Sun Ko doesn’t remember the horrible car crash, the urgent rush to the hospital aboard a Memorial Hermann Life Flight® helicopter, or the emergency surgery to stop the swelling in her brain that would’ve killed her. But UTHealth neurosurgeon Dr. Ryan Kitagawa remembers her.
It was late on Thanksgiving night in 2013 when Ko was wheeled into the operating room at Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute. Ko had been driving to dinner when she stopped along U.S. Highway 290 to offer assistance to an accident victim on the side of the road. That’s when another driver slammed into her, flinging Ko’s body into her own vehicle. The impact crushed the entire right side of Ko’s face and left her with bruises on her cerebellum, an area in the back of the brain responsible for balance and movement.
The injury could’ve killed her, but Dr. Kitagawa – who is affiliated with Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center (MNI) – spent hours meticulously removing a section of Ko’s skull to relieve the pressure on her brain. The emergency procedure helped save Ko’s life.
“That kind of injury is very rare in trauma cases because it’s an area of the brain that’s not often injured,” Dr. Kitagawa said. “And people who sustain those kinds of injuries typically don’t survive long enough to make it to the hospital.”
The story could’ve ended there. Instead, Ko’s experience and her weekslong recovery at MNI in 2013 was the start of a transformation that would lead her back, more than two years later, to the very same place where she received the life-saving surgery.
At the time of the accident, the 26-year-old had been studying to become a nurse. She had already completed three semesters of nursing school and she was nearing the end of her fourth. She planned to graduate, take her licensing exam, and then find a job working in oncology. But the injuries she sustained put her life on hold. She was in a coma for weeks before moving to TIRR Memorial Hermann to complete her rehabilitation.
After months of painstaking rehab, Ko decided to return to school in the fall semester of 2014 to finish her nursing degree. School had always been tough, but Ko found it especially difficult to concentrate after the accident. The traumatic experience left her shaken, struggling to cope with what happened to her, and she failed the semester.
“After the accident, I was so miserable and depressed,” she said. “It was consuming my life. I just felt so sad and alone. I was so young, and it felt like my life had stopped while everyone else’s had just started.”
According to Dr. Kitagawa, Ko’s struggles were typical of traumatic brain injury survivors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says traumatic brain injury is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, contributing to about 30 percent of all injury-related fatalities and resulting in 138 deaths every day. Those who survive can struggle with impaired thinking or memory, loss of movement, vision and hearing, personality changes and depression. Those complications can linger for days, weeks or the rest of their lives.
“It’s a pretty devastating disease because it affects all aspects of your life, even the relationships you have with your family, friends and co-workers,” Dr. Kitagawa said. “There’s a social stigma surrounding brain damage that’s unfair. There’s this connotation that survivors are in a total vegetative state, or they are so severely disabled, when in fact, there are lots of people like Sun who are able to recover to normal.”
Despite the hardships created by the injury, not to mention the multiple facial reconstruction surgeries she would require in the months and years that followed, Ko said she was determined not to let the event define her life. “I didn’t know how hard the road was going to be, but I had this feeling like I had to do this.” She returned to school the following semester, passed all of her classes and became the first in her family to graduate with a college degree.
Although her heart had always been in oncology, when it came time to apply for jobs, Ko saw an opening for a nursing position in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at MNI, one of the largest and busiest ICU’s of its kind in the country. It also happened to be the very ICU that had taken such great care of her not so long ago. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be if I could go back?’” she said. “So I applied for it.” And she got it.
On her first day on the job, on her very first shift on the floor, Ko ran into Dr. Kitagawa. At first, the neurosurgeon didn’t recognize his former patient in her bright blue scrubs. But then she smiled. “Right then, I immediately knew who she was,” he said. “This is why we do what we do.”
For Ko, the experience was surreal. “Not only did he save my life, but he gave me a second chance to live it all over again. I’m forever indebted to him. He’s seriously my hero.”
Ko is now working on paying that debt forward to patients who are in the same position. As she makes her rounds each day, she’s reminded of the challenges she faced and the tough times her family endured. With each patient, she shows the same compassion and provides the same high quality care that was given to her and her family. “They are more than just patients to me. I truly understand what they’re going through.”
In addition, she recently joined the Traumatic Brain Injury Support Group at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, where she’s found comfort and peace in sharing her experience with others. “It’s really therapeutic,” she said. “And when I tell people in the group, ‘I was also a patient here and now I’m a nurse,’ they’re so happy. I just want to be an inspiration to others with traumatic brain injuries to show them what they can accomplish.”
March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Learn more about how you can de-stigmatize the injury, empower those who have survived, and promote the many types of support that are available here.