After severe brain injury, the 'miracle boy' returns


Stephanie Strunge recalls the late-night wail of an ambulance siren. Jim Strunge remembers hearing the low-flying helicopter.

But the Towson couple never suspected their teen-age son's life was in jeopardy until the phone rang an hour later, triggering every parent's nightmare -- a message that their child was being airlifted to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

"I was screaming. It was total panic," Mrs. Strunge says, reliving the warm evening in September when Bob, then 16, was injured in an accident.

At the hospital, the Strunges listened numbly as a nurse told them Bob was dying, his brain swelling dangerously. A doctor said it was time to summon close friends and relatives to the hospital. Someone else asked them to consider donating Bob's organs.

But Bob -- star athlete and honors student -- beat the odds, earning the nickname "miracle boy" at Shock Trauma. His medical case was honored at the emergency center's annual gala this year, and he will be featured in a brochure touting the successes of the facility.

And last week -- on schedule -- he completed his junior year at Towson High School.

Today, Bob is a bit less muscular than before the accident but retains his striking good looks, Tom Cruise smile and infectious sense of humor.

Still, friends and family, which includes Michelle, 19, and Jennifer, 13, detect some differences since his brain injury.

"There's a lot of the same Bob, but his emotions are more exaggerated," says Mr. Strunge, 46, an engineer.

And Jennifer gently tells her brother, "It seems a part of you died."

The accident occurred Sept. 6, two days before school was to start. Bob was out with friends and the group ended up in the front parking lot at Towson High.

According to police reports, Bob, who was riding on the roof of a van, was catapulted headfirst onto the asphalt pavement at about 10:35 p.m. Paramedics arrived soon and worked quickly to stabilize him until the MedEvac helicopter, his lifeline, landed at a nearby ball field.

'His brain was dying'

Tfc. Walter A. Kerr, a flight paramedic on the chopper, knew immediately there were serious problems.

"The [ground] crew was very tense, which is always a sign that something is wrong," he recalls. "The concern was that he wasn't breathing very well. . . . His brain was dying."

Four minutes later, Bob, whose only other injury was a scraped shoulder, arrived at Shock Trauma.

"His mortality rate was 95 percent to 97 percent," recalls Dr. David Gens, the attending physician who also treated former President Ronald Reagan after he was shot in Washington in 1981.

For the Strunges, who live in Stoneleigh, the hours blurred into one another as they sat helplessly while doctors and nurses tried to relieve the dangerous buildup of fluids in Bob's brain.

As dawn broke, there was a turnaround in his condition, though he remained in a coma. After that, each day was a victory, and eight days later, Bob held up two fingers. The next day he opened his eyes.

The recovery was just beginning, though. Bob spent several more weeks at the hospital before being transferred to a children's hospital in Wilmington, Del., for rehabilitation. Then, after returning home Dec. 21, he became an outpatient at Kennedy Krieger Institute for more therapy, before returning to school in early February.

A return to working out

As soon as he got home, Bob -- who can't remember the accident -- began jogging and lifting weights to speed his progress, says Mrs. Strunge, 47, a preschool teacher.

The community also was rooting for him. Friends and neighbors organized a November volleyball tournament of local celebrities, teachers, students and community members, drawing nearly 600 people and raising thousands of dollars for his medical bills. And Towson High's athletic association organized a pancake breakfast benefit.

Before the accident, Bob played soccer, baseball and wrestled at Towson High. "He exceled in all three sports," says Towson High Athletic Director Rick Eshmont. "He's an individual who's not easy to forget."

And even though Bob couldn't play those sports this year, he was still involved. He helped manage the wrestling team, and when he found out he couldn't play baseball, he tried out for the golf team -- and made it.

Bob's friends showed their support from the beginning, holding vigils at the hospital with the Strunges.

Lindsey Carey, 16, and several other Towson High students made an audiotape for Bob. "I told him how much I missed him," she says.

Bob still has the tape that his family put in his tape player at Shock Trauma, even when he was unconscious. "It was so awesome to realize how much the girls cared about me," Bob says. "It was special."

Joe Valeri, who has known Bob since they were in second grade, says he and Bob have become even better friends since the accident.

'Slowly getting better'

"His social behavior is a lot different" than before the accident, says Joe, 16. "He's immature, but he doesn't realize it. . . . For a while, he was loud all the time. But he's slowly getting better.

"Everybody in school knows who he is and tries to make him feel comfortable. He's very motivated."

His parents, too, have watched their son regain his strength and zest for life, from his frustrating attempts to place a finger on a computer keyboard to his heartbreaking efforts trying to throw a bean bag.

But the turning point for Mrs. Strunge was when Bob, still at Shock Trauma, mouthed, "I love you, too."

Bob, meanwhile, is determined to keep up with his classmates, so he can graduate next year. He wants to become a child psychologist.

To him, his world is the same as always.

But his mother, although thankful her son is alive, can't help but look at him and think of old times. "I miss him," she says softly.

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