Emmett and Steve -Theirs is an amazing
story of unconditional love and sacrifice.


June 1973: On a weekend at the New Jersey Shore, the car driven by 18-year-old Emmett - my next brother down in our family of five boys and a girl - was hit and totally demolished by a car driven by a teenager who'd been drinking. The police told us Emmett was dead. Then doctors located a faint heartbeat. Injuries to Emmett's body were confined to a broken collarbone and lacerated left arm. But you couldn't see the severest damage. It was inside his head - in his brain - causing what the physicians call "a persistent vegetative state". Coma.
The first time I saw Emmett in the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I fainted. His big, six foot frame was strung with tubes, and a clear plastic globe around his head sprouted wires that reported his vital signs to a computer. He lay on a ice blanket, and the blend of cold and warm air enveloped him in an eerie fog.
Emmett had just graduated from high school, and I - four years younger - had just graduated from Notre Dame. A few days earlier I'd started a job to earn money for a trip to Europe. I felt I needed to get away from my family - from the familiar - and do some serious thinking about my goals in life. But Emmett's deathlike state filled my mind. He couldn't walk, talk, drink, eat, see, or think. He was alive only because a machine was breathing for him.
Day after day my family and I kept a vigil in the Intensive Care Unit. Emmett's girl friend Diane, an attractive high school senior, was usually with us. Emmett just lay there, unaware, unmoving. The only thing we could for him was pray and we did plenty of that.
In the hour's drive back and forth to the hospital from our home in Haddonfield, New Jersey, my father would start a prayer. Then we would take turns praying aloud, or we pray in unison. We prayed at home or at church, and so did our friends. We prayed not only for Emmett, but also for ourselves - for the strength to keep striving and hoping in the face of a grave prognosis.
At last, on the 15th day, the doctors told us Emmett was responding - just barely - when his hand was squeezed. That was all my father needed. He grabbed Emmett's left hand. "Emmett," he said in a choked voice, "we're praying so hard for you. Can you pray and fight back? Squeeze my hand if you can."
He paused, then turned to the rest of us. "He squeezed my hand. He really squeezed. He wants to fight and pray to come back, and each of us is going to help. We'll keep on fighting and praying with him."
Maybe Emmett squeezed and maybe he didn't. After several tries to get him to respond to me, I wasn't convinced. But the next day Emmett did something that broke throw my skepticism. I was holding a telephone to his ear while our four-year-old brother Kevin, who hero-worshipped him, bombarded him with questions. "Emmett? You know how you always tell me 'hang in there'? Remember that, Emmett? I miss you. When will you come home? Soon, Emmett?"
I looked down at Emmett's masklike face. His cheeks were wet with tears.
I didn't realize it at the time, but at that moment I committed myself to Emmett, to reclaiming him mentally and physically. Good-bye summer job. Good-bye Europe. Good-bye independence. The battle to save Emmett's life was about to consume two years of my life.

July 1973: The next day I had my first disagreement with the medical establishment. The doctor was shaking his head. "I doubt those were tears. His eyes were watering. That often happens with people in a coma."
"Those were tears. I'm sure of it."
"You know, Steve, imagination is a powerful force when you want very much to believe something.
"Doctor, I cut him off, "Emmett's a stranger to you. But I know my brother's a fighter. As long as there's a breath in him, the guy will not give up. I think he can make it back."
"I don't believe you understand how bad his situation is. Mentally he's almost a blank."
I nodded - and found myself outlining my new "fight" strategy. I understand that, Doctor. It's as though Emmett has a hundred miles to go and we have to help him an inch at a time. But after yesterday I'm positive he has some awareness - enough for us to work with. If we can only build that up enough so Emmett catches on to what's expected of him, he'll fight back with us."
The opening move in my campaign was finding out as much as I could about coma, as fast as possible. From doctors and material I read in the library I learned that Emmett needed stimulation. Massive doses of it. Yet at the same time he needed to sleep a lot. I decided to try stimulating him an hour at a time, then giving him an hour's rest. When I mentioned my plan to Emmett's girlfriend Diane, she offered to help me.
A month after the accident, when Emmett was released from the Intensive Care Unit to round-the-clock private-duty nurses, Diane and I started our work. It was grueling. For an hour we'd talk to Emmett about what was happening at home, how everybody was asking about him. When one of us ran out of small talk, the other took over. After an hour, we would put a cassette of quiet music in Diane's tape player. After 60 minutes of that, we would read from current magazines, play lively music and sing, clap our hands and tap our feet. Meanwhile, twice a day, a physical therapist gave Emmett passive exercises, pushing and pulling his arms, legs, fingers and toes. She taught us how to do the movements, and we repeated them another two or three times a day.
We worked with Emmett 12 hours a day for six straight days. He remained unchanged. Once in a while he'd give a weak little squeeze when we urged him, but most times not. Another day went by and another. Emmett's brown eyes were open a little more than they had been - they were dull and glazed but open.
One day, when my parents came into the room, I noticed that Emmett's eyes moved toward the sound. I told my mother and she rushed to the bedside and held on to Emmett. "Do you know me, Emmett? Do you recognize me? Tell me, Emmett!"
A rasping groan came from deep down inside him: "Mmmmmmmomm."

