Lei's story

photo of Lei Zhang walking with a therapist

Lei Zhang is a long-haul trucker, crisscrossing the country to support his family.
On May 16, the 47-year-old California resident was driving through Tennessee when a tire blew. The truck crashed, rolling several times.

Emergency crews pulled Lei from the wreck and brought him to Vanderbilt Medical Center, where tests revealed severe traumatic brain injury and bleeding. In respiratory failure, he was connected to a ventilator and later given breathing and feeding tubes.

In the month it took for Lei to stabilize, his wife, Emily, and son, Cheung Pok Man, chose Select Specialty Hospital – Nashville for the next stage of recovery. They worked through insurance company challenges. Thanks to the hard work from both hospitals’ admissions teams, the family prevailed.

Lei arrived in mid-June, unable to breathe, eat, speak or move independently. He was also agitated – a common occurrence in brain-injured patients – and required round-the-clock monitoring.

A physician-led team, including nurses and therapists, created a plan to give Lei the best chance at healing.

Respiratory therapists began testing whether they could reduce Lei’s need for airway and oxygen support. Gradually, they dialed back the machine’s settings, allowing his lungs to take over. Nurses and physical therapists ensured twice-daily movement sessions designed to increase mobility and alertness. Simple actions, such as sitting in bed and rolling over, increase blood flow, oxygen circulation and can improve a patient’s chances of liberating from the ventilator.

As his body healed, dietitians monitored Lei’s tube feedings, ensuring optimal nutrition.

Lei began to wake up and started responding to commands. Emily was thrilled especially given the family’s prior experience with brain injury. Lei’s father, a resident of China, never recovered from a brain injury he had sustained. Emily and Cheung Pok were amazed and grateful for these hopeful signs.

Speech-language pathologists worked to retrain Lei’s mouth, tongue and jaw muscles. They also helped him relearn to speak by repeating words and sounds until Lei understood. His breathing and swallowing skills improved and his airway support and feeding tube were discontinued.

Growing stronger, physical and occupational therapists worked on Lei’s larger movements, such as standing and grasping objects with his left hand. He graduated to walking up and down stairs.

By mid-August, Lei was ready to go home. He took one last walk down the hallway, a victory lap to crown an incredible comeback.

Emily and Cheung Pok arrived, and the family of three drove back to California.

Lei is eager to return to China and show his parents and older brothers the type of recovery that is possible in America.

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