“I am Eric #2. I used to be Eric #1. He died in a car accident.”
This is how Eric Michalowski describes his two lives: life before brain injury, and life after. Eric is the subject of the new documentary Back Walking Forward, a moving portrait of a man—and a family—living in the aftermath of global brain injury.
Several months after his high school graduation, with college on the horizon, Eric was hit by a van. He was delivering a pizza on his bike, just a few blocks from home. Initially given very little chance of survival by the doctors, Eric hung on through a coma to emerge onto the long and unpredictable road of rebuilding his life, relearning how to talk, how to eat, to recognize his family. A decade later, director Kavery Kaul follows Eric as he continues his journey to start over.
Brain injury, like so many neurological conditions, could be described as a family injury. A patient like Eric may require around-the-clock care and monitoring as well as therapies, treatments, and specialized equipment that aren’t necessarily covered by insurance. The emotional and financial burden of care on the family can be tremendous. Eric and his family—his mother Susan, his father Isaac, and his brother—remind us that recovery may not be possible without family and without hope (a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either).
It seems we’re come a long way toward a public understanding of the life-altering impact of brain and head injury—helmets are now standard for activities like bike riding and skateboarding (a welcome change from the culture a couple of decades ago), the NFL has an educational program that makes players aware of the serious nature of concussions, and tragic news stories like Natasha Richardson’s and Gabrielle Giffords’ remind us that our lives can be permanently altered in minutes.
While the public may generally know more about how these injuries happen, we may not know what they look like. No two brain injuries are the same, and no two brain injury survivors have the same path to recovery. Kaul’s film is important because it gives brain injury a face. In doing so, it makes your heart ache (Eric: “I can’t think. No brain.”)…but then fills you with hope as Eric surpasses the expectations of his team of doctors and therapists (“I WILL walk.”). And, it makes you laugh (one of my favorite moments: Eric, who is prone to making suggestive comments, having lost some of his ability to self-edit, lip-syncs to Louis Prima’s version of “Just a Gigolo”).
Two screenings of Back Walking Forward will take place in New York City this month: Saturday, June 11 at 3 pm at Maysles Cinema (343 Malcolm X Boulevard) and Wednesday, June 22 at 7pm at St. John’s University (Saval Auditorium, 101 Murray Street), hosted by the Brain Injury Association of New York State.
More information on brain injury:
Dana Foundation BrainWeb page on brain injury
Pilot International’s “Brain Minders” brain injury prevention program