Family's struggle to help son 'rewire' his life after accident
When Padraig Schaler suffered a severe brain injury, his family refused to believe that there was no hope for the young student, writes Alan O'Keeffe
A young man whose life was shattered in a road accident in America is to get new hope in a converted tobacco factory in Dublin.
A pick-up truck on a country road in Massachusetts struck Dubliner Padraig Schaler as he cycled to his summer job.
He was severely brain damaged and was left unable to move or speak.
The former tobacco factory near his home in Glasnevin will be converted to provide intensive rehabilitation therapy for Padraig and a few other people with acquired severe brain injuries.
His parents remember being appalled to discover how severely brain-injured people in Ireland, mostly young men, seemed to be considered "no-hopers" when it came to seeking significant intensive rehabilitation.
Padraig's German-born father Reinhard Schaler (59)said it feels like "a miracle" that the HSE has agreed to pay €1.5m to fund a three-year intensive therapy programme for a small number of patients on a pilot basis.
Life took a terrible turn for Reinhard and his wife Patricia O'Byrne in June 2013 when they received news their 23-year-old son was badly injured.
Padraig had just completed his degree course in history and Irish in Trinity College, Dublin. The tall and immensely popular Irish language enthusiast had been a champion swimmer.
He had just arrived in the US on a J1 visa to work for three months in Cape Cod.
His parents, both college academics who also have two daughters, travelled to the US. When they arrived at the hospital, doctors told them the severe injuries to his brain meant he could die within hours. They were asked to be prepared to consider donating his organs. Two weeks later, he was flown to Dublin and admitted to Beaumont Hospital.
His parents learned that severely brain-injured patients, even though unable to move, benefited from early rehabilitation therapy. But they discovered that the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire had only three specialised beds for patients with very severe brain injuries, and had a waiting list of at least a year for those beds.
They were asked in Beaumont to select a nursing home for their son.
The couple were adamant that a nursing home for the elderly was no place for their son. They felt it was "grotesque and immoral" that anyone with a severe brain injury would have to wait up to a year for a specialised bed, said Mr Schaler.
In the end, they moved to Germany so Padraig could get intensive rehabilitation in a specialised hospital. After 14 months, he was moved into their apartment in Hamburg, where he was given a round-the-clock care package.
He also received therapy daily and they looked forward to bringing him home to Ireland.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Padraig's legion of friends, colleagues and well-wishers embarked on highly successful fundraising efforts for him. They even organised building an extension to his home to enable it to be adapted for him to be cared for at home.
The family and supporters set up a charity named An Saol (Life) to provide rehabilitation therapies for severely brain-injured people. They chose the name An Saol because that was the name of the regular Irish language podcasts created by Padraig when he was aged only 14.
The charity's website states it seeks to help severely brain-damaged people "to live their life with dignity and respect, to continue to improve, to regain as much independence and self-determination as possible, and for their injuries to heal, supported by adequate therapies".
Padraig now lives in the family home with an intensive home care package and one hour per week speech therapy from the HSE. But occupational therapy, music therapy and physiotherapy which he receives at home are not provided by the State.
He also has the only 'stand-up' bed in Ireland, which allows him to be upright for short periods each day.
Reinhard explained the vital nature of intensive therapy, saying: "It's about neuroplasticity, which is getting the brain to re-wire itself and to make the connections with the limbs again."
He cannot speak but he uses a bleeper which he operates with his left foot to indicate 'Yes' and 'No'. His parents said he can solve maths problems using the bleeper operated by his foot. They said he has made significant progress and can pick up chocolate and crisps with his hand.
He no longer needs a long list of medicines and nutritional supplements. He only gets half a calcium tablet a day.
The family take him on holidays and to events in Dublin. He even completed 100km of the Camino trek to Santiago in Spain in a cross-country wheelchair pushed by his family. His arrival at the cathedral square was greeted with cheers and applause from a crowd and tears of joy.
His parents hope the progress achieved with Padraig through physical and mental therapies is helping bring about a sea-change in attitudes to people with severe brain injury.
Reinhard, in his role in the An Saol charity, had expert guidance in writing the successful proposal for the pilot intensive rehabilitation project.
Meanwhile, Magdalen Rogers, executive director of the Neurological Alliance of Ireland, called on the Government to immediately address the alarming nationwide shortage of neurologists, specialist nurses and health and social care professionals. Ireland has less than half the recommended number of neurologists and specialist nurses.
Neurology services in Ireland are at breaking point and an existing national Model of Care for Neurology plan needs to be implemented urgently.
A recent audit of neurology services found hospitals are totally under-equipped to deal with current and future demand, she said.