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A fight to rejoin the living

THE NATION

A college athlete, hurt in a team bus crash, keeps amazing medical personnel with his dogged recovery.

April 13, 2008|John Seewer | Associated Press

TOLEDO, OHIO — Tim Berta doesn't remember stepping onto Bluffton University's charter bus, nor flying through a window and slamming into asphalt with chunks of glass embedded in his hip.

He doesn't recall the day former home-run king Hank Aaron stood beside his Atlanta hospital bed. Nor waking up unable to talk or walk.

And he missed the memorial services for his buddies -- five baseball players killed in the crash a year ago.

"That's God's blessing, not to remember that type of pain," he said. "I don't realize how far I've come."

The last year has been a time of firsts -- walking from his bedroom to the kitchen, learning to sound out words, drinking from a water bottle -- all while trying to comprehend what happened to him and everyone else on the bus.

Berta's words come haltingly now. His voice is gravelly. He must think out every movement. His left hand slowly slides out of the sleeve as he takes off his letter jacket. Rising up from a chair, he pauses to steady his 6-foot-2 frame and regain his balance.

It seems his life is in slow-motion.

But his progress can't be measured in time. Not after surviving injuries that left his parents wondering if he would make it through the first night.

Just two months short of graduating with a biology degree from the northwest Ohio school, Berta boarded the bus for one more spring baseball trip to Florida.

He had spent two seasons as a catcher before devoting his time to school and football, playing wide receiver. He hated giving up baseball, his second favorite sport. So when he was asked to stay on as a student coach, he didn't hesitate.

The team was on its way to a tournament when the bus toppled off a freeway overpass March 2, 2007, in Atlanta.

Bleeding in his brain forced doctors to remove a piece of his skull. The surgery saved his life, yet the crash had critically damaged areas that control his muscles and speech. He also broke all his ribs on the left side, his collarbone and a shoulder blade.

He was kept in an induced coma for a month.

At first, Berta's only way to communicate was by shaking his head or giving his parents a thumbs up. Then he started writing down his thoughts. The first word he spoke came two months after the accident: "Ouch."

Every day brings a victory. Making a fist. Remembering how to convert fractions. Things most 23-year-olds don't think about.

He thrives on being told no. Doctors figured he'd never walk on his own. "Tell me I can't do something and I'll do it," Berta said.

What's most amazing is that he continues to improve at a time when most people with brain injuries see their progress slow down. Normally, significant change comes only within the first six months before leveling off in smaller degrees for up to two years.

"He's defied everything the textbooks taught us," said Jennifer Bortz, one of his physical therapists at the University of Toledo Medical Center.

The first time she met Berta he was wearing a helmet to protect his brain, and he couldn't sit up without someone supporting him.

Now she plays catch with him and watches him walk on a treadmill.

His steps are measured and slow, but walking is getting easier. He no longer uses a wheelchair to get around his home, and he insists on walking on his own when he's at the hospital.

Three days a week, Berta and either his mother or father make the half-hour drive to the hospital from their home in Ida, Mich.

Wearing a Bluffton baseball shirt with the words "Step By Step" on the back, he begins his rehabilitation session by grabbing the handles of a spinning wheel that simulates climbing a ladder. It's an achievement that he can even straighten his arm at the elbow and grip things. After the accident, his left arm was pulled tight up against his chest.

Next he sits at a table, picking up little plastic green frogs with his index finger and thumb and placing each one on a peg. He pumps his fist when he's finished.

But there's more to do.

The accident injured the muscles around his mouth, making it difficult to smile and speak clearly. Letters like 'T' were especially tough, so he repeatedly practices saying "Trish" and "Tonya" -- the names of his two younger sisters.

His speech therapist hands him a contraption she calls a torture device. It's a pair of wooden tongue depressors taped together like a hinge. The idea is to stick it into his mouth and lift up one of the sticks with his tongue so that his words don't come out garbled.

He balks, though, when she gives him "The Poky Little Puppy" -- a classic children's tale -- to read aloud at home so that he can project his voice and change its tones.

"Is there another book you have in mind?" asks his speech therapist, Laurie Sheehy.

" 'Of Mice and Men,' " he replies. It's one of his favorite books.

Helping him move

Rob and Karen Berta sat by their son's bedside in Atlanta night and day. They took turns moving his arms and legs, knowing he needed to remain strong for the long road ahead.

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