It’s every parent’s nightmare. Your baby grows up, gets into a car, a phone call comes or a policemen knocks on the door: “There’s been an accident.” This is what happened to the Goldstein family in December of 2001. Their son Bart, 16 years old, full of life and humor and a love of the Yankees, was driving with three other friends. They were celebrating getting accepted to the course to learn teaching English in South Korea for the summer. When suddenly a driver accidentally veered into a tree by the Water Street Market. Bart, in the back seat, had his head go through a window. It just so happened that Jeff Salt of the New Paltz Rescue Squad was nearby at the Gilded Otter and showed up on the scene within minutes. “He knew it wasn’t good,” said Joel Goldstein, a transportation and logistics executive at Cambridge Corporate Services in New York City who has recently released a gripping memoir, No Stone Unturned, which chronicles the saga of Bart’s struggle to regain life and his parents’ relentless commitment to their son.
“He wasn’t dead, but almost dead. And Jeff said, ‘Get the helicopter and get him to Westchester now.” The Goldsteins were at a Christmas party with friends and their daughter Cassidy (both Cassidy and Bart were adopted by the Goldsteins from Korea when they were months old). “Luckily for us, there was an incredible pediatric neurosurgeon on duty that night, and he took a look at Bart’s CAT scan and decided to do surgery immediately.”
As their son was undergoing complicated brain surgery to save his life, the Goldsteins arrived home to a phone call from the police. “They couldn’t tell us anything — only that our son had been in a car accident and he was at Westchester Pediatric Neurology Intensive care.”
They had a friend watch their daughter Cassidy and sped down to Westchester, where they still had a difficult time trying to find out what was happening. “The surgeon had gone home, and finally we found a doctor that briefed us on Bart’s condition. He told us that he had suffered a massive subdural hematoma and that we may very well lose him. Our world was rocked.”
Joel and his wife Dayle stayed for two weeks at a friend’s house in Westchester so that they could sit vigil over their son. After 96 hours, he went into a coma that lasted for 30 days. “Coma watch is a terrible world unto itself,” said Goldstein. And while watching over their 16-year-old boy in a coma, from which they did not know if he would ever wake — or what they would have left of him if he did wake — they were in a Neurological Intensive Care Unit (NICU). “There were children dying on either side of us. The Grim Reaper was always there. It was a nightmare.”
When he did wake, it wasn’t at all “like what you see in the movies. Coma emergence could mean that one eye opens every few days, or that a doctor says, ‘Squeeze my hand,’ and sometimes the person presses it and sometimes they don’t.” What the Goldsteins began to learn was the pervasive and almost invisible world of traumatic brain injury (TBI). “It is far and away the leading cause of death and disability among persons under the age of 45. TBI strikes 1.4 million people each year — 50,000 who die from their injuries,” writes Goldstein in his introduction to No Stone Unturned. In fact, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 5.4 million Americans are permanently disabled with TBI: roughly two percent of the population. They didn’t set out to become experts, but when it came to helping their son regain his life, the Goldsteins entered into a very large, silent world from which so many people suffer, but about which so little is known or discussed.
Bart remained in the NICU for eight months, and then was released to Helen Hayes Hospital for rehabilitation. “He was only allowed to stay for a few months; then they kick you out. Doesn’t matter what kind of insurance you have, and we were fortunate to have great insurance. I was furious!” recalled Goldstein.
But no matter how many roadblocks they encountered, their perseverance and faith and love for their son kept them moving forward. They took Bart every day to Helen Hayes as an outpatient. When that option ran out, they were told to take him to a nursing home. “There was no way we were going to do that.” So they made modifications to their home to keep him as safe as they could, as he could become lost or disoriented and still had enormous physical and cognitive (not to mention emotional) challenges.
They decided that Bart should go back to high school, but again ran into resistance there. “Another one of the heroes in this book is [New Paltz High School principal] Barbara Clinton,” said Joel. “She was instrumental in getting him back in school. She understood that he was such a social being, and needed to be around kids and friends, and not with elderly stroke victims if he was going to have any chance at all.”
