A year after near-fatal injury, he's walking to get diploma

Tyler Gale and his mother, Barbara, near their home in Blackwood. Last year, he suffered serious injuries in a bike crash before he was to graduate.
Tyler Gale and his mother, Barbara, near their home in Blackwood. Last year, he suffered serious injuries in a bike crash before he was to graduate. (CURT HUDSON / For The Inquirer)
Posted: May 17, 2014

Rowan University Police Sgt. Joseph Barnett and two fellow officers were keeping the peace on a bar-closing detail shortly before 2 a.m. a year ago when a young man on a bicycle clipped a curb, catapulted over the handlebars, and, tangled in his bike, crashed like a torpedo.

"When he hit the ground, he hit headfirst," Barnett said. "You could hear him hit."

Blood pumped from his nose and mouth, pooling fast around him. Despite the possibility of a neck injury, the officers moved him.

"If we didn't move him, he would have aspirated and drowned," Barnett said.

The man's mother, asleep at home in Blackwood, was awakened and summoned to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. Her first-born - due to graduate magna cum laude from Rowan in a matter of hours - had suffered a brain injury and was in a coma. The doctors could not say when or if he would wake up, let alone survive.

On Friday, almost exactly a year after the accident that nearly killed him, Tyler Gale, 23, will make that long-awaited graduation walk at Rowan - by his own power. No wheelchair. No crutches. He's thinking about doing a little celebratory click of his heels.

"I," Gale said, "am the definition of lucky."

Tyler's mother, Barbara, whom he credits most for helping him to find his way back, will be the first person he looks for.

"She is a rock," Tyler Gale said. "There is no other word to describe her."

Much went into his recovery: his own determination, skilled caregivers, devoted family, and a large, unfailing support network of Rowan friends and faculty who peopled his hospital room - some coming straight from graduation. They brought trays of food. They sat and talked to Gale even when he showed no sign of hearing.

"It was amazing, what all these kids did, and their relatives," Barbara Gale said. "They got me through it."

Mother and son have been through a lot together, going way back. She was just 39 when her husband, Owen, died while at a hospital to get an X-ray. Tyler was 5, his brother a toddler, and his sister a baby.

"That next morning, I got up and put Tyler on the school bus," she said. After school, she told him about his father.

Their big, supportive family helped, but money was tight. Even now, she works two school secretary jobs, plus part-time at a Kohl's.

Early on, Tyler, who took out loans to help pay for Rowan, took on the responsible role - thoughtful, his siblings' protector.

"Even when he was little, he helped me out like a little man," Barbara Gale said. "I used to constantly have to remind him, 'You're a kid. Do kid things.' "

He took to school. At Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, he played football and baseball, and wrestled. At Rowan, as a well-liked biology major, he came into his own.

"I love that place," he said. "It's given me the confidence to go into any work field, and it was like a family."

Linda Head, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, encouraged Gale to apply to graduate school

"I was really impressed with his organizational ability, his leadership and his intelligence," she said.

Alison Krufka, a biology professor whom Gale did research with, was holding his hand in the hospital one of the times he opened his eyes.

The night before the 2013 graduation, Gale was celebrating with friends at the Landmark Americana, a bar near campus. He knew he'd be having some drinks, so he took his bike instead of a car, but he did not wear a helmet. In a call to his mother that night, he called it the happiest night of his life.

So Barbara Gale was confused when a police officer came to her door around 3 a.m. and told that her son was at Cooper with a broken nose.

She wondered: Why did they take him all the way to Cooper for that? And then she thought, what about the graduation pictures? "I was thinking, 'I'm going to kill him for doing this to his face.' "

When she finally saw her comatose son at Cooper, his jaw was broken, his right eye "looked like a tennis ball," and he wasn't breathing on his own.

Doctors said the brain injury could go either way. His fever spiked again and again in the days to come. He endured several surgeries.

"I would take his eyelids and open his eyes," Barbara Gale said. "I was like, 'Open your eyes.' I wanted to know if he was there."

She talked to her dead husband, telling him, "He's not yours yet."

After about a month at Cooper, and after two weeks in the coma and one week in a medically induced coma, Gale was moved to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia.

"He couldn't walk, couldn't talk, couldn't hold a pencil," his mother said.

But within about three weeks, he was walking. "Determined? Oh, God," she said. "All he wanted to do was go back to Rowan."

And when that determination wavered, she got on his case. "He didn't need a soft, mushy mom," she said.

Tyler credits the persistence of Magee caregivers and the support of family and friends, but especially his mother, for his rapid progress.

"She's the reason I got out so quickly," he said. " 'Life is waiting for you, was one of her quotes. If she was downtrodden at all, she didn't show it. She had an awesome mask on."

When he came home, he still had much work and healing to do.

The injury had affected him in a number of ways. Gale, who had always been sensitive to others' feelings, would say inappropriate or hurtful things and not realize it. Sometimes his mother wasn't sure he knew who she was.

All that would improve with time, but other effects of the injury linger. Gale suffered impairment of his working memory - memories from 30 minutes or less, very important for a student. His attention span is diminished. He gets frustrated. Cognitive therapy has been helping.

In January, he was able to return to Rowan to begin graduate work in computer and electrical engineering with a biomedical focus. He wants to work in rehabilitative medicine.

He also continues to work on his physical endurance. He's running five miles every other day and plans to get on a bike again in July for a cancer bike-athon.

But first, he wants his mother to hear his name announced Friday, and see him walk across that graduation stage with other students from the College of Science and Mathematics.

"It's for her," he said. "I felt she was cheated. It's a two-way street, getting through college, between you and your parents. I feel she deserved to get those pictures."


rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893

@ritagiordano

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