On May 28, 2013, Jeanette Fink received a phone call in the middle of night telling her that her son, Justin Walker, who was visiting family in North Carolina, had been involved in a terrible car crash. The Riverhead woman jumped out of bed and booked the first flight south.
Mr. Walker, who was 18 at the time, suffered a serious brain injury when the car he was driving flipped several times. After he’d been in a coma for 81 days, doctors predicted he would never walk again.
Fast-forward three years and Mr. Walker is slowly proving them wrong.
Last month, assisted by doctors and therapists at Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation Center in Smithtown, Mr. Walker took his first steps since his life-altering crash. In June, he graduated from Riverhead High School after working with a tutor to earn his degree.
Mr. Walker suffers from diffuse axonal injury, which is caused when the brain shakes inside the skull. This disrupts axons, which are nerve cells that allow neurons to send messages between them. Over 90 percent of patients with severe DAI never regain consciousness and remain in a vegetative state.
Ms. Fink said her son’s doctors can’t predict how he will heal, because it’s up to his body and brain to be able to make new pathways. Mr. Walker can’t move the left side of his body at all, but he can feel it. He can also understand everything that’s said to him, but is unable to communicate through speech.
Since the crash, Mr. Walker has picked up sign language to communicate with his mother. He’s also able to type, so he sends text messages and is active on Facebook.
Though he has trouble forming words — one syllable he can get out is “Mom” — he has no trouble laughing. During his mother’s nightly visits to the rehab center, the two can often be seen chuckling.
“You go see him and he’s just so full of positive energy,” Ms. Fink said. “It’s just so unbelievable.”
In the days following the crash, Ms. Fink never imagined her son would be where he is today. She remembers a specific conversation just weeks before the crash, after her son had seen a photo of someone in a predicament similar to the one he’d soon be in. He told his aunt he would never want to live a life hooked up to machines.
“Those words just kept playing over and over and over in my head,” Ms. Fink recalled.
She remembers waiting with her sister before a pivotal meeting with a team of doctors in North Carolina about two weeks after the crash. She told her sister that if each of the doctors were to tell her there was no hope for her son’s recovery, she couldn’t let him live like that. She then held her son’s hand, praying for about 45 minutes before the meeting.
“As a mom, how do you know what to do when your kid is lying there and there’s not a thing you can do to help him?” Ms. Fink said.
During the meeting, she asked one of the doctors what he would do if his child were in a coma.
“I would never stop pushing him,” the doctor told her.
That was all Ms. Fink needed to hear.
“From that day forward it was on,” she said. “I was not gonna stop pushing. And I still don’t.”
Mr. Walker tells his mother he’s become a more spiritual person and that he believes God whispers in his ear each day. He tells her he likes the person he is today better than the young man he was before the crash.
Little by little, Mr. Walker, who has eliminated the words “I can’t” from his vocabulary, has begun to make progress. He was transported from North Carolina to the Smithtown center about four months after the accident. The facility, where he has now spent nearly three years, was the only one on Long Island that could take him.
Ms. Fink was granted a year’s leave from her job in the Suffolk County Clerk’s office and used the time to work on activities with her son as he underwent rehab.
“The whole first year I did whatever I could think of just to get his brain to move,” she recalled.
One idea was to string medical tape from one side of the room to the other and have Mr. Walker put clothespins on it. Another saw her place a washcloth on his face and watch as he pulled it off, something he could usually accomplish within about five minutes.
Ms. Fink would also write words on a dry-erase board and hold up picture cards, asking her son to point to the picture that matched the word. Doing so made her realize he could still read and could spell for people what he couldn’t express through spoken words.
Mary Negron first met Mr. Walker and Ms. Fink at the rehab center, where her son also lives. She said the changes she’s seen in Mr. Walker are incredible.
“It’s like he is a totally different person,” she said, adding that his progress can be attributed to how he “pushes himself to extremes.”
His family members agree.
“It’s been a long journey, but it’s been a miracle journey,” said Kathi Gentile, Mr. Walker’s grandmother. “He inspires me every day.”
Mr. Walker’s 19-year-old sister, Miranda Fink, said it took some time for her to get comfortable with all her older brother was going through. She said it was hard seeing him experience such a horrific ordeal, especially when the crash occurred at a time when they were growing closer as siblings.
During his trip to North Carolina, she said, he called her every day.
“And then all of a sudden I wasn’t able to hear his voice or anything,” she said. “I couldn’t deal with that.”
Now, Mr. Walker is sometimes able to visit his family in Riverhead on weekends. Miranda said she and her fiancé take her brother around town in the family’s new van.
Miranda said she’s been impressed not only by her brother’s strength during his recovery, but also by her mother’s. A single mom, Ms. Fink works all day, then drives 50 minutes to see Justin before returning to Riverhead to take care of Miranda and her younger son, Matthew, 11.
“You don’t know how strong you are until that’s the only thing that you can be is strong,” Miranda said of her mother.
Ms. Fink said she and her son use the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare” as inspiration. “Slow and steady” and “I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday” are phrases they often employ.
Ms. Fink calls her son a fighter and said he has been one from the start. Born six weeks early, she said he has fought his entire life.
Mr. Walker can only remain in the pediatrics wing of Avalon until the day before his 22nd birthday next May. By then, his mother hopes her house will be wheelchair accessible so she bring her son home. The family also hopes he will be able to get into Brendan House in Riverhead, which is tentatively scheduled to open this fall.
During an interview last week, Mr. Walker signed that his goal is to not be handicapped anymore. Ms. Fink shook her head and said she believes in him.
“We’re just gonna put on our boxing gloves and fight our way through it,” she said to her son. “That’s all we can do.”
He then signed back to her, correcting what she’d said.
“No, bare-handed,” he said.
Top photo caption: Jeannette Fink and her son Justin Walker at the Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation Center in Smithtown last Tuesday. The two often joke around during Ms. Fink’s nightly visits. (Credit: Krysten Massa)