Nicholas Morihovitis – ABI Survivor Giving Back

My story begins on Sunday, January 3, 2010. I was 20 years old at the time and was a student at George Brown College studying Construction Engineering. I played soccer and hockey and had 2 part time jobs.

It had been snowing lightly most of the day and the roads were slick. I was alone in my car that evening and was driving to my hockey game. I was changing lanes when my car slid, mounted the curb and hit a light standard. I don’t remember anything at all of the next few days and not very much for the weeks that followed, so this part of the story will be told by my mom.

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My husband, George, and my younger son, Alexander, had left a few minutes after Nicholas to go and watch his hockey game.  As the game was about to start, George realized that Nicholas was not at the arena.  He tried calling his cell phone but he did not answer.  He called me at home and asked if I had heard from Nicholas and I said I hadn’t.  Just as we ended the call, the doorbell rang.  I walked toward the door only to see the flashing lights of a police car in my driveway.  I opened the door to see 2 police officers who told me that Nicholas was in a terrible accident, that he had very serious injuries and that he was being air lifted to St. Michael’s hospital.  It was a mother’s worst nightmare!!  I think I was in shock and not fully comprehending what the officer was telling me. The first words out of my mouth were “Is he alive?” The officer said, “Yes he is but you should hurry and get to the hospital as quickly as you can.” I called my husband and told him the situation about Nicholas and that we had to get the St. Mike’s ASAP.  George realized that the road closure and detour that they had encountered on the way to the arena was because of Nicholas’ accident.

When we arrived at St. Mike’s Emergency Department and told the receptionist who we were, she became quite nervous and jumpy. I feared the worst. Instead of letting us see Nicholas or speak to the doctors, they sent a very calm, middle aged lady in a white jacket with a white book under her arm to talk to us.  She was clearly the hospital Chaplain. She had asked us to come with her to a quiet space so we could talk.  In my mind I was thinking “I don’t want to go to a quiet space.  I know what kind of talks people have with the chaplain in quiet places. I won’t go!”  Actually, I think I may have said this out loud to her.   Again I asked, “Is he alive?”  She was trying to be comforting to us but all I wanted to do was see Nicholas.  Alexander said that the dimly lit, quiet room was giving him the creeps.  I thought so too!!

A few minutes later, the doctor came to speak to us and told us the extent of Nicholas’ internal injuries: ruptured spleen, collapsed lung, badly torn diaphragm, lacerated kidney, broken jaw, broken pelvis. I think I stopped listening at that point.  In addition to the internal injuries, he told us that Nicholas had suffered severe trauma to his brain as a result of the impact and the sudden jolt of the accident.  He explained that it took 45 minutes to extricate Nicholas from the car and with the damage to diaphragm making it difficult to breathe and the fact that the paramedics could not intubate him at the scene, they had no idea how long or to what extent Nicholas’ brain was deprived of oxygen. Again I asked, “Is he alive?”  He said that they were taking Nicholas into surgery immediately.

The next few hours seemed like days as we waited for word about Nicholas’ surgery.  We prayed that God would not take Nicholas from us and asked for a miracle that my baby would be OK.  We were finally allowed to see Nicholas at 6:00 the next morning, surrounded by so many machines and hooked up to more tubes and wires than I could count.  This was my baby lying here… what I wouldn’t do to trade places with him and take away his pain! I’m his mom… I’m supposed to be able to make everything all better for my kids.  I felt so helpless and numb. It was like none of this was really happening to us …like I was watching a movie of someone else’s story.

When the doctors finally came to speak to us, the news was not good.  They told us that the surgery went as well as could be expected, given the extent of his injuries, but that Nicholas was still in critical condition.  They told us that his internal injuries and his brain trauma in of themselves were life threatening but with the combination of the two, Nicholas’ situation was very grave.  It was not until weeks later that they admitted to us that they did not expect Nicholas to survive past the first three days.

The next day, the doctors came to us to discuss Nicholas’ traumatic brain injury . They told us that Nicholas was still in the coma and that he was paralyzed on his right side.  They told us that the ABI would result in Nicholas having “extreme and severe” deficits but what did that mean?  Would he never come out of the coma, would he never be able to breathe on his own, would he never walk, talk  or think??  They had no answers for us.  They said that there was no way of knowing the true extent of Nicholas’ deficits, only that they would be “extreme and severe”. They told us that Nicholas’ score on the Glasgow Coma Scale, both at the accident site and in hospital was only three. I had never heard of  the Glasgow Coma Scale and had no idea how bad a score of 3 really was but I knew I was about to learn all about it.

