White River Junction — Ben Brower hoists himself up from his wheelchair and cautiously, confidently takes a step forward. One foot, pause, then the other, down the ramp that has connected his family’s front door to the driveway for nearly five years.
There is a railing, but Brower, 31, does not grab it. Instead, it’s just one foot in front of the other until he reaches the bottom of the ramp, turns around and walks back up.
After a car crash nearly five years ago that left him in a coma with a traumatic brain injury, known as a TBI, and after a year at a rehabilitation facility, Brower came back to live with his retired parents, who became his full-time caregivers. Doctors had told the family that Brower would likely never walk again.
“He refused that answer,” said Kerwin Brower, Ben’s father.
And so it was this June that Brower took those first few steps — and has continued to take them nearly every day since.
“I watched my baby take his first steps twice in his life: Once at 1½ and once at 31,” his father said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
Brower is in many ways a typical millennial: He spends a lot of time on Facebook and always has his cellphone on him. He likes to watch TV and exercise.
Learning to walk represents another level of self-sufficiency; he hopes to go out without a wheelchair, be able to meet friends and spend time with children, a daughter, 12, and a son, 10, outside of the home he shares with his parents.
And each step he takes brings him closer to that goal.
“He’s trying to take back what you take for granted,” Kerwin Brower said. “You never know what you have until it’s gone.”
“That’s what I was going to say,” Brower said.
In November 2011, Brower and his older brother, Kris, were out jacking a deer when law enforcement officials caught them. They sped off, but then crashed. Kris Brower recovered quickly from his injuries. Ben Brower spent a month at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Brower’s parents remember going to the hospital, listening to what the doctors said about their youngest son who was lying in bed surrounded by tubes and machines.
“You don’t know what to do,” Kerwin Brower said. “You’re helpless. Dad can’t fix it.”
After Brower was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Rutland, his parents visited him regularly. His mother kept notes on his progress, similar to the baby books she kept for her three children after they were born.
“He didn’t smile. He didn’t talk. He’d just sit there and look right through you,” his mother said. “It was a cold feeling.”
After four or five months, Brower started to make facial expressions.
“He didn’t smile for so many months,” Mary Brower said. “That kills you, you know?”
When he finally did, she wrote it down in her notes.
Before his injury, Brower was the comedian, the risk-taker, the life of the party. He’d be the first to jump off a bridge into the water or sing karaoke. And he was always laughing.
But the TBI robbed Brower of his personality, which in a way proved even more difficult than watching his physical struggles, Mary Brower said.
“It felt like I lost my son, even though he was alive,” she said. “I had to keep telling myself, ‘He’s alive. He’s alive. He’s alive.’ ”
After nearly a year at the rehab facility, Brower, who had been working as a tire salesman and living in the Burlington area, moved back in with his parents. They transformed their living room into his bedroom. They moved their own bedroom downstairs to be closer to him.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Mary Brower said. She knew of others with TBIs who were institutionalized. “Absolutely not.”
Brower, sitting nearby, looked at his mother. “Thank you,” he said.
Once home, everyone had to adjust.
“I started resenting he couldn’t do anything at all,” his father said, and then he would ask himself what was wrong with him for thinking that way. “They said it would be a long road, and they were absolutely right.”
Brower’s mother found it was difficult for her to let her son do things on his own. She would pass him items that he could reach by himself and it took her a long time to learn not to do that.
“It’s just a mother’s instinct,” she said. “He’s still my baby.”
“It’s like raising your child all over again.”
As she watched Ben ride Grace, the horse he works with in his equine therapy sessions at Rhythm of the Rein in Marshfield, Vt., along with two of the farm’s workers by his side, her eyes followed his every movement.
“Oh Benny, you look so awesome,” she called out, then noticed that, although he was belted to Grace, he wasn’t using his hands to hold on. “That makes me so nervous,” she said to Ryann Fraser, of North Haverhill who has worked with Brower as a life skills assistant for two years. “That’s all right,” she said to reassure herself.
The equine therapy helps Brower regain strength in his legs, which helps him walk, Fraser said.
“In every aspect, he’s come a long way,” his mother said. “There’s nothing he won’t challenge.”
After nearly three years of occupational, physical and speech therapy, Brower’s health care providers decided that he had plateaued, which meant that Medicaid would no longer pay for his treatment.
“At home, he was just determined,” his mother said while watching her son participate in equine therapy last week. “He kept doing stuff on his own. He was gaining.”
About six months after he stopped treatment, Mary Brower contacted his doctors to let them know of his progress. He resumed physical therapy, and in the two years since, Brower has built up his strength, getting to the point where he could stand on his own.
Then, about a year ago, he started walking up and down the ramp, holding the rail while taking cautious steps.
“He was sick and tired of the wheelchair,” his father said. “He just keeps getting better and better.”
While Brower doesn’t remember the accident, he remembers what his life used to be like before: living on his own, going hunting, socializing with friends.
“It was hard for him to accept his TBI,” his mother said.
His biggest frustration, as he described it, is “not being normal.”
But with so much of his life different, he’s been able to hold onto his sense of humor.
After one of the first equine therapy sessions two years ago, his father asked him what the name of his horse was.
“Stallion,” he replied completely straight-faced.
“He’s stubborn like he used to be. He’s picky like he used to be,” his mother said. “He’s back.”
Brower’s short-term memory is a challenge. He often will listen to the same song or watch the same TV show multiple times without noticing. Rest continues to be elusive, and he has difficulty sleeping for more than three hours at a time.
“Not being able to move,” is frustrating, along with his memory. “Other than that, I’m good,” Brower said with a smile.
Day after day, Brower continues to put one foot in front of the other. He is determined to let go of that rail and take each step toward self-sufficiency.
“I’m a very lucky young man,” Brower said, “and I work real hard.”
Mac Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3221.