With the assistance of a full-time aide, Jeanne Ridgeway, Bart went back to school in Special Education classes for a half-day, as he would fall asleep after 15 minutes and not have the physical strength to go through an entire day. While Bart continued to go to school, the Goldsteins pursued every type of alternative therapy that they could. “We came up with our board of directors,” he explained. “They didn’t know they were on the board, but it was four doctors or surgeons that we trusted who were very conventional. And we’d throw a therapy at them and say, ‘Could this harm Bart?’ If even one said ‘Yes,’ then we’d scratch that option. When they didn’t, we went for it.”
To that end, they credit much of Bart’s recovery to craniosacral and hyperbaric oxygen therapies, and the book advocates for these therapies to be more prevalent and accessible — particularly for veterans, who are coming home from conflicts overseas in droves with TBI.
After the several “dives” of hyperbaric oxygen treatments, Joel said that his son’s energy level increased, and he was able to go a full day through school without having to rest. “It was amazing,” he recalled. “And I saw a child there [at a hyperbaric oxygen treatment] who was so severely autistic, she couldn’t make eye contact or talk; she’d just make these animallike sounds. A year later, I saw her turn to her younger sister and say, ‘You better not do that, it’s dangerous.’ It was like witnessing a miracle.”
Like Salt and Clinton and several surgeons, doctors, practitioners, family and friends, Joel points to the human element of Bart’s recovery as much as the physical/medical components. “One of the people I dedicated this book to was Coach D [Billy Defino],” he said. “We’d known Coach D since Bart was in Duzine. He’d been his gym teacher, been his coach for baseball and basketball and soccer. He was like a god to us — and still is — because he was a different type of coach. He doesn’t just teach the games or the sport; he tries to teach the kids how to become decent people, and knows the lessons they’re learning are not about winning, but about life.”
When Bart was in the NICU, they didn’t let many people come to see him. “It was so traumatizing to people, because he had all of these wires and tubes coming out of his head. But when he was at Helen Hayes, Coach D came to visit him. And when he returned home, Coach D called me up and said that he would like to work with Bart on Fridays doing some basketball drills.”
As Joel recalled, “Bart couldn’t even dribble. At that time his left side was completely paralyzed; he had very little vision. But Coach D insisted, and he got annoyed when we kept offering to pay him. ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ he said.” With Defino’s help, Bart was able to start hitting a baseball again, throwing, catching, playing basketball. “It was unbelievable. He had no peripheral vision, yet I took him to Jeto’s, and he was just knocking ball after ball in the cage. Coach D is a man for all seasons. He’s part of the conspiracy of decency — someone that helps make the world bearable.”
After his third year as a high school junior, Bart, regaining his quick wit and sense of humor, told his Dad that he was “beating [John] Belushi’s record” in Animal House. Bart is now living on his own in Albany. He has a job and is great with the keyboard. “You could sit with him for hours and not know that he has a TBI,” said his father. “But then there will be something, like he might ask you a question that he had already just asked, but he has short-term memory loss.”
From where they started to where they’ve come, Dayle and Joel, having left no stone unturned, can certainly revel in the fact that their son is living on his own, walking, talking, writing, working, laughing and very much alive. “When Bart was injured, neither my wife nor I had even heard of TBI,” writes Joel. “I began writing to lay to rest some of my own demons, and to leave a fresh, raw record for family and friends before memories faded or were burnished by pride beyond recognition. But then Dayle — my comrade-in-arms in our private war with TBI — insisted that we ‘go public.’ After all, our saga might well be any family’s story — especially those with a child struggling with TBI, cerebral palsy, autism, mental illness or other grave afflictions, and even families lucky enough to have dodged all of those bullets. The ancient Greeks counseled, ‘Count no man lucky until he is dead.’ Everyone, every family, is but a heartbeat away from tragedy. We offer our story in solidarity and fellowship with everyone facing hard fights.”