That day we met Ingrid Kuran, the Social Worker on the Neurotrauma floor at St. Mike’s.  She was a wonderful and compassionate woman who was easy to talk.  She advised us to contact our insurance company and report the accident.  That was definitely the furthest thing from my mind at that point.  Who cares about the stupid car!!  Ingrid explained that because Nicholas’ injuries were deemed catastrophic (we were learning so many new terms) he was and we were entitled to immediate insurance benefits.  She told me the information that I should be relaying to the insurance company and the benefits I should be requesting.  I would have had no idea if it were not for Ingrid.  Ingrid also suggested that we should contact a lawyer.  I told her I didn’t think that would be necessary.  I thought, after all, who are we going to sue … the light standard??

As the days went on, Nicholas remained in the coma and on the ventilator.  He had good days and bad days but he hung in there. He started showing small signs of improvement and on the 8th day, Nicholas started to respond to the nurse’s request to give them a “thumbs up” and hold up 2 fingers.   It was only a baby step but it was a baby step in the right direction!! We knew he was able to hear and understand us.  In fact, one day he jokingly gave Alexander and I the middle finger!!  His sense of humour was shining through!    Soon after that, Nicholas “coughed out” his ventilator tube and began breathing on his own. He was moved from the Neurotrauma ICU to a room in the unit.  Nicholas still had no movement on his right side and with his broken pelvis could not stand on his own.  Of course, because of the ABI, Nicholas did not understand that and tried many times to get out of bed.  He was assigned to a room that had a constant attendant. He was often tied to his bed and became very angry and frustrated.  He soon started talking and was able to recognize family and friends in photos.

Nicholas started to receive physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.  He had a very, very long road ahead of him but he was on his way.. one small baby step at a time.    George and I had asked each of his therapists to give us some activities we could do with Nicholas that would help his recovery.  We played cards and math games with him and shared family photos.  We encouraged him to call family and friends and speak to them every night.  We massaged, stretched and exercised his right arm and leg.  We read to him, asked him to read to us and took him around the floor and the hospital in his wheelchair many, many times every day.  George and I were with Nicholas for 10 to 12 hours every day.  We saw many patients on the floor who were not as fortunate to have family with them.  We saw them sitting in wheelchairs in the hallway or near the nursing station, often yelling for some attention or to be moved to a different place or back to their bed.  We saw their frustration, anger and sadness when they couldn’t express what they wanted.  The nursing staff was certainly not able to cater to these demands in addition to taking care of the medical needs of so many.  We knew that if Nicholas was to have any hope of meaningful recovery, George and I had to be there for him.  We couldn’t bear the thought of him crying or yelling out of frustration and having no one there to comfort him.  We truly believe that this had a huge impact on Nicholas’ early recovery.

After 4 weeks, Nicholas started moving his right leg and shortly afterwards, his right arm and he continued to show overall improvement every day.   Nicholas was a “star” on the 9th floor.  The families of the other patients all got to know him and were amazed at his progress. There was a constant stream of our amazing family and Nicholas’ wonderful friends visiting, supporting and praying for Nicholas.

The hospital staff would stop and greet him with “Hey, look at you. You look amazing.  You’ve come so far since we first saw you.”  “Beyond expectations” was a term very often used when speaking about Nicholas.  If Nicholas was told he couldn’t do something, his comment was always, “Watch me!!” and he was determined to prove himself.

Image of Nicholas Morihovitis and his sister at St. Michael's Hospital
My sister Vanessa and I at St. Mike’s during the winter Olympics, out of NT ICU but still not moving my right side.

The doctors told us that when he reached a certain point on the Glasgow Coma Scale, he would be ready to be transferred to a rehab facility.  Two weeks later, that day had come.  Toronto Rehabilitation Institute had agreed to accept Nicholas for the next stage of his recovery.  However, TRI was able to take him only if we could arrange for a Personal Support Worker to be with Nicholas on a 24 hour basis.  I had no idea where to begin to make such arrangements and was desperate to find a way to make this happen and only had 2 days to put it in place!!  Again I went to Ingrid for advice.  Ingrid said, “And this is why I suggested you contact a lawyer.”

