It just took one moment to change the life of a young man who was known for his drive for success and hopes to become a neurosurgeon.
It was a moment his mother, Jodie Nichols could never forget.
“I got the call at 4:00 in the morning. All they could tell us is he was still breathing when they put him in an ambulance,” said Jodie.
Jodie’s son Brenden Nichols was driving over Lolo pass when a deer jumped into the road.
Brenden recalled the road over the pass was curvy. He remembered the river off to his left and mountains surrounding him on the right.
Brenden said he had jumped into the oncoming traffic lane because nobody was coming.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” said Brenden.
That was when his steering wheel locked up and his vehicle began to gyrate.
“I started sliding towards the river, I was about to go over the edge,” Brenden recalled the incident.
Brenden turned the wheel the other way, overcorrecting and sending the vehicle onto its side and into the mountain. He hit his head on the steering wheel and was knocked unconscious.
Brenden was transported to Missoula, Montana.
Jodie received the call about Brenden around 4:00 a.m.
“At that point you are kind of not thinking, you’re just on autopilot. And I actually called my next-door neighbor to see if they would come help me because I wasn’t sure I could drive. She drove me to Missoula. We got there really fast. I think we got there in about 90 minutes,” said Jodie.
When she arrived in Missoula she said she was taken in to a "little room" to go over what was going on.
“That room is my nightmare,” said Jodie.
Doctors told Jodie that Brenden had a severe brain injury and the likelihood he would survive was slim. She said she was told that the next 72 hours would be critical.
“At 72 hours we were ecstatic that he was still alive,” said Jodie.
Jodie said that was when her son’s neurosurgeon told her something that brought her to tears.
“He literally told us euthanasia would be a better option for our son than the life he was going to live,” said Jodie.
Jodie said once she got her composure back, she decided that was not the right option and she ordered that surgeon off of Brenden’s case.
Jodie recalled several other doctors giving her a grim diagnosis. The Nichols family was not ready to give up.
The first fight: Staying alive
Brenden was in the Intensive Care Unit in Missoula for 49 days.
Most of those days he spent in a coma, going through what doctors described as “storming.” He was sensitive to outside stimuli and would have times where he was thrashing in his bed as his blood pressure would spike.
Brenden said he remembers this time as a dream world.
“When I was in the coma, I didn’t know I was in a coma. I thought I was awake and doing stuff. I guess none of those memories got laid down in my brain,” said Brenden.
Brenden described his time in the dream world as a place where it was hard to separate fact and fiction.
While Brenden was in a coma he would make gradual process. He was transferred out of the ICU and into a hospital in North Idaho.
That hospital in North Idaho was where Brenden and his family first met Dr. Todd Hoopman.
Dr. Hoopman remembers the first time he saw Brenden. Brenden was not awake, and was in a room with a tracheostomy and a feeding tube.
Dr. Hoopman said the outcome of Brenden’s condition was hard to predict. That didn’t stop the Nichols family from hoping, praying and rearranging their lives to make sure Brenden was never alone.
Doctors and therapists did not give up hope either. They continued to work with Brenden with hopes he would regain his consciousness and ability to speak.
One day after about four months of being in a coma, Brenden had a break through. He gave a thumbs up, and just kept improving from there.
The second fight: Returning to the conscious world
Jodie recalled Brenden’s first words. He said “mom” like when he was a baby. His second word was “home.”
“He just wanted to go home. He didn’t know where he was at,” said Jodie.
Jodie said she remembers the time he was working with a speech pathologist and she held a sign up in front of him. It said: ‘make a fist.”
Brenden was able to read the sign and make a fist.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god he can read! That’s huge,'” said Jodie.
As Brenden became more and more conscious, doctors and his family began to realize just how much of a miracle he was.
Brenden said that despite his trouble speaking and some memory issues, his cognitive ability today is pretty much the same as it was before the incident.
Brenden said he has the same capacity as that straight ‘A’ student studying neuroscience almost seven years ago. That does come with some frustrations though. Brenden said he was frustrated that some people assume he can’t understand them based on the way he sounds.
“A lot of people judge you on what your voice sounds like. So, they automatically assume that there’s cognitive issues and there’s really not with him. It’s just he has paralysis in his throat area,” Jodie explained.
“I may talk slowly, but I sure as heck don’t think slowly. I could run mental laps around most people,” said Brenden.
As Brenden’s consciousness returned, the physical impact of his incident remained. When he left the hospital, he was completely wheelchair-bound. Doctors said they were not sure what mobility, if any he would regain.
This was part one of Brenden Nichols’ story. You’ll have to wait until Wednesday to see what else he was capable of overcoming.