigan

Zach Lawrence is recoving in an Ohio State hospital after for being severely injured in a car wreck in Eastern Europe.

When Zach Lawrence returned from the Republic of Georgia in April, he was nonresponsive from a traumatic brain injury and very ill, still dealing with the aftermath of injuries sustained during a March car accident in Eastern Europe.

But some loyalties can trump even the most devastating of injuries.

While recuperating at the Dodd Hall Rehabilitation Center at Ohio State University, the 38-year-old Dublin, Ohio, resident was given one button to push for “yes” and another to push for “no.”

“Do you like Michigan?” he was asked.

Lawrence immediately pushed the “no” button. And then — just to make sure everyone had heard him the first time — he pushed it again.

“He always makes a face when we mention Michigan,” said his wife, Meghan. “We’re pretty sure he’s in there.”

That’s a far cry from where they thought he’d be. When Lawrence returned to the United States on April 19, the family was told “that chances of him waking up were pretty slim, pretty much nonexistent,” Meghan Lawrence said. Doctors kept expectations low: The family was told they could expect to turn off Lawrence’s feeding tube within six to 12 months.

But four months later — and thanks to Dodd Hall, a rehab facility at The Ohio State University — - Lawrence is making progress.

He’s starting to make sounds. He is opening his eyes, and keeping them open more and more. He smiles at his children. He can give the thumbs up sign. His therapists help him stand on a treadmill. They use electronic stimulation to get the messages moving from his brain to various parts of his body. He can hold a crayon or a pencil, so when his children, Adrianne, 6, and Donovan, 4, come visit, they sit and color with him.

2 of 5 people in car died

Every step is a miracle compared to where he started. Lawrence, a 38-year-old startup consultant who was raised in Reynoldsburg, was in the eastern European state for a business conference when the car in which he was riding in from a fishing trip veered into a 50-foot-deep ravine on March 21. The car flipped repeatedly and hit a tree. Two of its five occupants were killed.

Lawrence, who was wearing a seat belt, broke all of his left ribs. He had internal bleeding. His nose was broken. But most troubling of all were the brain injuries.

His father, Dave, Meghan and brother David flew to Georgia. They assessed the situation and quickly knew he’d recover better if he were close to loved ones. So they raised tens of thousands of dollars to evacuate him, got him first to Vienna, then to the United States. And when he returned – still dealing with pneumonia – he was ultimately placed at Ohio State.

The family’s greatest fear, said David Lawrence, was that Zach would never recover. They were heartbroken to read of Otto Warmbier, the Cincinnati-area man who was released from North Korea only to come home in a virtually comatose condition. Warmbier died shortly after his return to the United States. “His story really struck home with us,” David Lawrence said. “It broke our hearts, and still breaks our hearts, frankly. We feel so grateful to have Zach back with us, to have a chance.”

Dodd Hall’s Disorders of Consciousness program has made all the difference, Meghan Lawrence said. He’s been there for just seven weeks, and the progress is measurable. “He’s now considered semiconscious,” she said, saying “we’re not sure how we got so lucky for them to take him in.”

What’s next?

Still, there are challenges. Insurance is now paying for Zach Lawrence’s treatment on a week by week basis, meaning he has to show some progress every week in order to stay in the program. And the family has seen so much progress, they said, that the idea of him leaving is terrifying. He’s currently slated to stay through July 14. They’re hoping he makes enough progress to have that time extended.

“We’re basically dealing with the healing brain,” said Meghan. “He has a long way to go, and he’s already come such a long way.”

David, meanwhile, will visit Zach in two weeks. The Atlanta resident decided to spend his 36th birthday at his brother’s side.

“I figured he’d like that,” he said.

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