August 1973: Now, Diane and I became teachers. Demanding ones. Emmett was unwilling - or unable - to speak again, but we got him to "talk" to us with his left hand (his right side was paralyzed). We asked him questions he could answer with his fingers - one for yes, two for no.
"Is your sister named Sue, Emmett?" One finger.
"Am I your brother Kevin?" Two fingers.
"Emmett, you and I and Diane are here. How many people is that?" Three fingers.
Meanwhile, we were delving deeper into prayer. My father joined a special prayer group. My mother had decided that since Emmett had so many physical problems she would pray for one improvement at a time. She began by praying specifically for his eyesight.
On August 18, holding four fingers in front of his face, Mother asked Emmett, "How many fingers do you see?"
Slowly his fingers moved - one, two, three, four!
After that, Emmett began to see a tiny bit better every day.
Now and then we were able to get him to say a few one-syllable words, but he did nothing on hid own. Never spoke, never responded, never responded, never ate, drank or moved unless we urged him.

September 1973: With somber warnings not to let our expectations rise too high, the doctors allowed us to transfer Emmett to a rehabilitation center where trained therapists could concentrate on trying to improve his speech and physical movement. The medical word that frightened Diane and me most was "plateau." It meant that Emmett's progress could flatten out at any time - get to a certain level and never go any further.
Our fears worsened after Emmett had been at the rehab center a few days. Diane and I were the only two people who had been observing him constantly and minutely 12 hours a day for over a month - and we believed that the routine therapy he was getting was not adequate. In fact, it was clear to us that no center anywhere could provide the extra effort he needed to keep from deteriorating or plateauing. He had to have all-day every-day, one-on-one therapy.
So Diane and I decided to supply that extra effort ourselves. The center finished working with Emmett at 4:00 p.m. each day. From 4:00 to 10:00 p.m. during daily visiting hours, we would take over.
I'd learned a lot about weight lifting and other kinds of physical conditioning while earning my black belt in karate. A physical therapist at the hospital had shown me how to work with Emmett using parallel bars to help him stand up and mat exercises for sit-ups to build his muscle strength.
Diane's job was to supplement the work of the speech therapist. Emmett had aphasia; his ability to use words correctly had damaged. The part of his brain that recognized objects had lost contact with the part that named them. Diane held up various objects for Emmett to identify, corrected him when he was wrong - which was almost always - and encouraged him at the same time. "You're mixed up on the name of things, Emmett. Working with me will help straighten you out. Want to try again?"
During the hours we worked with Emmett we prayed for small gains - for one more sit-up, one more step using the support bars, one more sign of word-recognition. And we thanked God for the least little sign of progress.

October 1973: A new problem. Emmett got a staph infection - a liability of prolonged hospital stays. But once over that hurdle, our inch-by-inch progress continued. By now Emmett's neck muscles were strong enough to keep his head from lolling to the side if it wasn't strapped in place, and he learned to feed himself and kick his paralyzed right leg a little when we asked him to. Since he could now hold his torso erect in a wheelchair, we began taking Emmett outside.
On his first outing Emmett heaved himself forward to pull up a few blades of grass, to feel the earth he'd been away from so long. But that hopeful sign was wiped out a few weeks later.
Diane was showing Emmett a picture of a house. "Can you name this?"
"Hous-hou-Howard Johnson."
We all laughed, including Emmett. Except that he went on and on, out of control, and it was an idiot's laugh.
The doctor explained that when the parts of the brain that control the emotion system are damaged, the patient's reaction may be overblown. No telling how long the symptom would last.
We hoped it would go away soon, but it didn't. From then on, it happened at least two or three times a day.

November 1973: The better I got at working out with Emmett, the more convinced I became that he should be brought home where our family could focus on stimulating him mentally and physically all the time. He was still only half-awake, someone who looked - and acted - both crippled and retarded.
Also, Emmett was in constant pain from the irritation of the urinary catheter he'd worn since the accident. The rehab center could do little to help him develop bladder control - that would take constant supervision, day and night. At home, I could give him that.
At first my parents were afraid of the responsibility of having Emmett at home. But after praying and a few trial visits on weekends they felt more secure. The day before Thanksgiving Emmett came home.
We put Emmett's bed in an alcove off the living room, and I slept on a cot beside him so he could wake me whenever he needed me. I'd located a health spa where he could work out, and my mother had found a speech pathologist. She also hired people to tutor him in math and English.
Although Diane had a lesser role to play with Emmett, she visited and kept him company faithfully, something that most people outside the family didn't feel comfortable about doing for more than a few minutes at a time.
Our next goal was to get him to take steps without the support of the parallel bars. We had exercised the atrophied muscles on his paralyzed right side enough to achieve some movement. Now the obstacle was his lack of balance. He couldn't take more than a step or two without falling down.
I had no idea what to do about that. To complicate matters, I was beginning to feel impatient and defeated about Emmett's slow progress. Meanwhile, my own time to travel and begin a career was passing by.
I must have shown my frustration because one day my mother took me aside.
"What's the matter, Steve?"
"Nothing special."
"I know better. Tell me about it."
"Oh, I'm just discouraged, I guess. Sometimes I think I'm wasting my time. That no matter how I try, Emmett will never be able to walk."
My mother took hold of my shoulders.
"Never say that. He will walk. Because you're going to help him."
I don't know if it was her conviction or the challenge or foolish pride or sentiment. But I heard myself saying something incredible. "You're right, Mom. And my Christmas present to you is going to be Emmett walking."
It was more than incredible. It was crazy. How could Emmett walk if he couldn't regain his balance?
What happened next is an example of the leading we felt we were getting from God.

