Walk into Cody Allan Wright’s room, and you’ll get an immediate sense of who he is and what he likes.

The Chicago Bulls bedding and the University of Michigan football signs on the wall speak to the 23-year-old’s love of athletics.

His sense of fun seems to shine through in everything he does. When he’s listening to classic rock, his head constantly bops along to the music.

What’s less evident is just how bleak his life looked in August 2019.

Driving his white pickup home from work one evening, the vehicle went off the road and crashed into the woods in Sand Lake, Michigan.

A resident heard the boom and then followed the sound of music coming from the disabled vehicle. The truck had nearly been hidden from view, buried underneath a tree it had toppled.

A medical helicopter flew Cody to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, where doctors treated his many injuries, including eight broken ribs, collapsed lungs, severe burn, a broken neck, clavicle, scapula, femur and fractures to his skull and facial bones.

He suffered severe brain injuries and had fallen into a coma.

His condition seemed grim.

His family held fast to faith.

“Even though the medical team told us to prepare for the worst, I never accepted it,” his mother, Brenda Wright, said. “I just started praying. And when he finally opened his eyes and looked at me, I said, ‘Cody, I know you’re in there. And we’re going to get you out.'”

Over an arduous recovery and rehab process, her promise is proving true.

Cody’s recovery reflects new perceptions and possibilities about traumatic injuries and the brain’s ability to heal, said Aashish Deshpande, MD, a specialist in physical medicine, rehabilitation and brain injury medicine at Spectrum Health.

An outdated medical view dictated that if patients didn’t improve within a short time—usually within five or six days—there wasn’t much hope for healing, the doctor said.

The latest thinking is very different.

“Today, we know there are a lot of strong possibilities for patients to improve and recover well beyond that time,” Dr. Deshpande said. “Cody’s a great example. In disorders of consciousness like his, we now talk about recovery time in years rather than days, weeks or months.”

It helps that Cody had been so active and athletic.

“The healthier habits a person had before an accident, the better things go afterward,” Dr. Deshpande said.  

Rehab journey

Brenda is convinced Cody’s strong personality—“stubborn, bullheaded and hard-working”—plus a dedicated network of support and therapy is making all the difference in his recovery.

“Every part of his story seems like a miracle to us,” Brenda said.

Several weeks after the crash, Cody could breathe without a ventilator. Doctors moved him to Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.

That October he had recovered enough to move to Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Center’s Subacute Inpatient Rehabilitation program. It specializes in working with people with severe injuries through the Emerging Consciousness Program, a brain injury specialty program, and Cody received multiple types of medical support and therapy from its interdisciplinary team.

Four months after the crash, doctors removed his tracheostomy tube.

By January 2020, Cody no longer needed an intense medical setting. Doctors moved him to Spectrum Health Neuro Rehabilitation Services-Residential.

His care team there continues to work closely with him, helping him relearn how to stand and move his arms and legs. In August, he walked for the first time since the accident, assisted by a therapist and a walker.

He’s rebuilding important skills. The smallest wins mean much for moving on to the next stage.

“He can reach up now,” said Kari Ondersma, his occupational therapist. “I’m hopeful he will be able to use his arms more for self-care, like grooming and brushing his teeth.”

Cody has also begun to use his arms for handling an iPad, which helps with Zoom and FaceTime calls with friends and family, Ondersma said.

“And he can do more gestures with his fingers, like give us a thumbs up,” she said.

“I’ve seen some amazing changes that are in some ways small and some ways huge,” said Kristin Vanderark, his physical therapist. “We always thought he was hearing and understanding us, to some degree. Now, there is no question. And it’s so much fun when we see him smile.”

For patients like Cody, every milestone signaling more cognitive function is a huge win.

More than anything, his care team longed for him to speak again.

One morning, Alisha Merwin, one of his regular caregivers, set Cody up in his chair and began chatting to him about her upcoming vacation.

“We knew he was very close to speaking,” she said. “I asked, ‘Are you comfortable?’ And he whispered, ‘Yes.’

“I was so surprised I started to tear up,” she said. “And then he whispered, ‘No,’ as in, ‘Don’t cry.’

“He’s probably the most determined person I’ve ever met in my life,” she said.

Readying for home

Research suggests that strong family bonds and support systems play a big part in recovery. This has certainly helped in Cody’s journey.

His parents, siblings and friends are constant cheerleaders, even as the COVID-19 pandemic made face-to-face visits impossible.

Virtual and window visits got them through, but it wasn’t always easy. They longed for in-person interactions again—and prepared for the next phase in his journey.

Kailee Wright, Cody’s sister who is also a nursing student, teamed with their mom to rent a modified three-bedroom apartment in Grand Rapids.

Cody moved there in February. He receives skilled care by an interdisciplinary team from Spectrum Health Neuro Rehabilitation Services–Homecare.

Cody’s family, including dad Tony and another sister, Jamie, remain grateful that because of Michigan’s no-fault insurance, he’ll continue to be taken care of.

“We will continue to have all the therapy he needs,” Brenda said. “And that is so important to his continued progress.”

While it was sad for Cody to say goodbye to the care team that led him so far, his family is confident they can help him on his long road to recovery.

Dr. Deshpande is confident in Cody’s long-term prospects, too.

“There can still be some significant recovery,” the doctor said. “The healing process can go on for years. Cody’s great proof of that.”