Now where do I find a lawyer on such short notice??  Where to begin?  During our days and weeks at St. Mike’s, I had spent many hours on the computer in the 9th floor family lounge.  That computer and internet service had been donated by Thomson Rogers so that’s where I started.  I took a look at the profiles of the Thomson Rogers personal injury lawyers and narrowed it down to two that caught my attention… Darcy Merkur and Len Kunka.  I took a chance and called Darcy.  This was early evening and so I did not expect to receive a call back from Darcy until the next day.  However, within hours, Darcy had returned my call, let me explain Nicholas’s situation and arranged to meet with George and I at St. Mike’s the next morning.

When Darcy arrived the next morning he had brought with him an associate who he said would also work with us.  We were very happy that it was Len.  Also with Darcy was Lyssa Bauer of Knorr and Associates. Darcy explained that Lyssa would work as Nicholas’ case manager and act as the “quarterback” to the team that would be involved in Nicholas’s rehab.  George and I were very relieved to think that we didn’t have to do this alone any more.  Darcy and Lyssa were now in Nicholas’ corner to help him through the next phases of his rehab.

Darcy and Lyssa were able to make the necessary arrangement for the PSW so Nicholas could be transferred to TRI as scheduled on February 16.  But when Nicholas got to TRI, he was not a happy camper!!  Nicholas wasn’t a “star” here.  No one here knew how far he had come from that awful January night when he was not expected to live.  He hated the fact that he was moved from St. Mike’s and wanted us to take him back.  In the lounge, Nicholas was able to see and meet some of the other patients in the unit.  This made him even more upset about being there.  He thought that he was not at all like these other patients.   Most of patients were moving themselves around, either in a wheelchair or with a walker.  Many were walking on their own.  Nicholas was still not able to attempt standing because of his broken pelvis and because of the paralysis and weakness on his right side.  He said “All these people are so much better than me.  I don’t belong here.”  When George and I left him that night he was very angry.  He called us many times through the night to come and get him out of there!!

It took Nicholas several days before he finally agreed to meet with the therapists but once he got started, he progressed in leaps and bounds.  He realized that this was not St. Mikes where they catered to him. At TRI, he had to learn to do things for himself and he was determined to do just that. In the first 10 days of being at TRI, Nicholas went from not being able to stand on his own, to scooting himself around in his wheelchair, to walking with a tall walker, then a lower walker then walking with only the help of a cane.  He was amazing!!  His stubbornness, determination and “watch me” attitude was serving him well at TRI.  If they told him to do 50, Nicholas said he would do 100.  If they told him he would start something new tomorrow, Nicholas wanted to do it today. If they told him he couldn’t do something, Nicholas just said, “Watch me!”.

Image of Nicholas Morihovitis at TRI
Day 4 at TRI – first day on the tall walker.

One of my most memorable moments in those early days at TRI was when Nicholas gave me a “2 armed hug” for the first time since the accident.  It was the most amazing hug I have ever felt!!

In addition to Nicholas’ routine daily therapies, we agreed to have Nicholas participate in an intensified therapy study.  This meant that Nicholas would receive additional therapy in the evenings and during his available time during the day. Chris Aznar was assigned as Nicholas’ rehab assistant for the additional therapies.  Chris was a young, energetic, “cool” guy.  Nicholas and Chris hit it off immediately and Nicholas look forward to their time together.  Nicholas was kept very busy at TRI but had enough down time to be able to rest when he needed to.  Of course the constant stream of family and friends continued here as well and I was with him every day.

After the second week, Nicholas was able to come home for weekend visits.  I was very concerned about just how this would work.  We live in a 2 storey house.  How could he get up to his bedroom?  Did we have to redesign the house for him?  Throughout this ordeal, I had always been the worry wart.  The internet is a wonderful thing but sometimes too much, often misleading, information can be dangerous.  I was jumping to conclusions where I had no reason to be going.  I was out buying bungalows before giving Nicholas a chance to prove himself.  George was my rock.  His positive attitude and faith in God and in Nicholas gave us strength and made me stop shopping for bungalows!!  The house was full of family and Nicholas’ closest friends every weekend that he was home.  Nicholas so looked forward to seeing them all, especially his best friends Daniel Covelli and Nicholas Lacaria.

