Road of Recovery - Tucson Local Media: Import

Road of Recovery

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Posted: Thursday, July 7, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:49 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

July 6, 2005 - It is hard to know what Chris Ambrose is thinking. It could be about how his life has changed since that night he punched his time card and walked out the doors of a local fast food restaurant where he worked more than two years ago, or about how he was just about to step onto the curb when the car struck him. Or, perhaps he is thinking about how the doctors said he would never walk again, or about how long he had to wait to be well enough to go back to high school and graduate.

Or maybe this 20-year-old is thinking about how nothing, now, is like he imagined it would be.

Sure, his story could be a sad one. A young, vibrant high school senior leaving work, crossing the street to meet his parents for dinner and suddenly getting hit by a car, suffering brain damage and losing partial use of his right side. But for Chris, the story is one of hope, strength, faith and survival.

"He never gave up," said his mother, Debbie Ambrose, who never left her son's side through the two months he lay unresponsive in a hospital bed at University Medical Center or through the two months he spent in an inpatient rehabilitation facility.

Chris survived the days the doctors predicted he wouldn't. He came out of a coma and learned to talk again and to feed himself. Now he walks with a cane and rarely needs the wheelchair he spent months in.

The more than 16 daily medications, the oxygen tanks and the feeding tubes are now gone. He is on the road to recovery, Debbie said.

Progress has been slow, but he has lots to be proud of, she said. Chris is off all medications and can do almost everything for himself.

Since the accident, Chris and Debbie have grown very close. Each week, they escape from their home and retreat to one of Chris' favorite local restaurants and have a mother-son meal. That's something Debbie said she is thankful for.

"What other mother and 20-year-old son do you know that go out to dinner together?" she said.

One of their favorite spots is a tropical-themed restaurant called Paco's Tropical Café, on North Oracle. Today, she is helping him cut his pancakes as he still stumbles through his little steps of healing.

For Chris, life is completely different from how it was before the accident. His short-term memory is not good. He often needs daily reminders of things he used to know immediately, his speech is slow and slurred, he has limited use of his right side and he uses a cane to get around, but Chris is just happy to be alive.

It is hard for him to remember the details of his accident. His mother has to fill him in on the sequence of the events.

It was October 2002 and Chris was leaving Taco Bell, his workplace, crossing the intersection of North Oracle and Magee roads to meet his parents for dinner as he had done so many times before. He had almost cleared the street and was about to step onto the curb when a car pulled into the crosswalk and struck him, Debbie said.

A witness at the scene told the family that the driver, a woman whom the Ambrose family has never seen nor spoken to, approached the intersection, and, when the light turned from red to green, she hit the gas, never seeing Chris still in the road.

The witness told the family the driver did not know what she hit but when she got out of the car and saw a lifeless boy lying on the ground, she fainted, Debbie said.

Chris suffered a fractured pelvis, a road rash from being skinned against the rough road, and severe brain damage. In the months he spent at UMC, some time was spent in a coma. And when he did come to, he was completely unresponsive, Debbie said.

The son who'd had so much life and energy was lying in a bed unable to speak, barely able to move. His life had completely changed.

Through countless sleepless nights and countless rotations of nurses and doctors, tests and medications, Debbie was her son's rock. She never left his side. She turned his hospital room into her makeshift hotel room. She was his mom and this was her duty, she said.

While in the hospital, Chris was facing odds the doctors weren't sure he could beat. Debbie was told she might want to consider cutting life support because her son would never recover from his injuries and could end up in a constant vegetative state. Debbie said she couldn't bear to lose her son but she also wanted the best for him and knew a life spent lying in a hospital was not much of a life at all. Then, a nurse pulled her aside and offered a ray of hope, telling her to dig deep and not give up on Chris. He would make it.

And he did.

