The Glasgow Coma Scale is not something you want to be rated on. It’s a neurological scale that helps doctors determine what kind of condition a brain injury patient is in. The worst score is 3, meaning someone is very close to dying; the highest rating is 15, meaning the patient is fully awake.
Kyle Johnson, who shattered his skull in more than 10 places in a longboarding accident two months ago, was a 6 — meaning the 25-year-old had a 90 to 95 percent chance of dying.
“An initial CT Scan showed profound skull fractures in the back as well as both sides of his head,” Dr. Blake Welling, a neurosurgeon at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah, told FoxNews.com. “He was in a coma and other than skull fractures there was moderate brain swelling.”
Twelve hours after he was rushed to the emergency room, the swelling on his brain had become uncontrollable.
“We elected to take Kyle to surgery and remove each side of his head,” Welling said. “It’s called a bilateral decompressive craniectomy. It’s something that neurosurgeons do as a last ditch effort.”
In essence, it's the same procedure ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff underwent after he was severely injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. There’s just one big difference: Woodruff had one side of his skull removed while Johnson had both sides taken out.
“Most neurosurgeons do a decompressive craniectomy on one side of the head, where the trauma was,” Welling said. “In this case, Kyle had such a global brain injury that we needed to take both sides of his head off, and you just leave a small strip of bone right down the middle.”
After Welling and his team removed Johnson’s fractured skull, they put it back together with micro-screws and plates. And then – they put it in the freezer.
“Back in the day when I trained, 15 to 17 years ago, we used to put the bone into the belly,” Welling said. The problem with that is that the calcium would become leeched from the bone and when you take it out, two to three weeks later, you look at it and it shrinks and the bone becomes more brittle and it’s just not a good substitute. So, now we’ve just been putting it in the deep freezer.”
Johnson was kept in a drug-induced coma for about three weeks while doctors monitored his brain swelling. After the swelling went down, Welling put the bone flaps back into place, and it took Johnson about another week to wake up after that.
“I wasn’t quite sure what we were going to be left with,” Welling said. “When people have injuries like this I thought he may have a significant disability in terms of having to talk and walk again and learning his cognitive function. But low and behold, Kyle woke up and his lights gradually went back on.”
A Typical Day
June 2 – the day of the accident – started out just like any other.
Johnson had stopped by a friend’s house, and on a whim, they decided to go longboarding down a hill in their neighborhood in Layton, about 20 minutes outside of Salt Lake City.
“My friend was actually following me in a car, and when I landed, I was lying on the ground and I was just covered in blood, there was actually a puddle of blood,” Johnson said. “I’ve done this hill before, and I was roughly going about 25 to 30 miles per hour.”
Welling said by all purposes, Johnson should have died.
“He had a very high mortality rate,” he said. “I told him sometimes we’re left with really terrible results, but in your case you have a guardian angel, you have something to live for."
And Johnson doesn’t take that statement lightly. He said this harrowing ordeal has forever changed his perspective on life, as well as his appreciation for family and friends.
“The priorities that I had before the accident were very normal,” he said. “I’m really big into snowboarding, I actually teach snowboarding, and that was a really big priority. Skateboarding, longboarding and even school were all priorities. But that has changed. Now, I have a new appreciation for family and friends and what life is.”
And during his entire stay in the hospital, Johnson’s family kept a vigil by his bedside.
"For my parents not to leave my side for the duration of me being in the hospital — it means a lot," he said. "And that is definitely another thing I've definitely learned is that the love of parents is ultimate."
Road to Recovery
Although Johnson didn't require any real physical therapy, he is currently undergoing cognitive therapy to help with memory loss and things like multi-tasking.
“It’s something that I do not have the ability to do right now,” he said. “If you put two color crayons in front of me, say blue and green, I really cannot think of both crayons. I can only think of one at a time and even that is a struggle. So, for therapy, we’ve been doing more mind exercises if you will.”
Now, almost 10 weeks after the accident, Kyle is looking forward to the future, but he's not sure if he will ever get back on his longboard.
"I don't know if I will," he said. "It's kind of an eerie type of feeling -- so I don't know if I will ever get back to longboarding -- but snowboarding for sure."
In the meantime, he's making sure others know how important it is to wear a helmet.
"This has really opened my eyes. For snowboarders, longboarders or skateboarders – if you’re not wearing a helmet I will be the first one to say, ‘hey you really need to put a helmet on.' "
"To show pictures of me with both sides of my skull gone and just skin up against the brain – I make a point to say this is what happens when you don’t wear a helmet. If you hit your head hard enough you could break your skull and end up in a coma for three weeks at the age of 25.”
For Welling, he attributes Johnson's miraculous recovery to the care he received during his stay at McKay-Dee Hospital.
“I don’t want to take all the credit," he said. "It was a team effort and we have wonderful nurses and trauma surgeons and intensivists. So it was definitely a team effort.”