Eli Rocha, Nicholas’ physiotherapist at TRI was wonderful.  She was a petite woman whom Nicholas towered over but did not let that affect her therapy.   She worked with Nicholas so that he was ready to come home that first weekend and walk up the stairs to his bedroom.   What a blessed sight that was to see my baby asleep in his bed for the first time in 8 weeks.

Image of Nicholas Morihovitis with Eli Roche of Toronto Rehabilitation Institute
Day 7 – with Elli Rocha on the short walker

We had regular family meetings with the staff at TRI and Lyssa Bauer attended them all. At our first family meeting we were told that Nicholas would be there for eight weeks, until approximately mid April.  Of course, Nicholas disagreed and said that he would be home by Easter, which that year was April  4. At our second family meeting, we discussed the tremendous progress that Nicholas was making.  They told us that his improvement was “far beyond expectations” (there was that word again) and that they were trying to determine suitable activities to keep up with him.

Image of Nicholas Morihovitis on day 8 of his rehab with parallel bars
Day 8 – parallel bars with no support
Image of Nicholas Morihovitis at rehab
Day 8 – starting on the small stairs
Image of Nicholas Morihovits at rehab bouncing the ball and standing on his own
Day 9 – bouncing the ball and standing on my own
Image of Nicholas Morihovitis at rehab practicing on stairs
Day 9 – on the big stairs. Practicing for the stairs at home.

At the third family meeting Nicholas’ discharge from TRI was discussed.  They told us that Nicholas’ exceptional progress and rehab had exceeded all expectations for the 8 week treatment plan they had intended. They had exhausted all options to continue in-patient therapy for Nicholas and that they would be discharging him earlier than expected after only 6 weeks.  Nicholas’ discharge date was to be April 1.  My first comment was, “If this is your idea of an April Fool’s joke, I don’t think this is very funny.”  It was not a joke.  Nicholas was discharged on April 1, 2 weeks earlier than expected.  Just as Nicholas predicted weeks ago, he would be home by Easter!!

Image of Nicholas Morihovitis first weekend pass at home
Day 18 – March 5 – my first weekend pass at HOME !! BELIEVE !!

Within the first 2 weeks of being home, Lyssa had pulled together the team of therapists that would continue Nicholas’ rehabilitation.  He would receive physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech/language therapy.  He would work with rehab assistants. get a gym membership and consult with a Psychologist.  But Nicholas was not an easy client to work with sometimes.  I’ll let Nicholas take over the rest of the story from here.

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I liked Lyssa and most of the therapists that Lyssa had put on my rehab team but sometimes the things they were asking of me were very frustrating.  Sometimes it was because I couldn’t physically or mentally actually do what they wanted me to do that made me frustrated. It was hard for me to hear and harder to believe that I was reading at a grade 3 level, but it was true.  Sometimes I was frustrated because I thought the things they were asking me to do were pointless and not meaningful to me.  I told them that I didn’t want them to turn me into a “new and improved” Nicholas.  I just wanted to get my life back as it was and be my old self again… not new and improved.  I wanted them to work on things that were meaningful to my life not what they thought my life should be.

Lyssa listened to my concerns.  She knew that getting back to playing hockey was important to me and she found a way to make hockey part of my rehab.  Under the observation and approval of Donna Crowther of Neurological Therapy Services, my Physiotherapist/Osteopath, I began one-on-one on ice sessions with a hockey instructor at Canlan Ice Sports.  On skates and in full hockey equipment, including a new helmet designed for minimizing risk of concussion, I was skating, shooting and doing basic hockey drills.  It was great therapy for my balance, strength, endurance, hand eye coordination and general overall happiness for being on the ice again. This was therapy that was meaningful to me.   Donna and my mom were very impressed.  My mom said that some of the moves I was doing on the ice in skates , she couldn’t think about doing in regular shoes!!   I will never forget my mom’s reaction when I first started these sessions.  She said ” What a wonderful feeling it is to see that hockey stick leaning against the front door when only a few short weeks ago it was your cane!”