To aid Chris' recovery, the Ambrose family used many methods of therapy. They carried on conversations with him while he lay in a coma. They reminded him of the vacation they were going to take to Hawaii, the place where Chris was born. They played his favorite music, called on the faith of their friends and their nation, and asked that a prayer chain be started in honor of Chris' condition.

Debbie remembers the days when Chris would lie in pain and would ask his mother to pray with him. Believing everything happens for a reason, the family members turned to a higher power when their strength was tested, they said.

Christmas 2002 was not a time for joyous Santa celebrations for the Ambrose family. Chris was still bedridden and barely communicating. He was transferred to an inpatient rehabilitation facility. Even though he was still unable to sit up, control his head, talk, or feed himself, he did begin to show some minimal signs of improvement, Debbie said.

He began reacting to a ball, but not regularly.

"He was still doing nothing," she said.

As far as Debbie was concerned, too much time had passed for Chris to be showing so few signs of improvement. Fearing her son was beginning to feel bombarded with doctors, nurses and hospital visits, Debbie decided he needed to come home. And four and a half months after the accident, he did.

Debbie and her husband, Russell, surrendered their master bedroom and converted it into a hospital room. It became the place for Chris to recover. With her son still on a feeding tube and multiple daily medications, Debbie played the mom and the nurse.

"He never once had a bed sore," she said proudly.

Even in the hospital, Debbie knew she would one day be the nurse for her son, so she paid close attention to the way the trained professionals injected Chris with medications, fed him through a feeding tube in his stomach, changed him and cared for him, she said.

She remembers pestering the nurses to allow her to carry out some of the daily tasks, assuming she needed the practice.

She also relied on books, the Internet and motherly instinct for help in becoming educated about how to care for a grown son who had suffered severe brain damage and was partially immobilized.

Debbie said that within one month of being home Chris started improving.

"We started seeing leaps and bounds in his recovery," she said.

After tearing up as she remembered the day long ago when her baby son said his first words, she went on to talk about what it was like when he was an adult and was learning to talk all over again.

Debbie was feeding him pudding and could see Chris liked the taste. She asked him if he wanted more and he responded. She said, "Then say more," and he did. It was an amazing moment, one that Debbie said she will never forget. The boy the doctors feared would die was talking.

Recovery was slow. Many nights were filled with anger, tears and fear, Debbie said.

She remembers her many conversations with her son about the rage he still harbors toward the woman who hit him that night more than two years ago.

"He is still angry," Debbie said.

Mostly, she remembers the sadness she felt for her son, the son who'd had such a bright future but was struggling with tying his shoes and cutting his food.

So much was taken away from him, she said, and he will never be totally the same.

But for this family, it was important not to harbor anger. Fully aware that they may never hear words explaining why Chris was hit or an apology from the woman who hit him, Debbie and Chris said it is important to focus on the positive and cherish the recovery that Chris has been able to make.

"He's a miracle," Debbie said. "He never gave up."

Now, Chris is walking with a cane, no longer needs the wheelchair, and is off all medications.

"He has such a good outlook on life now," Debbie said.

Sitting quietly, as he so often does, Chris has a smile on his face and a baseball cap on his head, and is generally just happy to have survived.

When asked to describe the days and nights filled with pain, medications, physical therapy and fear, Chris simply says, "It was pretty crappy."

And that is that, summed up in a few words.

Chris still struggles with some mundane daily activities many take for granted. He has trouble writing, for example, though his mother says he can type on a keyboard better than he can use a pen. He often forgets simple things and may even blank out on something he was just told a few moments earlier, Debbie said.

With any brain injury, it is hard to say the amount of recovery that is possible.

"(Hoping for) a full recovery is not practical," Debbie said.

The boy who dreamed of being a radiologist will never be, Debbie said. Going off to college is not on the agenda at this time, and if he did go, a community college where he could learn life skills would probably be the right place, Debbie said.

Regardless of his unknown future when it comes to college, Chris just accomplished a major goal in any young adult's life. He graduated from high school.

