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2015 March 16 - 11:34 pm

The Test of a Lifetime

Del Mar College Student Survives Near-Fatal Brain Injury To Earn Associate Degree

The applause may have set a decibel record last December when Randal Chisamore, Jr. strode across the stage at Del Mar College, grinning in his blue graduation gown and receiving his newly minted associate degree. By all accounts, it was a super-sweet victory for someone who was lucky to be alive.

“I was so proud. I was in tears,” said Randal’s father, Randy Chisamore. “My son walked the stage just like everybody else that night. He shook the hand of the president of Del Mar College and walked off the stage by himself. Really and truly, he wasn’t even supposed to be here.”

Five years earlier, Randal was in a Lubbock, Texas, intensive care unit, comatose from a traumatic brain injury and hanging onto life by a thread. His subsequent journey toward recovery — the extent of which was never certain — would require true grit and stubborn faith, along with herculean family support.

Earning a degree is just the latest challenge met by a young man determined to beat the odds.

Randal was a sophomore at Texas Tech University in October 2009, majoring in business and enjoying college life with his three roommates. One afternoon, they were planning to eat chili and watch their school’s football team play Nebraska on TV, he told his parents on the phone.

Festivities ensued in the thirdfloor apartment.

That night, Randal’s parents were awoken at 3 a.m. by a knock on the door at their Corpus Christi home. It was the parents of one of their son’s roommates who live nearby. Call the police in Lubbock, they urged. It was the nightmare scenario that all parents dread.

Randal can’t recall details from that night, but this much is known: He fell off the apartment’s balcony and his 290-lb. frame hit the pavement three stories below, damaging his brain stem and causing traumatic brain injury. He had been transported to a Lubbock hospital.

Shortly after 3 a.m., Randal’s mother, Mandy, a school nurse at King High School, his alma mater, was on the phone with a doctor in the ICU.

“He said we needed to get there immediately because he might not survive,” she said.

The Chisamores scrambled to buy airline tickets, arriving at the hospital later that day with their middle school-aged son in tow. Randal’s head was “huge from swelling,” Mandy said. The doctors warned her and her husband that he probably would never walk, talk or breathe on his own power again.

“At that point we just waited and watched,” Randy said.

By the second night in the hospital, stress began to overcome the Chisamores. Randy broke down and cried, he said. On the third day, Mandy collapsed from a heart attack. Hospitalized just two floors above her son, she recovered a few days later after doctors performed a stent procedure to correct a blocked artery.

Meanwhile, Randal was still comatose and surviving with the aid of feeding and breathing tubes. His recovery would be slow and heart-wrenching.

The following year at a Houston hospital, Randal began showing signs of improvement when he moved a thumb and finger, his parents said. Gradually, he seemed to awaken and become energized. He no longer needed the feeding and breathing tubes.

“I don’t remember the accident, but the recovery process was a great one,” Randal said.

Their son’s steady improvement, along with their faith in God, is what helped the Chisamores stay strong throughout the ordeal, they said.

At one point, a physician told the couple that Randal’s condition wouldn’t improve past the twoyear mark since his accident, they said. Another told them that their son might regain the ability to walk and talk, but he’d never be able to go back to college.

The Chisamores never accepted the prognoses.

“Every brain injury is different,” Mandy said. “Everybody recovers at a different rate.”

Two years after the accident, Randal was walking, talking and eager to go back to college. Enrolled as a business major at Del Mar, he and his father visited the college’s Disability Services office to inquire about support for those with brain injuries.

The first obstacle for Randy was hearing people refer to his son as disabled. After all, at King High School, Randal had been a football player, district wrestling champion and honor society member.

“I don’t like to say disabled. He’s not disabled,” Randy said, his voice cracking. “He’s a strong man.”

The Chisamores were relieved to learn about the assistance that was available to their son, such as a scribe to assist Randal with notetaking during his classes.

Del Mar can accommodate students with any disability, whether physical or psychological, temporary or permanent, said Diana Ortega-Feerick, student disability specialist. For example, students with back injuries may be offered specialized classroom furniture, and those with psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder can take tests in a distraction-free setting rather than the classroom.

“Our goal is to help them reach the same objective as every other student,” Ortega-Feerick said. “Everything is individually based and tailored to the student’s needs.”

During the fall 2014 semester, 165 students who identified themselves as having a disability were enrolled at Del Mar College, or about 1.5 percent of the student population. Of those, five had traumatic brain injuries.

Accommodations and support services for disabled students can vary among colleges and universities, Ortega-Feerick said. But access to college services, programs and activities is guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as well as state laws.

Del Mar’s Disability Services also arranged meetings with Randal’s professors so that his parents could meet them and introduce their son. One faculty member, speech professor Sarah Contreras, quickly found common ground with Randal’s father.

“I’m a motivator and a cheerleader for my students,” said Contreras, who has worked with disabled students throughout her 18- year career. “I told his father I’d do anything to help Randal get the education he wanted without anyone doing it for him. His father was very adamant about him doing it himself. He’s a motivator too, so we were on the same page.”

Randal excelled in speech class, learning to conduct research, organize his thoughts, overcome anxiety and deliver speeches in front of a group, Contreras said. He shared the story of his accident with his classmates early in the semester.

“I think the students were inspired by Randal,” Contreras added. “There was empathy but not pity. He has a sense of humor. He’s a special guy.”

A relatively normal, routine life unfolded for Randal while he pursued his degree at Del Mar. He rode the city bus from his parents’ house to school and back every day. Besides his core classes such as speech, English and biology, he took dance and swimming. He was especially partial to the gym, where he would lift weights and walk a mile and a half on the treadmill.

Randal described graduating last December with contained enthusiasm.

“It felt pretty great, like I accomplished something,” he said.

Mandy is thankful for her son’s hard-won independence, but she worries about finding social outlets for him. His friends don’t visit like they used to, she said. And Randal has become a completely different person since his accident.

“Before the accident he was a very shy person,” she said. “Now he’s a lot more outgoing. If he sees somebody he knows in the grocery store, he’s going to high-tail it over to them.

“His manners are perfect and he keeps his room clean now,” she added with a laugh. “He didn’t used to be like that. I guess the brain injury affected that part of his personality.”

Attending college and earning a degree was important in Randal’s journey toward recovery and independence, his parents said. They want his story to be told so that it may inspire others facing adverse challenges.

As for his future plans, Randal yearns for what any 26-year-old degree holder would want.

“I want to get a job and move out,” he said, smiling.

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