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“Blessed by God”

Posted on May 3, 2019

Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center helps Kingsport man with communication – and hope

Brent Kennedy with his wife and speech therapistBrent Kennedy was lying in a hospital bed in northeast Tennessee unable to move or speak when he heard something he probably wasn’t supposed to hear.

“I heard doctors say I had no chance,” Brent says.

Brent had a brain bleed and a stroke – and a choice to make. He could give up or he could fight to live.

“They didn’t expect him to survive, but he fooled everybody,” says his wife, Robyn. “I just kept saying, ‘You don’t know Brent Kennedy. He’s not going to give up.’”

When Robyn took her husband to Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center (PNRC) in 2006, he had already been treated at five other hospitals.

“It was the first place I felt loved,” Brent says.

Brent had been a writer, a musician and a public speaker with a PhD in mass communications, but he was trapped in his body. When he came to PNRC he could only express himself with the blink of an eye or a nod of his head.

“The commitment to him from every facet of therapy was absolutely incredible,” Robyn says. “Being at Patricia Neal was when everything started turning around for him.”

Speech-language pathologist Mary Margaret Preston, MA, CCC-SLP, helped unlock Brent’s silent world. She did it with help, using the team approach to care that each patient receives at PNRC.

 “There are multiple ways you can operate a communication device. I work closely with an occupational therapist to determine what the patient is fully capable of,” Preston says. “Also, we work with the seating and mobility clinic because positioning in the wheelchair is also a very important component when operating a communication device.”

Brent now has a device that talks for him when he taps letters on a screen. With the tap of a finger he can also control things like the lights, the fans and the alarm in his house.

The therapy and technology have been life changing. Brent isn’t isolated anymore. He can now let the rest of the world know that he’s still the same smart and funny person he’s always been.

It hasn’t been easy and sometimes communicating is slow. But Brent’s whole life experience has given him new insight. “I see the truth in people,” Brent says. “I have been blessed by God.”

In His Own Words

The following words are excerpts from a speech by Brent Kennedy, PhD, written and spoken through technology he learned to use at Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center.

I earned my PhD from UT Knoxville in mass communications, and I made my living as a not-for-profit fund raiser and philanthropist. My last job was president of a foundation for a healthcare system in Kingsport, Tennessee.

But things changed drastically for me on December 17, 2005. I suffered a devastating stroke that left me unable to communicate in any way. I spent the first 10 months after my stroke in five different hospitals.

In my third hospital, I had vocal cord surgery for scarring from the tube they used to intubate me to save my life. Surgery didn’t really work because I still couldn’t move my cords. So I remain voiceless. But I was, and always have been, aware of everything around me.

When I went to my fifth hospital, the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center at Fort Sanders Regional, in 2006, I was barely holding my head up on my own, but I could move a finger on my left hand and I was cognitive.

I guess I had enough for the therapists to believe in me, and all the doors began to open — or I should say that boot camp started. Now, years later, I have the latest software, which allows me to talk to anyone, to read books, access internet, emails, play games and drive my wife crazy, which I do every day! The computer actually speaks my message so I can join in a conversation with other people. It has changed my life. I can choose words and say what I am thinking. It still is hard work for me but I feel a lot less isolated.

Remember that people who can’t speak may be very aware inside. So don’t write them off too quickly! Use every means to communicate with them.