Shafted

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On April 10, Eric was transferred from Broward General to HealthSouth Sunrise Rehabilitation Hospital, a rehabilitation center in Sunrise. He remained in a coma for six months. There were complications. Eric rubbed his feet raw. He developed bedsores on his buttocks so severe that doctors recommended plastic surgery. He ran a persistent fever that would not respond to antibiotics. The site of his tracheotomy got infected. He had anemia. He moaned constantly, turning his head slowly from side to side.

Eric's eyes began to open, but he wasn't responding to commands or visual stimulus, and his movements were deemed purely reflexive. Eric had been admitted to HealthSouth for a comprehensive rehabilitation program that was supposed to include speech, occupational, physical, and respiratory therapies. But that sort of high-level coaching seemed like a receding dream. Eric's girlfriend, Katie, found the sight of him, bristling with tubes and strapped to a bed, too hard to take; a couple of months after the accident, she stopped coming to see him. At one point, Sharon remembers, a nurse brusquely advised her to face facts: Her son was going to remain a vegetable. "She told us, 'You're going to have to put him away.'"

The discharge summary from HealthSouth noted: No functional change.

The Brodys persisted.

After he'd been transferred to Florida Club Care in Miami, Eric finally started to speak. They weren't words, exactly, but they sounded like they might be someday, and those nonsense syllables gave his parents hope. The family and staff continued with the coma stimulation program started at HealthSouth. They tickled his face with a feather, rang a bell, showed him pictures, played music, rubbed his arms, exercised his spastic limbs. And, as always, they talked and talked and talked.

Chuck and Sharon had taken a month of family leave to care for Eric, but by this time, they were both back at work full time. They'd drive down to Miami in shifts, trading off with Eric's sister, Michelle, and Eric's grandparents, so that somebody was always with their boy. Until now, Chuck's insurance had covered most of Eric's expenses, but the insurer had stopped paying when Eric didn't improve; now they were dependent on taxpayer-funded Children's Medical Services to foot the bills.

One afternoon in September, they got a call from Florida Club Care. An aide was on the line. "Say hello to your son," she told Chuck. And Chuck heard through the line a single, drawn-out, articulated sound: "Helloooooooooooo!" It was the first word Eric had spoken in six months.

From then on, their son continued to improve slowly. He started to eat soft foods, ice cream and yogurt. His brother, Howard, brought him a keyboard to encourage him to use his hands. Eric spelled his family's first names on a magnetized board. He started speech therapy, and his aides wheeled him to activities and religious services. His grandfather quizzed him with simple math games, like how to make change. He was transferred again, to Pinecrest in Delray Beach, where he learned to use utensils at mealtime, to shave, to bathe himself.

Eric celebrated his 19th birthday at Pinecrest with a few friends, coworkers from Sports Authority, and the family. Once, he got bored and made an escape attempt, wheeling himself out an unmanned door. By January, he was home. The Brodys fought yet another battle with the Broward School Board to arrange for homeschooling, and Eric completed his last two credits to earn a high school diploma. At his graduation in 1999, he received two standing ovations. But the Brodys' journey was a long way from over.

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The night of Eric Brody's accident, BSO Deputy Christopher Thieman had left his girlfriend Stacy's house a few minutes later than he'd planned. He needed to make it from 94th Avenue in Sunrise to Eighth District Headquarters at 17300 Arvida Pkwy. in Weston, a ten-mile drive that normally takes about 20 minutes. But Thieman had to appear for roll call at 10:45. He had just 15 minutes to cover the distance.

Showing up late for roll call is a serious violation of BSO policy for a road patrolman, and Thieman's record with BSO was already less-than-perfect. He'd been involved in a previous accident four years before with his cruiser: He'd rear-ended a Dodge Caravan that had just completed a U-turn, sending the van into a spin and its occupant to the emergency room. An investigation into the Caravan crash determined that Thieman had been driving at least 78 miles per hour without his emergency lights, against BSO policy, but he was never issued a citation.

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Gail Shepherd