Rutland Herald | December 7, 2014
By Kevin O’Connor, Staff Writer
As Vermonter Lenny Burke lay hospitalized in a coma, the result of a flagrant foul by an opponent in a high school basketball game everyone considered him detached and near death.
Everyone except his mother, who held on to a miracle in the form of her teenager’s smelly sneakers.
Rewinding back to the cold, dark first days of 1979, Emmie Burke recalls watching doctors try and fail to pull her 17-year-old son out of unconsciousness. That’s when, deciding to appeal to his senses, she backtracked home before returning with a few aromatic alternatives to smelling salts.
Was it his pungent basketball shoes? Her favorite perfume? His father’s aftershave? Emmie isn’t sure what smell, sight or sound spurred her son to awaken. But it was only the start of his recovery — and of her resourcefulness.
Some 35 years later, Lenny and Emmie Burke and family — founders of the state’s first rehabilitation center for people with traumatic brain injuries — are the subject of a new book, The Bend in the Road, by Vermont writer Yvonne Daley.
“This story of one almost unimaginable trauma and a family’s response is the kind of story we need now, perhaps more than ever,” Daley pens in the prologue, a story of unselfishness and perseverance, “a singular story that has brought healing, real healing, directly to hundreds and, indirectly, to countless others.”
Daley, a former Rutland Herald reporter turned journalism professor, spent much of the past year at the Wallingford center known as Lenny Burke’s Farm to learn how the family has brought new life not only to itself but to brain injury survivors nationwide.
This wasn’t the story the Burke family expected for their oldest child, whose love of sports ranged from golf to football (he was quarterback at Rutland’s Mount Saint Joseph Academy) to his biggest obsession, basketball.
Lenny’s mother shot hoops with him each afternoon, his father took over after work each evening. The student dribbled the ball and a straight-A average, all the while dreaming of college — he received early acceptance to Middlebury and the University of Vermont — and a career practicing medicine or playing for the Boston Celtics.
On Jan. 23, 1979, the 6-foot-1½-inch senior was the leading scorer in the Southern Vermont League and on his way to a high school hoop total of 1,000 points. Facing off at home against rival Mount Anthony Union High School of Bennington, he caught the ball with a 20-15 lead and 5:15 minutes on the clock.
Lenny rose in the air, lifting his arms toward the basket. That’s when an opponent careened into his legs, catapulting him against the backboard, then headfirst onto the floor and against the wall.
A collective moan united the crowd. Lenny tried to stand up, only to pass out. An ambulance sped him to the local hospital. In the emergency room, doctors operated for more than two hours to relieve the pressure of massive bleeding inside his head.
The surgery saved Lenny’s life, but the brain damage was severe. Would he wake from it, and, if so, how?
The dark night stretched for days and weeks.
As her son lay unresponsive. Emmie Burke moved into the hospital. She remembered reading a Ladies’ Home Journal article about experiments with lowering body temperature while putting trauma patients into deeper comas so their brains could more easily heal.
She asked neurosurgeon Peter Upton about it. The doctor soon found and followed the procedure in the journal he thought she was referring to: that month’s New England Journal of Medicine.
Two weeks in the hospital, Lenny opened his eyes. Even so, staffers — knowing brain injuries are the leading cause of death and disability in people up to age 44 – didn’t expect him to live much longer.
His mother thought otherwise.
“I told him I was going to ‘fill him with love’ and I was going to ask everyone to also do that,” she is quoted in the book. “I told him if he lived, he might not be the same but I would promise him a good life.”
As doctors pulled all tubes and drugs from their patient, his mother told everyone to plug into his heart.
And his nose. Emmie forgets where she learned that a person’s sense of smell is the last to go. She simply recalls bringing household items with recognizable odors to her son’s bedside to see if one would spur him.
Trying a similar tact with taste and sound, she dabbed chocolate on his tongue and dialed the radio to local stations. Lenny sat silent through hour after hour of live school sports. Then one weekend that March, broadcasters conducted an on-air collection for his medical expenses.
Volunteers hoped to reap $20,000 to $30,000. But soon after its start, the fundraiser reported more than $10,000 — a total that would balloon almost tenfold to nearly $100,000.
As the event progressed, Upton inserted a shunt into Lenny’s brain in hopes of removing excess fluid to reduce swelling. The procedure, the surgeon warned the family, could exacerbate bleeding or cause a clot, infection or seizures. As he finished, the radio announced another spike in the fundraising tally.
“You hear that, Lenny?” the doctor said casually.
“I hear that,” the young man replied after 45 days in a coma.
Soon after, Lenny asked for chocolate chip ice cream — the first sweet moment in his long journey toward recovery.
The full-cover hardcover, published through Daley’s Verdant Books imprint by Northshire Bookstore of Manchester, goes on to explain the evolution of both the young man and his namesake residential rehabilitation center for people with head trauma. Some 30 accompanying vignettes reveal personal stories about clients, staffers and the science of the brain.
“Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about this book knows someone who has sustained a traumatic brain injury, or they have had one themselves,” Daley writes. “It’s the way we live our lives: cars, sports, war, assault, stupidity, birth defects and aging blood vessels, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time.”
Daley is scheduled to unveil her book this month at two events. This Friday, she’ll sign copies before and after “An Evening Honoring Lenny Burke and the Burke Family” at 7 p.m. at downtown Rutland’s Paramount Theatre. Then, on Dec. 17, she’ll appear with Emmie at 7 p.m. at the Wallingford Historical Society Museum on Route 7, with more information available on the website, thebendintheroadbook.wordpress.com.
Neither the author nor mother, however, will have the last word.
The book leaves that to Lenny, now 53 and a fixture at his namesake farm. The injury robbed him of his subconscious (“I would cherish nightmares,” he says) and his sense of smell (alas, smelly sneakers can’t cure all), as well as his chance to go to college and play professional sports.
“If you write about me, don’t write that I was a great high school athlete,” he advises on the book’s final page. “That’s not how I want to be known or remembered. Just say I was a kind person. I want my story to be about someone who did something kind. That’s enough. That’s how I want to be remembered.”
Oh, and one other thing.
“I still like to eat. You can say that about me, the old and the new Lenny both like to eat. Particularly mint chocolate chip ice cream.”