Chris was a senior at Canyon Del Oro High School when he was in the accident. He was looking forward to a senior year filled with parties and friends, not hospitals and medications.

As with all the other challenges the Ambroses have faced, they took this one head-on. They worked with the teachers at CDO. They knew Chris would go back to school and graduate just like he was supposed to.

Graduating from high school is a right of all young students, and Chris was not going to be robbed of it, Debbie said.

"He wasn't giving up on his dream," she said.

Since Chris had suffered brain damage, just walking through the doors of his old high school was not possible, so the Ambrose family asked Tommy Steele, a special education teacher at CDO, to spend time with Chris and help him prepare for going back to school.

"We were just trying to get Chris ready, little by little, getting him in the mindset of going back to school academically, socially, the whole deal," Steele said.

Steele worked with Chris for about a semester, and during that time, he got close to the family and was amazed at how special Debbie was in all facets of motherhood, he said.

"That mom is unbelievable," he said. "They have a wonderful family."

When Chris finally did make it back to CDO, it wasn't easy. The halls he once ran through became a place to navigate a wheelchair. The friends he once had, had all since graduated and moved on. He was all by himself.

But he worked hard, and in May 2005 on a warm summer night, Chris walked on his own to shake hands with the administrators and grab his diploma.

That night was a testament to a young man's dedication and a mom's persistence in not letting her son give up on his goals, Steele said.

"It was awesome when they called his name and he got up there," he said.

Again substituting smiles for words, Chris says a simple "oh yeah" when he remembers how great it felt to get the diploma.

Debbie remembers the tears that flowed and the nights he wanted to give up. But graduation night wasn't about that. Her son had gone through so much and had emerged a high school graduate.

"I can't explain how proud I am of him," Debbie said.

CDO Principal Michael Gemma commends Chris and his accomplishments, agreeing that the road to his graduation was not an easy one.

"Any student who overcomes an accident and shows the drive to come back and finish is phenomenal," Gemma said. "He never gave up."

"It is truly a success story," he said.

The Ambrose home is filled with success stories. Debbie and her husband have raised sons who moved back home to help when Chris was sick. Also, the couple have been supporters and foster parents to more than 22 children through the years.

Coming from a family of 14, Debbie simply enjoys being a mom, she said. Standing calmly in her backyard, she carries a quiet confidence while explaining how she became almost addicted to helping children who need love, attention and support.

Through adoption, she made five girls permanent members of the Ambrose family. The three oldest girls had their own special needs. They required special education classes from Amphitheater Public Schools. The stories of the unwanted, abused and neglected girls that today are beautiful, smiling and energetic would break your heart, Debbie said.

The Ambrose family can be summed up by those who know them with two words: determined and loving. The minute you step in the door, you hear the patter of small feet.

That's true if you show up on a day when the family is learning a new sign language word to use with 4-year-old Jeremy, who suffers from cerebral palsy, hearing impairment, epilepsy and autism. It's also true if you show up on a day when the adopted five sisters are putting on one of their weekly musical productions they have written.

It is obvious love is prevalent throughout this modest Tucson home. There are only four bedrooms to support the growing, diverse family, and Debbie jokes about dreaming of having a bigger house. For now, though, she will be content, she said, with having all of her kids happy and healthy.

Although the family has faced many challenges, and though they are not anywhere near over, Debbie said she is confident that all her children's dreams will come true. Even if they don't, she said she will be there to provide "love and consistency" like she always has.

"I just hope they all stay healthy and there are no more tragedies in our life," she said.

Even though her adopted daughters may have faced neglect, abandonment or abuse, they are loved completely now. Even though Jeremy may never fully hear and will struggle with cerebral palsy and autism for the rest of his life, he is still all smiles.

Whether adopted or biological, this often-described "super mom" just wants all her children to be happy and know "it's OK to be different," she said.

And Chris is determined. His spirit is strong. As Debbie puts it, "The sky is the limit." Chris just needs to walk his road of recovery one step at a time.

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