Ben Sassenfeld’s optimistic about recovery | VailDaily.com
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Ben Sassenfeld’s optimistic about recovery

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Sassenfeld FamilyBen Sassenfeld is defying his doctor's predictions as he recovers from life-threatening injuries suffered in a motorcycle crash in Avon in 2005.
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BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. ” Ben Sassenfeld has proven doctors wrong several times since a motorcycle accident almost two years ago.

Some doctors did not expect him to live ” he did. Others said he would never speak.

“I just feel I’m getting stronger,” said Ben in a telephone interview from his parents’ Washington home.

After work July 7, 2005, then 25-year-old Ben left a Mexican restaurant with two friends and crashed his motorcycle on Metcalf Road in Avon. He lost control of his bike, hit a large boulder and was ejected, police said.

Despite extensive brain injury, Ben has made incredible progress. With some help, he types entries in his online journal and he reads correspondence alone, said his parents, Susan and Helmut Sassenfeld.

Ben writes in his online journal often and friends and family write him back prolifically ” they posted more than 40 entries in his online guest book this month at http://www.caringbridge.org.

Ben graduated from University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business with a business degree in December 2003. He moved to Vail in January 2004 and began work as an intern at the Vail Valley Partnership.

At 24, Ben bought a home in Eagle-Vail, made some improvements and sold it for a good profit, Susan said. At 25, Ben bought another home in Wildridge, made several improvements and still owns it.

“He had good business acumen, he really did,” she said.

Paul Abling, Ben’s friend of six years, has spoken with Ben a couple times since the accident. Ben’s busy with rehabilitation now and Abling wants to allow him time to recuperate, though Abling still writes Ben in his online journal.

Abling recalls when he played softball with Ben, who had never played before. As Ben was rounding the bases, he had a huge smile.

“He always had a big huge smile on his face,” Abling said. “Anything he was doing he was having a good time.”

Since the motorcycle accident, Ben’s progress has not come without struggle.

“He went through hell to be honest with you,” Susan said.

About 10:45 p.m. July 7, 2005, a friend in a car was following Ben and another friend on a motorcycle home when he found Ben lying on the roadside. Emergency services arrived in about five minutes, Helmut said. Ben was airlifted from Vail Valley Medical Center to Denver Health Medical Center.

The Sassenfelds arrived by plane shortly after and Ben’s co-workers from the Vail Valley Partnership visited him while he lay in a coma in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

“It was amazing,” Susan said. “It was overwhelming to see how he affected people.”

Ben suffered a broken pelvis, head trauma ” despite having worn a helmet ” and internal injuries. Exacerbating his pain, Ben’s pelvis could not be operated on because Ben had to lay horizontally, causing his brain to swell more.

Doctors drilled holes in his skull to monitor the pressure and decided on a risky procedure called a craniotomy. The swelling could have killed Ben, so doctors removed half of his skull July 14 while he was still in a coma.

Ben opened one eye July 18 and later that day he opened both eyes. Five days later, Ben turned his head to sounds and he moved his legs on request.

The swelling in his brain subsided, so doctors reattached his skull in August, 2005.

He uttered his first word months later, after the tube in his trachea that allowed him to breath was removed.

In just eight months, Ben had stayed in three Denver hospitals and endured nine major surgeries. In April 2006, Ben returned to his parents’ home on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where he grew up.

“He’s gone from absolutely near death to ” it’s absolutely a miracle that he’s alive,” Susan said.

When Ben arrived home, he relied for a month on a feeding tube that ran from his stomach, Susan said. He could speak, but not well.

He had neuropathic pain and would scream when his body was touched, Helmut said.

Today, Ben speaks well and he is stronger, fitter and more alert, Helmut said.

At his lowest point, Ben weighed 120 pounds. Now he weighs 193 pounds, which is about his normal weight, Susan said.

Ben feeds himself and brushes his teeth, but he can’t shop or cook for himself, Susan said.

He needs help dressing and bathing himself, but he is working on doing those things alone, she said.

Ben spends much of his time in a wheelchair, but in May 2006, he learned how to stand on his own with his parents arms extended closely to catch him in case he fell.

Nowadays, Ben is learning how to walk again, she said.

Tuesday morning, he was taking steps with a walker and help from a therapist initiating movement in his left leg with a strap, Susan said.

“That was pretty amazing because we were told he would never do that,” she said.

Ben has two other therapists: a martial arts expert who helps him build his physical strength and another who works with Ben to improve his memory and attention, Susan said.

Ben’s parents credit his progress to his “vitality” and “optimism,” they said.

“Ben is always upbeat,” Susan said. “We were out to lunch and he said, ‘I love life, I love being with you guys.'”

Still, the Sassenfelds face around-the-clock challenges.

The accident damaged Ben’s short-term memory, his concentration and the part of his brain responsible for emotion, Susan said.

Injury to Ben’s brain and the drugs he takes to prevent seizures have led to other problems. Ben takes four major drugs and seven supplements, such as vitamins, Susan said.

The drugs have caused him to lose sleep and his appetite, so they have yet to find the correct mixture of doses, Susan said.

Due to brain injury, Ben has volatile mood swings and he often becomes frustrated, fearful and anxious, Susan said.

With excessive activity, such as too much talking, he gets tired or overwhelmed and his parents shut off the lights in his room and maintain silence, she said.

The Sassenfelds don’t know how much Ben will improve in the future and Susan doesn’t “ever expect Ben to be Ben again,” she said.

Ben always will need a two-by-three-inch ventricular pump under the skin on his skull to drain spinal fluid to a cavity in his lower body, she said.

Ben’s progress seems slow to the Sassenfelds, but that’s because they are with him constantly, Susan said.

“People who have not seen him in months say, ‘Whoa, he’s much better,'” Susan said.

Nowadays, doctors tell Ben he will improve and Susan hopes one day Ben will be able to return to Wildridge and live in his home, she said.

For now, Ben will continue to read messages from his friends and family online to learn about “other people’s lives,” he said.

And he still smiles, he said.

Check out Ben’s online journal at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/bensassenfeld

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or slynn@vaildaily.com.


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