CLINTON TOWNSHIP — The auditorium hummed with excitement as the graduates, each dressed in the black-and-blue gowns of Macomb Community College, walked across the stage one by one, receiving their diplomas.
Then came Brad Jones’ name, followed by a silent pause as he stepped onto the stage, walking slowly and cautiously, guiding his steps with his Louisville Slugger-shaped cane.
The silence lasted a few seconds until Jones yelled, “I did it!” The auditorium of 1,400 people immediately exploded in applause and cheers as he stepped up and took his diploma in hand. On a day like this, it’s hard for his mother, Donna, to hold back her joy.
It was the moment the Clinton Township mother and son had worked toward for years. It was the best Christmas gift she could ask for, she said.
“I feel like this is a dream,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “I can’t believe it’s happening. It’s, like, words cannot even describe.”
It’s been nine-and-a-half years since his accident. In June 2003, Brad was severely injured as a passenger in a drunk-driving accident. He had agreed to drive his intoxicated friend home after a night out in Windsor, but for some reason, and he doesn’t remember how or why, they switched places. About a block from his friend’s house, the driver lost control, hit a parked car and rolled the car into the side of a house.
The accident left Brad in a coma for three months. Doctors offered Donna a bleak prognosis; Brad had a 1-percent chance of survival. If he did live, they said, he would never regain consciousness.
“The doctors wanted us to pull the plug on Brad because there was no brain activity,” Donna would later say. “The hardest thing I had to do was go back to Oakland University, walk in the building and cancel his next semester’s classes.”
Up until then, Brad had been as active a teenager as you’ll find. At Fraser High School, he had captained his hockey and football teams, played as starting catcher on the baseball team, played the saxophone and made the honor roll with a 3.8 GPA. His senior year, he was one of 36 high school baseball players in Michigan chosen to play in Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association All-Star game at Comerica Park. After that, he attended Oakland University on a baseball scholarship.
Everything changed the summer between his freshman and sophomore years. The brain damage had severely impaired not only his memory, but also his fine motor functions. It was like somebody had pushed the reset button. But Donna had a longer-term vision.
“I wanted him to continue where he left off at,” she said. “I knew his abilities, and I knew he could do it.”
But the sour news was still rolling in by March 2006, when a neuropsychologist concluded that Brad wasn’t capable of handling college coursework.
“Consistent with the reported outcomes of Mr. Jones’ assessment at (Macomb Community College), it does not appear that he would enjoy success in a college environment,” the doctor wrote. “Rehabilitation efforts at this time should focus on vocational opportunities and improvement in functional-living skills.”
In short, the clinician was recommending Brad for a vocational workshop, a place where individuals with traumatic brain injuries and mental challenges are taught a confined set of functional job skills. Workshops are no doubt well suited for some, but Donna believed that, with time, her son was capable of more.
“I had to fight with the doctors to prove to them that Brad could handle the courses,” she said.
A second opinion from another doctor determined his strongest subjects were math and art. Donna brought in an algebra tutor. A high school teacher then gave his approval that Brad was capable of handling college courses. That’s when he took his first math class at Macomb Community College, which he passed, prompting a doctor to OK him for college curriculum.
By the time he started taking classes in the fall of 2008, Brad was still using a wheelchair and needed help doing simple tasks, like tying his shoes. He was right-handed before the accident but had to learn to write left-handed. Perhaps the largest setback of all, though, was the damage done to his reading comprehension skills and short-term memory.
Still, those who know Brad best say, if there was one thing that emerged from the accident unscathed, it was his determination — the same determination he had shown on the field.
“I’m just happy to be alive and to have my mind,” Brad said. Asked what he hopes people learn from his story, he replied, “Never give up.”
Since 2007, he has steadily worked his way toward a general associate degree, taking one course per semester, every semester, all year round. The motor skills began to come back with time.
Nicole Kammer, a behavior-intervention specialist hired to work with Brad, remembers the first time, to her surprise, she watched him park his wheelchair, stand up and take 10 steps on his own. “It just floored me. They said he would never do it, and he did.”
Every day, Kammer, or another specialist from her professional team at Behavior Consulting & Intervention Specialists LLC., would pick Brad up, escort him to class, attend classes with him and help him with any of his physical needs, from opening doors, to carrying bags, to putting together art projects.
Todd Mitchell met Brad last year. Mitchell, a Macomb Community College art professor, admitted he was skeptical when Brad first enrolled in his beginner-level sculpture class. After all, here was a guy who could barely walk, and the class required the students to come up with metalworking and woodworking projects.
“I didn’t know what he could do with his limitations, and I certainly was skeptical of having Nicole (Kammer) and her staff help him with his projects. Strangely enough, I thought maybe he would have almost an unfair advantage having two people work on a project.”
But Kammer assured him that the specialists would only be following Brad’s specific instructions; their own input wasn’t allowed. Every detail, down to the placement of each nail, had to be dictated by him. After meeting with Kammer and college officials, Mitchell was satisfied of the safety of Brad and his other students, and that the integrity of the class would be met without bending the curriculum for Brad.
Mitchell said Brad was adamant that the projects be done his way. On a couple of occasions, Brad insisted that he use power tools to sand and cut his own works.
“He said, ‘I think I can do this,’” Mitchell recalled. “I would look at Nicole (Kammer) or one of the (other specialists) and say OK,” Mitchell said.
In the end, Brad did every assignment asked of him.
“I just really admired his persistence and how he wasn’t going to let anybody stand in the way of his goal,” Mitchell said.
He said the other students in the class would occasionally use Brad as a gauge of what was possible for them, saying things like, “If Brad can do it, so can I.”
“I have tremendous respect for Brad. He could just give up. He could just say ‘Screw it,’ and he doesn’t,” Mitchell added.
This fall, Brad had one course to go before fulfilling his graduation requirements, when the bowling class he was enrolled in was canceled. Left scrambling to fill the gap, they turned to Mitchell, who offered a last-minute independent study drawing class. Brad had to animate and record a one-minute cartoon.
“The details of the art projects are very much mind-consuming,” Kammer said. “You have to understand the kind of shading, the kind of toning, what the instructors are talking about. How the brain would interact with our body to allow that to happen, to bring something to life — that’s what they said he couldn’t do.”
On Dec. 15, Mitchell again stood by Brad’s side as they walked together across the crowded auditorium’s stage at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts.
“I proved all the doctors wrong, and all the people who said I couldn’t do it,” Brad said one recent afternoon, two days before the ceremony. “Well, I got proof of what I can do.”
In their spare time, Brad and Donna Jones lecture to groups about the dangers of drinking and driving through MADD and Michigan Impact Panels. And, as members of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan, they also inform people who have suffered a brain injury about the range of resources and treatments available to them.
Kammer said, while the vocational workshops are well-suited for some, others, like Brad, have “the potential to jump out of that box,” but they never take the chance.
“Either the guardians are fearful, or the ‘what ifs’ come creeping in, and they’re afraid to take risks. And that did not happen with this family,” she said. “He is continually trying. If he fails, if he falls, I mean the guy just gets back up, laughs and is like, ‘Let’s do it again.’”
But it might have never happened without Donna’s insistence, Kammer said.
“I want my son to have the best life he can possibly have,” Donna added. “I want him to have the life he was supposed to have before his injury. And I want him to pursue that. So, to me, there were some challenges, but I knew he could do it.”