Sunday, November 5, 2006

With Father Tim Vakoc's awakening, hopes for his recovery grow

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Thirty months after suffering a head injury in Iraq, the Catholic priest -- so seriously wounded that doctors at first thought he wouldn't survive -- is now talking.

Father Tim's Web Page Father Tim is looking for people to come visit him; especially with those who like to thumb wrestle! Check out the web page.

On Oct. 26, Phyllis Vakoc of Plymouth got a phone call from her son's hospital room. "Be quiet, don't say anything and be patient," a friend on the other end of the line told her. Puzzled, Vakoc waited. And then she heard her son's voice.

"Hi, Mom," he said, and she froze. It had been two and a half years since her son had suffered a devastating head injury in Iraq. Two and a half years since he had spoken. "I thought I was hearing things," she said last week. "I thought I'd never hear that voice again."

Father H. Timothy Vakoc, a Catholic priest, was so seriously wounded that doctors at first thought he wouldn't survive. But in recent days, he has started to speak, to the astonished delight of family, friends and caretakers. So far, it's only a few words at a time, and a struggle at that. But medical experts call it a significant breakthrough.

"Nobody ever expected him to live. Nobody ever expected this to happen," said his sister, Anita Brand. Their faith, though, helped sustain the whole family. "I have always held out hope."

Vakoc (pronounced VAH-kitch), 46, has spent most of the last two years at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center in what doctors call a "minimally responsive" state. He needs round-the-clock care, and he can't move much more than his left arm, hands, and a few muscles in his face and neck.

In recent months, family, friends and hospital staff saw signs, often subtle, that he was becoming increasingly alert. But he had not spoken since the explosion. No one could be certain how much of his mental function was still intact.

"All of a sudden Tim was on the phone and he was talking to me," said his mother, Phyllis, 80. "He said 'Mom.' He said 'goodbye.' He said a lot of things in between I couldn't catch. For two and a half years we've been waiting. We've been praying for a miracle."
Jim Schumacher, a speech therapist who has been working with Vakoc since May, heard him speak the next day. "I was thrilled," he said.
Father Tim, as he's known, grew up in Robbinsdale and was a parish priest before joining the Army. He was a chaplain in Bosnia and Germany before heading to Iraq in 2003. He was known as a funny guy with a wry sense of humor -- there's a picture of him in sunglasses and fatigues, holding two fingers behind another soldier's head.
In Iraq, he held prayer services for fallen soldiers and escorted them to the plane home, his mother said.


He was struck by a roadside bomb shortly after saying mass for troops near Mosul. The bomb shattered his left eye and pierced his skull, severely damaging his brain. It was May 29, 2004, the 12th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.

For months, he lay in critical condition at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He was transferred to the Minneapolis VA hospital two years ago, and has been there longer than any other soldier wounded in the war.
Just three weeks ago, one of his doctors said she thought he'd never speak again. The hospital was preparing to cut off his speech therapy because they had seen no progress.
And then he spoke.
[....snip]
Brenda Simmons, a longtime friend, was in the room on Oct. 26 when Father Tim first spoke. Simmons, a holistic health practitioner from Colorado, visits every month to pray with him, talk and offer alternative therapies, such as healing touch. That afternoon, when he woke up from a nap, she said, "Hi, Tim. Can you say hi back?"

He said, "Hi."

Simmons tried not to look shocked. "Can you say Mom?" she asked. "Very clear again, he said 'Mom,' " she said last week. "I was just like, 'Oh, my gosh.' " He repeated a few more words. "And I said, 'Tim, can you say, Thank you, God?' And he said 'Thank you, God.' "
[...snip]
The next day, Schumacher, the speech therapist, listened as Father Tim recited the Lord's Prayer, with prompting from Simmons. Father Tim finished the last two sentences on his own.
Said Simmons: "I cried the entire prayer."
[....snip]
Last Thursday, during a morning therapy session, Father Tim struggled to repeat simple words.
"Deep breath. Watch me," Schumacher said to his patient. "Good morning."

The priest breathed deeply, and said: "Good morning."Perfect," said Schumacher. "Watch me. 'I'm tired.' " Father Tim mustered his strength. "I'm tired," he breathed. Eventually, he reverted to the electronic voice device. Asked how he felt, he pressed "Frustrated."OK," said Schumacher. "Well, this isn't a test. You just do your best."

It will take time, he said, to build up his endurance. No one can say how much further he'll progress. "There's so much we don't know about recovery from brain injury," said Dr. Barbara Sigford, head of rehabilitation at the VA hospital. "I think we have to wait and see."
And no one can be sure why he started speaking now, 30 months after his injury. "Sometimes it's just when the patient is ready and able," Schumacher said.


On Thursday afternoon, Father Tim's parents, Henry and Phyllis Vakoc, saw him for the first time since his breakthrough. He was resting when his mother approached his bedside and took his hand. Until the phone call, she had not heard his voice since Mother's Day 2004, when he called from Iraq.

Laurie Jackson, the nurse manager, tried to prompt him. "OK, Father Tim. Your mom's here, and your dad. They're wondering if you'd like to say hi? Can you say hi?" He watched in silence.

"Probably tired, hey buddy?" Jackson said.

Phyllis Vakoc just smiled. "So you don't have to talk, Tim, if you're tired," she said. "I'm happy just holding your hand, OK?" He nodded.
"I've waited two and a half years, Tim," she said. "And we can wait some more. We'll wait as long as it takes." Read it All in the StarTribune




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