By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Kent Enzweiler had a simple reason for wanting to walk out of Drake Center under his own power. "To show I got better."
Twenty-three months after entering the Hartwell rehabilitation hospital in a vegetative state, Enzweiler was discharged Thursday. His family and Drake staff watched as he rose from his wheelchair and used a walker to trek about 40 feet to his parents' car, displaying the kind of steely determination that once made him an elite marathon runner and duathlete.
"It's kind of unbelievable when you think what his initial prognosis was," said Mary Enzweiler, one of his three sisters. "I never really thought this day would come in the fashion that it has."
Kent, now 36, was training for the Boston Marathon when he was struck by an out-of-control minivan on March 11, 2001. The impact broke numerous bones, but most serious was the traumatic injury to his brain.
Doctors initially gave him less than a 1 percent chance of leading a meaningful life. He couldn't talk or swallow. He didn't respond to family or friends, and gave no indication he recognized them. Then on April 2, 2001, he arrived at Drake and began a journey that was far more grueling than any marathon. The Enquirer first told his story in January 2002. (First story)
"We all hoped he would improve, but we were never sure how far he would go," said Dr. Joe Segal, his attending physician. "I think if we were all honest, he exceeded any of our expectations."
While improvement has been dramatic, Enzweiler and his family still face challenges. He moves about primarily by wheelchair, struggles with short-term memory and speech, and needs help with daily activities. For the time being he will live with his parents, Ervin and Jane, at their Camp Springs home.
Eventually he will move in with Mary, who lives in Edgewood.
"Just last week I told Kent he'd done a great job of rehabilitating himself," said his father. "He said, `When I came in here I was like a wet noodle.' "
The Enzweiler family says credit for his transformation belongs to the Drake staff, who taught Kent to eat, to speak, to move his arms and legs.
Everyone from dietitians to housekeepers had a hand in his recovery.
"They just were outstanding," Jane Enzweiler said. "We just got so attached to these people."
It went both ways.
"They've made me feel like a part of their family," said Colleen Baker, a physical therapy assistant. "They made our job so much easier because they followed through on everything we asked."
No one asked the Enzweilers to be there every single day for Kent. But they were. In the process, they served as inspiration to other families and patients. They were hopeful and determined, but not unrealistic.
"This is the most exceptional family I've ever worked with in my 20 years," said speech pathologist Marilyn Baker.
Enzweiler, though, has had support from many people, including his running buddies and former co-workers at Cincinnati Water Works, where he was an engineer.
The day before his discharge, Drake staff threw a going-away party for the Enzweilers, complete with pizza and cake.
There were tears and hugs, and requests that Kent stop by for visits when he receives outpatient therapy at the hospital.
Suzanne Mantuano, an occupational therapy assistant, left Drake in July, but returned to give Enzweiler a bag of bubble gum, which has special meaning.
She recalled the day, early in his rehab, when he was asked to practice blowing bubbles.
"Three huge bubbles went all over his face. It was one of the first times he really smiled and laughed. Every time I chew gum, I think about it."
Segal said Enzweiler was "about the only person who could get me to walk three miles on a Saturday morning," a reference to the Enzweiler Multi-Miler, a 5K walk and run held last September on the Drake Center grounds. It will be an annual event, co-sponsored by the hospital and the Enzweilers.
"These are pretty good people," Enzweiler said with therapists surrounding him.
"They're the best, aren't they?" his father added.
Marilyn Baker, the speech pathologist, put a hand on Kent's shoulder and said quietly, "You've taught us more than we taught you."
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