Lyssa also knew that getting my driver’s license back and being able to drive again was also important to me.  She put me in touch with Drive Again Advanced Driving Training to help me with this.  It took well over 18 months for it to happen but in June of 2011 I finally got my license back and was able to drive.  I am so grateful to my awesome family and friends who were so supportive of me during this time and picked me up and drove me wherever I needed to go.

I am grateful to my sister Vanessa who was with me during my rehab at home.  Vanessa was in London at Western University during my time at St. Mike’s and TRI and I didn’t get to see her as much as I would have liked.  My mom stayed off work during that whole time but went back to work when I was discharged from TRI.  Vanessa was my “person” to be home with when I couldn’t be home alone.

I spent a lot of time with my rehab assistant/ kinesiologist Henry Wong. Along with many other activities, Henry accompanied me to the gym and guided me through various work outs and exercises. As time went on and my rehab was progressing well, I asked Lyssa if we could include Chris Aznar, who worked with me at TRI, as part of our team.  Lyssa contacted Chris and made this happen.  I was able to work with Chris again for the next 6 months.  To this day I still keep in touch with both Henry and Chris, especially Chris.

I think it took some time for some of my therapists to really understand me and I don’t think some of them ever did.  Out of everyone, the one who totally understood me was my Psychologist, Dr. Lynn Levy.  Dr. Levy was easy to talk to and I felt comfortable telling her things that I couldn’t talk about with even my family or my closest friends.  Dr. Levy reported to the team that my characteristics of being stubborn and determined to have things done my way would actually have a positive effect on my recovery.  She said that what the therapists viewed as difficult was me standing up for myself and knowing what I wanted and this is what would make all the difference in getting my life back.  Thank you Dr. Levy.

My rehab therapy continued over the next 2 years with many adjustments along the way. Lyssa was always on top of things and was in constant touch with me, my family and the rehab team making sure everything was going as planned. I felt stronger and healthier every day and was grateful of all the hard work and dedication of the entire team. Thank you Lyssa, and the entire team at Knorr and Associates.  It was not an easy road from that awful night in January 2010 and I know I could not have done this alone..

In March of 2012, with the help of Darcy Merkur and the team at Thomson Rogers, we reached a settlement in my case with my insurance.  Darcy worked tirelessly on my case and coordinated a settlement for me that will take care of my future. Thank you Darcy.  My case may be closed and Darcy may no longer be my lawyer, but I consider him a friend and will always keep in touch with him.

I knew that my original intention of working in the construction industry would no longer be possible because of my injuries.  I knew that someday I would have to go back to school and move in a different direction but this didn’t really appeal to me.  I was never a big fan of school and going back for more schooling was something that I was dreading.  Just think, a short while ago I was told I was reading at a grade 3 level and now I’m going back to college!  I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do and decided that I would like to work with people who had been through situations similar to mine. I wanted to give back to the same community that helped me so much over the past 2 years.  I decided to go back to school to become a Physiotherapy Assistant.  I knew that I could totally relate to the frustrations, difficulties, heartaches and successes of people undergoing rehab for various reasons.  I felt that they could be inspired and encouraged by my story and would have hope for their own successful outcome. In December 2013 I completed my course and received my diploma, with honours, as a PTA.

I now work for St. Elizabeth Health Care as a Physiotherapy Assistant helping individuals with rehabilitation activities that will allow them to recover from their injuries and regain their quality of life. I enjoy my work and the satisfaction it brings me when I see people improve and get their life back. For two years, I also volunteered at Toronto Rehab on the ABI floor where I was a patient. This is my way of showing and I take great pride that I am an” ABI survivor giving back!”

My journey of recovery from that night in January 2010 has not been easy and is never ending.  I continue to work out, lift weights, keep active, play hockey, soccer and softball and constantly strive for optimal health. I know there were many times when I was not an easy person to be around, especially in the early days. I am grateful to so many wonderful people who stood by me, supported me, prayed for me, believed in me and helped me get to where I am today, especially my awesome and loving mom, dad, brother, sister, my extended family and fabulous, devoted friends. I am very fortunate to have such a strong support system in my life. You never gave up on me and made me understand that “I WILL  get through this”. I couldn’t have done this without you all.

Image of Nicholas Morihovitis in 2016
Me – 2016
Image of Nicholas Morihovitis and his favourite car
Me and my favourite toy!!