From Traumatic Brain Injury to College Graduation: Hayden’s Journey to Overcome

By Jade Waddy

Dec. 13, 2018, will always be a special day for Hayden Nichols. It was a day he fought to see after his college career was put on hold five years earlier.

Hayden, then a college freshman at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, tragically fell four stories from an apartment balcony

He was rushed to a local hospital with an extensive list of injuries, including a skull fracture, broken pelvis, shattered left femur, broken ribs and broken vertebrae. He spent almost two months in the hospital before being flown to TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston.

Admitted in a Minimally Conscious State

Admitted with a traumatic brain injury, Hayden, then 19, arrived in a minimally conscious state and needed complete assistance for all mobility, such as sitting up, getting out of bed and transferring to his therapy sessions. Hayden’s physical therapist, Kelly Hortsmann, started his therapy with simple tasks like sitting and holding his head up. “Hayden progressed quickly. We started with small movements and he progressed as he got stronger,” Hortsmann said.

Hayden spent nearly three months working hard to regain his ability to walk and speak. “His progress was a testament to his work ethic,” Hortsmann said. “He went from requiring assistance to do just about everything to standing and eventually walking with some assistance.”

Hayden was discharged from TIRR Memorial Hermann and spent additional time at an outpatient rehabilitation center close to his hometown, League City, Texas.  

Going Back to College

Less than a year after his injury, in the fall of 2014, Hayden began taking a few courses at a local junior college before transferring to the University of Houston.

“I was determined to pick up where I left off and start and complete my college degree, despite all I had been through,” he said.

Hayden returned to TIRR Memorial Hermann a few times a year to say hello to Hortsmann. “It was usually a quick visit, but I always appreciated his thoughtfulness to let me know how he was doing,” said Hortsmann. “Having updates on ‘life after TIRR’ is encouraging as a therapist and what keeps me going on rough days.”

Those yearly visits helped Hayden as well.

Hayden’s time at TIRR Memorial Hermann inspired him to pursue a degree in occupational therapy. “I compare occupational therapy to a banana split theory,” he said. “Physical therapy and speech therapy are important pieces of the puzzle, but occupational therapy is the cherry on top that brings everything together.”

On an unusually warm December morning, Hayden earned his Bachelor of Arts in comparative cultural studies from the University of Houston. Following his graduation, he plans to continue his education to become a certified occupational therapist.

An Inspiration for Staff and Other Patients

“Hayden’s story is incredible. He’s an inspiration for sure – a true testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and how hard work and motivation pay off,” Hortsmann said. “It definitely hasn’t been an easy journey, but he has pushed through and continues to do so.”

As Hayden prepares for his next chapter, applying to graduate programs in occupational therapy, he wants to inspire anyone with a traumatic brain injury and individuals at TIRR Memorial Hermann. “You may not be comfortable with what you’re asked to do and it may be hard at that moment, but follow the instructions of your rehab team and trust your therapists,” he said.

With his unique perspective, Hayden looks forward to the day he can be an inspiration and role model to someone with a journey like his.

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. To learn more about brain injury rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann visit,

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