Rachel Hall was struck by a car while on her bike just one week before her graduation from Temple University. One year later, she walked across the stage to accept her diploma.
Rachel Hall is not a miracle.
“I don’t like that word,” Rachel says. She shakes her head, and her nose wrinkles. “So many doctors and therapists and nurses put hours and hours into helping me get better. It didn’t just magically happen.”
But by any definition, Rachel’s story is surely remarkable.
On April 29, 2015, Rachel had just one week until her graduation from Temple University. Ahead of her was the Washington DC Metropolitan Police
Academy and a career in law enforcement. She had majored in Criminal Justice and knew what she wanted to do with her life: protect people.
While riding her bike through campus, Rachel was struck by an unlicensed driver who fled the scene, leaving Rachel in the street, practically dying. She suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and was in a coma for almost three weeks at Temple University Hospital.
“She was given a 20% chance of survival,” Rachel’s mom, Kathy, recalls.
While Rachel laid silently in her hospital bed, her mom walked across the stage of the Liacouras Center at Temple’s commencement ceremony, to accept Rachel’s diploma and accolades. Kathy wanted all of the memorabilia filling Rachel’s room, so when she finally woke up, she would see what she had accomplished, like playing Division 1 Lacrosse for four years and graduating Cum Laude.
Even though Rachel didn’t always know they were there, her lacrosse teammates would visit her at Magee each night. After her three-week coma, there was a difficult five-week period of 'storming'— Rachel’s brain trying to turn back on, resulting in explosive outbursts that were troubling for her family to watch.
“One of the hardest parts of my job is guiding families through the process of healing. It can be extremely difficult to watch your family member recover after a brain injury. It makes families question every day if their loved one will get better,” says Dr. Brian Kucer, medical Director of Magee’s Brain Injury Program and Rachel’s doctor. “It’s always a challenge for people to wrap their heads around the long road of recovery and therapy. That’s why we do our best to keep families up-to-date on all the tools and strategies we’re using and what’s going on each day. But, understandably, it can be a struggle to navigate through the emotions and anger, to keep things positive and hopeful.”
The brain is not like a broken leg that you cast and it heals,” Kathy says. “The uncertainty was very hard to deal with.”
It was in late June 2015 that Rachel’s brain slowly came out of the 'storming' phase. One of Rachel’s first memories post-accident is getting to watch the USA
win the FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was Rachel’s background as an athlete that helped propel her through therapy not only physically, but mentally, too.
“You never say ‘no’ to your coach,” Rachel says. “It’s the same with therapy. You have to be accountable for yourself.”
Rachel would spend three months as an inpatient at Magee before moving on to Magee Riverfront for the Day Rehab program and outpatient therapy.
As Rachel steadily improved, her mother was conscious of letting her be a typical 20-something. When Rachel’s friends wanted to go out, Rachel would join if she felt up to it.
“I wouldn’t say ‘Oh, don’t go, you’ll get hurt,’” Kathy says. “I didn’t want Rachel to feel like a victim. I wanted her to go out and do things. And I trusted her friends with her safety.”
“Rachel was always very focused and clear in communicating where she wanted independence,” Dr. Kucer says. “Part of her success is her family’s willingness to let her be on her own.”
Now, a typical day for Rachel remains focused entirely on recovery. She spends five hours a day working on physical, occupational, speech, and cognitive therapies in her home state of New Jersey. Then she travels across the bridge to the Health and wellness Center at Magee Riverfront for workouts with Wellness
Coordinator Ian Crosby.
But May 6, 2016 was not a typical day. That morning, Rachel finally put on her cap and gown and walked across the Liacouras Center stage herself, to accept her
own diploma from Temple University. Friends and former professors traveled from as far as North Carolina to cheer her on. This time, Rachel’s mom watched proudly from the stands.
“I thought I would be crying,” Kathy says. “But I was just joyous.”
Ultimately, Rachel wants to work to fight human trafficking and violence against women.
“After Rachel left Magee, continuing therapy with the overall vision that she would get back to her career aspirations: that was huge,” Dr. Kucer says. “I am thrilled that Rachel is willing to talk about what happened to her. She has the opportunity to reach so many people and can be an ambassador and a voice for survivors of brain injury.”
“My motto is to help others before you help yourself,” Rachel says. “All I want to do with my life is to help others do well.”
Photo: Thom Carroll/Philly Voice