Josh Goldenberg remembers nothing of the fire that swept through the house he was sharing with six other members of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity last January. Nor does he recall jumping from a third floor window to escape the flames that destroyed the Allston house. All seven students were taken to local hospitals, where most were treated for minor injuries. An eighth student, who had stayed in the house that night, broke her back after jumping from a second floor window. The cause of the fire, which was reported at 7 a.m., is still undetermined.
Goldenberg’s three-story leap to the icy ground left him with fractured bones around his right eye, a broken heel, and a serious brain injury. The 19-year-old was rushed to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he remained in a medically induced coma for 10 days, until the swelling in his brain subsided. He then spent 10 weeks at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.
“There was a real statistical possibility that Josh could have died from this accident right off the bat,” says his physician father, David Goldenberg. “Half of people who jump out a third story window die. It’s a long fall. But the way he landed, the way he was scooped up, the way he was responded to and sedated, and the ways the EMTs responded right away pushed the success. He was taken to an excellent hospital.”
Today, Goldenberg shows few signs of the injuries he has been struggling to overcome for the past year. His smile is warm, his handshake firm, but there is a list in his gait. His words sometimes come haltingly. And an eye patch dangling from his neck is as reminder of the double vision that continues to plague him.
Over the past 12 months, he has spent thousands of hours in intense physical, occupational, and speech therapy, including weight training, running, and numerous activities designed to improve his cognitive skills. Much of the effort, he says, was driven by the hope that he could return to school this week.
It takes a family
When Goldenberg’s parents arrived at the Beth Israel center from their home in Connecticut on the morning of January 22, 2012, they found their son unconscious and breathing with help from a ventilator. For the first 72 hours, doctors monitored him closely for indications that he would need brain surgery. His mother, Cathy Goldenberg, moved to Boston, returning home once a week, and his father drove up on weekends. When after three months at Spaulding, he was deemed well enough to return home, his parents transformed their family room into a bedroom.
“He couldn’t walk. His speech was poor. We often couldn’t understand him,” recalls David Goldenberg. “During the day he needed stimulants just to stay awake, because the natural thing for him would be to sleep 16, 18 hours a day.”
The Goldenbergs augmented their son’s physical, occupational, and speech therapy with a series of efforts designed to improve his cognitive skills. His mother spent afternoons doing math problems and vocabulary drills and working on typing programs with him. They spent hours at a computer, often on the website luminosity.com, running through puzzles, brain teasers, and middle school–level math problems.
At night, Goldenberg would read aloud an article from that day’s New York Times, and his father would ask questions about the story—a practice they’ve continued throughout his recovery.
“That helps with my speech and being able to retain knowledge,” says Goldenberg. “Getting back to remembering what you just read, answering questions.”
David Goldenberg says the exercise was a way to ensure his son both stayed engaged in world events and strengthened his neuronal connections. “You’ve got to stimulate the brain to keep it working,” he says.
A turning point in their son’s recovery became evident about two months after the accident, his parents recall, when his sense of humor resurfaced and he started cracking jokes.
Long a film buff, Goldenberg also turned to old movies for motivation. He remembers sitting at his computer and typing the words “inspirational video.” The YouTube video 40 Inspirational Speeches in 2 Minutes was particularly uplifting, with snippets of rousing speeches from films like Braveheart, Free Willy, and The Pursuit of Happyness. Goldenberg says his “dream of going back to Boston and to school and seeing my friends” also helped him through the most grueling parts of his recovery.
In addition to repairing his brain, Goldenberg had to work on his body. After months in a wheelchair and then on crutches, he had lost 20 pounds of muscle mass. The former captain of his high school hockey team started walking the local high school track with his mother, hoping to improve his balance and build strength in the left side of his body. In recent weeks, he’s been running a mile around the track every day. He also started working out at a local gym five or six days a week. He says he’s regained most of the muscle mass he lost.
In September, Goldenberg passed an important milestone: he enrolled in two film courses at Western Connecticut State University, which he aced. In November, he reached a milestone of a different kind: his parents took him to buy new hockey gear to replace what was lost in the fire. He immediately started skating at a nearby rink and in December was able to begin playing hockey with his dad.
The road ahead
Many hurdles remain. “The double vision and fatigue are the biggest challenges,” he says. Eyeglasses with ground prisms and the eye patch help, but he will need corrective surgery in March. Until then, he can’t drive, and reading can be exhausting. His left side is still weak.
“You don’t know what well of strength people will dip into to overcome this kind of thing,” says David Goldenberg. “These kinds of injuries can bring out the worst in you or the best in you. Josh never shied away from any work. He never said no. He was like, ‘What more can I do?’”
At BU, Goldenberg is pursuing his dream of being either a film director or producer. “When you watch a movie, you live another life,” he says. “You step out of yourself and live someone else’s life, experience someone else’s experiences. I would like to make that happen for other people.”
He also plans to return to Spaulding, this time as a mentor of sorts to others overcoming traumatic brain injury. “I know it’s miserable,” he says. “So I want to go back and maybe be a friend.”
What would he tell those new friends? “I’d say, it sucks right now and it’s going to suck for a while, but it’s going to feel great when you’re back to yourself,” he says. “You’re not going to believe it, but one day you’re going to be OK.”