Courtney walking up stairs

Patient Story

A Bright Future Following a Traumatic Brain Injury

Posted By Meg Washburn


On July 18, 2015, Kathy Kean heard the words all parents dread: “There’s nothing we can do; prepare for the worst.” Hours earlier, Courtney Cusentino, Kathy’s outgoing, 21-year-old daughter, was crossing the street when she was struck by a car, a drunk driver behind the wheel. Courtney was catapulted into the air, landing on her head.

In the following days, Courtney lay in an induced coma at an acute-care hospital. The prognosis was grim as her body fought battles on many fronts, including pneumonia and constant intracranial pressure. Three weeks into her hospital stay, and with little hope of recovery, Kathy decided to start exploring organ donation.

The very next day, Courtney opened her eyes. “I remember thinking, she’s in there,” said Kathy. “Courtney’s neurologist warned me that she’d be in a vegetative state her whole life, but he didn’t know my daughter.” Kathy’s focus immediately shifted from keeping Courtney alive to ensuring she received the best rehabilitation care possible. She made it her goal to get Courtney transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). “As a paramedic, I knew all about RIC and regularly observed their patients getting better,” said Kathy. “I knew there was no place else I wanted her to go, especially given RIC’s expertise on traumatic brain injury,” said Kathy.

As a paramedic, I knew all about RIC and regularly observed their patients getting better.

Courtney Cusentino


Kathy made it happen. Courtney began her journey with RIC as inpatient in September 2015, under the care of David Ripley, M.D. “At the very beginning, she was like a newborn,” said Kathy. “She couldn’t sit,
speak or follow commands. She had to start her entire life over from scratch, learn everything all over again.”

Courtney followed an intensive regimen of physical, occupational and speech therapy. Her speech language pathologist taught her how to swallow using an ice-cold spoon. She also helped Courtney use a communication board, which allowed her to express ideas and needs before she could talk by pointing to pictures with words. Physical therapists started by helping Courtney relearn to sit up, and then they moved on to tackle progressively more difficult tasks. Within a month, Courtney began to speak. Then she focused on mastering tasks that would support her independence — from differentiating types of money, counting, brushing her teeth and dressing to taking steps with the assistance of a walker. 

In November 2015, Courtney was strong and able enough to go home. For five months, she continued therapy several days a week at RIC’s DayRehabCenter in Ravenswood. Now, one year following the accident, Courtney is focused on the future. She has dreams of launching a career as a hairstylist. She’s also hitting physical milestones and starting to take steps without the assistance of a walker.

“It is a miracle, and she is a miracle,” said Kathy. “I never expected Courtney to thrive in this way following the accident. Her strength, determination and will are amazing.”

For continuing coverage of Courtney's recovery, visit the Chicago Tribune

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