A South Bend teenager, turned pro athlete is finally back on his bike. A terrible fall from his bike caused a traumatic brain injury and put him into a coma 18 months ago. But BMX star Brett Banasiewicz's parents credit much of his progress to an unconventional treatment they fought hard for their son to get.
In so many ways, Brett is the same, fearless kid he was before the August 2012 crash. But in so many others, he’s different. His speech and motor skills are slower, his tricks are much smaller and safer.
“Even though I fall, that doesn’t scare me because I know accidents can still happen,” Brett said.
Now, the 19-year-old is more focused than ever.
“You have to stand up and do what you want to do,” he explained.
He gets that determination honestly. After his accident, Brett’s doctors wanted modern day medicine to help him recover. His parents wanted something else.
“I didn’t want to give him one drug to stimulate him and one drug to bring him down to sleep,” explained Brett’s dad, Bill. “We spent 2 weeks battling the doctor, pulling up research and proving to the doctor this was a viable method for him to ok the treatment to sign off for him to be treated.”
Shortly after they learned Brett was in a coma with a serious brain injury, his parents asked doctors to allow their son to undergo something called Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT).
“A brain injury affects the blood flow of the brain. Hyperbarics oxygenates the blood, increases blood flow,” Bill explained. “Blood flow to any injury you have – whether it’s the brain or the arm – increases circulation and helps with healing. That's a proven fact.”
About 6 weeks after Brett's fall, his doctors in Virginia finally gave him the green light to begin hyperbaric oxygen therapy in Atlanta. That part of his therapy involved sitting in a pressurized chamber, filled with 100 percent oxygen. That pressure is equivalent to several feet below sea level.
“It’s weird to get used to because they shut the door and start bringing you down [below sea level],” Brett explained. “And you’re like, ‘What am I doing in here?’”
“The first day he had hyperbarics, he was unable to walk, communicate,” recalled Brett’s mom, Lisa. “We had him in a wheelchair and they put him into the hyperbaric chamber. Three days later, he stood up and walked in. We thought the technician, our friend Matt, was gonna fall over. Three days. Yeah. It was huge.”
Brett worked up to doing HBOT five days a week, about an hour at a time.
But there’s very little research into the long and short term effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy when it comes to brain injuries – making it an unconventional treatment. In fact, Brett’s parents found out there’s a hyperbaric chamber at Memorial Hospital in South Bend used to treat burns, carbon monoxide poisoning and serious infections. But the hospital will not use it to treat traumatic brain injuries.
“Traumatic brain injury is not a recognized diagnosis to be treated with HBOT. Clinical research is not conclusive as to whether or not it is effective,” said Margaret Scroope, Memorial Hospital spokeswoman.
“I did not want Brett out of the city, out of this state. I wanted him at home,” Lisa recalled. “And we talked but it wasn't about what I wanted, it was about what was best for him.”
That led them to a facility in Dallas, Texas. Brett’s parents spent weeks and months at a time there with him while he received HBOT treatments alongside an intense regimen of other therapies. He’s scheduled to go back in April for about 2 more months of hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatments. He and his parents hope it's the last time for a while.
HBOT isn't covered by insurance and costs them between $5,000 and $8,000 a month to live in Dallas and pay for the therapies. Donations from the Athlete Recovery Fund, his sponsors and benefits held for Brett are paying for all of it.
He’s also part of a case study about the effects of using HBOT to treat traumatic brain injuries.
But Lisa hopes to take it a step further – saying she made a deal with God after Brett’s accident that if he saved her son, she would spend the rest of her life trying to make a difference. She wants to work to educate people and make hyperbaric oxygen therapy for traumatic brain injuries the ‘norm’ in Indiana as it is in some other states like Texas.
More than a year after beginning oxygen therapy, the Banasiewiczes say Brett is about 6 months or a year ahead of where doctors thought he’d be. Bill and Lisa are confident they made the right choice for their son’s ride to recovery.
“At that point when he was 17 and he has 80 more years to live and we can sit here and know we're going to grow old with both of our kids, there's no price tag for that,” Lisa said.