December 1973: I was visiting a friend and his wife and their three year-old son, watching the baby crawl on the floor and pull himself up, holding on to chairs and tables.
"See that?" his mother remarked. "Any day now he'll start taking steps and then he'll be walking instead of crawling."
That was it! Crawling was what Emmett needed to do to help get back his balance - and his confidence - back. The very next day my mother and I began teaching him to crawl. We worked on his paralyzed side while Emmett coordinated the movements of his left arm and leg. Right arm forward, left leg forward. Left arm forward, right leg forward.
After practicing 20 minutes morning, noon and night for two weeks, Emmett was crawling - not fast or smoothly, but crawling. At the spa we had a program of chin-ups, knee bends, swimming and working with a shoulder wheel and a stationary bike (I had to tie Emmett's right foot to the pedal till he could keep it in place on his own). When Emmett's knees got sore from crawling I bought him knee pads - and also a quad cane which has a four-prong base. One day, with his left hand grasping the cane and me holding the back of his belt, Emmett took his first lurching step. Christmas was only a week away.
Emmett worked earnestly, wobbling, tottering forward with the quad cane, relying on me to steady him with a hand on his shoulder. As he struggled, I noticed a frown wrinkle his face now and then. I wondered about it. He hadn't shown emotion for such a long time. When I mentioned it to a pathologist, though, he was negative. "That doesn't mean he feels anything - it's just a reflex."
Christmas morning came. After all the family's presents had been opened and the wrappings cleared away, I gave my mother an envelope and pushed Emmett's wheelchair around the hallway.
I hear her read the message to the others. "Merry Christmas, Mom. Look who's coming. With love from Steve."
In the hallway, I helped Emmett stand up and get set with the quad cane.
"Okay, now, slow and careful does it. Keep your mind on what you're doing. You know what this means to Mom."
With a nod, Emmett began his journey. One foot in front of the other, wavering, recovering. Now he was in the entrance of the living room, where everyone sat frozen, silent, watching.
Halfway across the room he began to sway. I steadied him with a hand on his shoulder. One more step. Another. Another. Three steps to Mom. Now two. Now one.
He stood in front of her.
My mother wrapped her arms around him and my father hugged them both.
I stared at Emmett. His eyes were still glazed, but something shone from them that was clearly recognizable. Pride.

January 1974 - and After: Emmett's triumphant walk came six months after the accident. Another year and a half would go by before I felt free to go back to my own life, to work on a career or even to think about having a girlfriend. I' discovered that I was too involved - some said "obsessed" - with Emmett to put any substance into any other kind of relationship.
As for Emmett, there was no point where he "turned a corner" and was suddenly all right again. It continued to be a matter of adding on - bit by bit, inch by inch, day by day. Eventually he could crawl up and down stairs... had better breath pressure, controlled his bladder eight hours at a time... was able to use an ordinary cane, then walk unaided. The idiot laugh disappeared. He climbed the stairs. Little signs showed his volition was coming back. He'd be the first one to say "Hello". Or he'd turn off radio music he didn't like. His flat, monotonous speech gained rhythm and tone.
Now, more than 10 years later, many changes have come to Emmett, Diane, and me. Gradually, Diane began to resume a life independent of Emmett. In time she married and had two children. I moved to New York and took up a career as an actor and writer. After undergraduate work at Millsaps College, Emmett settled in Florida. Apart from a slight residual weakness on his right side, he's perfectly well, able to work, and as I write this, he's planning to marry a delightful young woman who adores him. Today, some people who hear about Emmett's recovery call it a miracle. I resent that. Miracles are supernatural. This wasn't. Reclaiming Emmett's life was a human battle, carried on with intensive, monotonous, stubborn persistence by my family and Diane and me. We're ordinary people and we overcame fear and pessimism and poor odds and even cold facts by concentrating totally on hard work and the most natural thing in the world - prayer.
I'm not saying that every desperate coma case will respond to a massive family effort the way Emmett did. Coma therapy is a young science; research and clinical experience are limited. Time and time again, the doctors told us, "Don't get your hopes up."
But what if we hadn't?