Dr. V’s Story

Jake VanLandingham

Published June 12, 2012

As a Florida State University undergraduate, I participated in directed studies in neurosciences under noted FSU biology professor Marc Freeman. I was a month away from starting a degree program in physical therapy at Florida A&M University when my world abruptly changed, and neurology and physical therapy took on a far more personal meaning.

I was the last in my group of friends to walk outside after dinner at a restaurant located across the street from the University of Florida’s football stadium in Gainesville…21 years old at the time, I never even saw the punch coming toward the left side of my head.

dr-v-in-the-labA homeless vagrant, described by police as mentally disturbed and weighing approximately 300 pounds, attacked me without reason or warning. The punch knocked me head first into the curb along University Avenue.

The sequence of events from there could accurately be described as both nightmare and miracle.

First, there was the emergency room physician who sent me away on the belief that I had merely suffered a harmless fall and would feel better in the morning.

Then there was the call from my father hours later, and the good fortune that I had slept within easy reach of the phone. Several friends and I had gone to Gainesville to help move my older brother, Hugh, to town for the start of medical school.

The morning after the punch, I told my friends to leave for Tallahassee without me. My head was hurting and I wanted to sleep some more.

Alone in the apartment, I was awakened by the ringing phone. I managed to pick it up, but could not speak coherently. Doctors later said I was within hours of death as a result of three blood clots in the brain.

My father understood enough to act quickly, calling an old Marine Corps buddy who lived in Gainesville at the time. The friend drove to my brother’s apartment and, when nobody answered the door, broke in.

He found me unresponsive on the floor, picked me up and drove me to the emergency room – by coincidence, a different one from the night before.

If my father hadn’t called, or his friend wasn’t there to come get me, there’s no telling what might have happened. The doctors said I had about two hours to live.

My own recovery was strenuous, and left me with short-term amnesia for a year following the injury. Yet, I returned to school and earned all As in my physical therapy program despite lacking the necessary motor skills to drive. My sweet mother dropped me off and picked me up each day.

I followed with a Ph.D. in neuroscience at FSU under the mentorship of associate professor Cathy Levenson, Ph.D. Our research focused on the effect of dietary zinc deficiency in recovery from a brain injury. That research helped me win a postdoctoral fellowship in emergency medicine and neurology at Emory University in Atlanta, where my focus on traumatic brain injury (TBI) intensified.

I helped Emory professors Dr. David Wright and Dr. Donald Stein with a clinical trial to establish the effect of neurosteroids in TBI recovery.

Our work, in the world’s busiest Level I trauma center at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, demonstrated a 50 percent greater chance of survival in cases of TBI where the patient receives progesterone intravenously starting within several hours of injury. Those patients, compared to others with similar injuries who did not receive progesterone, also had a notable decrease in disability at 30 days.

Today, I am working to establish a research center in Tallahassee for the next phase of study. Stein and Wright already are working with the U.S. defense department in the hope of making neurosteroids available to soldiers injured in Iraq, where the majority of roadside bomb attack survivors have TBI in addition to other injuries.

Recently, I worked with the department of biomedical sciences at the FSU College of Medicine to develop a rodent model for brain injury in hopes of discovering other treatments for brain repair.

I was fortunate. I have recovered from my brain injury, and show no visible signs of lingering affects. Many, primarily young people, injured in motor vehicle accidents do not survive, or face a lifetime of disability. I don’t know the names of the men and women who have benefited from my research. But, better than most, I know what they are going through.

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