Survive and thrive: Starting over

As Californian Scott Henderson will tell you, life can change in an instant on a sky-blue day in a parking lot.

In July 2003, Henderson, a former Berkeley water polo player and avid swimmer with the Stanford Masters, was hit by a car while walking in the crosswalks of his office park at the networking giant, Cisco Systems.

"My body didn't have a scratch on it," he smiles nearly two years later.

That's because Henderson, now 33, took all the impact directly on his forehead, shattering the automobile's windshield. Laying on the hood as co-workers rushed toward him, Henderson weakly lifted his head and waved to the driver: "I'm OK see?"

Then he slipped into a coma for four weeks. He awoke in the hospital with a large section of his skull removed and preserved in a freezer. That's because while unconscious, he had needed two craniotomies to relieve the pressure. Two brain surgeries. The skull was reattached several weeks later.

They put him in a wheelchair and helmet. They strapped his head in place so it wouldn't fall. He couldn't move or talk. He was starting from scratch.

Henderson the swimmer

When you think of the perfect California water polo player, that athlete would look an awful lot like Henderson. At the time of his accident, he was 6-4 and weighed 225 pounds with broad swimmer shoulders and powerful biker legs. His eyes are remarkably green, like tropical water.

In college, he could bench-press 305 pounds and played the backup two-meter position on a Berkeley team that won three consecutive NCAA titles. After graduating in 1994, he evolved into a successful swimmer and triathlete, becoming one of the fastest men on one of the country's best Masters programs. In 2001, he finished the Hawaii Half-Ironman near the top of his division.

How tough was "Henderson the Swimmer?" Once as a personal challenge, he swam 10 miles solo across the Maui Channel. The month prior to his accident, he earned an MBA at Santa Clara University One way he celebrated was by swimming an Alcatraz race.

The accident primarily injured his brain's left frontal lobe, which controls memory. He spent three months in the hospital relearning how to move and talk, fighting to take back his life.

His family -- parents, Susan and Tom; brother, Rob; and sister, Karen -- were an amazing support crew, as was his girlfriend, fellow Stanford Masters swimmer, Jill Hampton.

With a brain injury, prognosis is often difficult. Usually there are going to be permanent changes. You simply must wait and see what level of recovery is possible. And while you're waiting, you do everything in your power to make yourself better. Because this is it -- unfair or not -- this is the unexpected circumstance of your life.

One pleasant day you step off a curb and someone who is not paying attention plows into you and changes everything. You can lay in bed forever and think about it. Or with the support of your incredible family, girlfriend and friends, you can attack the situation with all your heart.

For Henderson, the rehabilitation was (and continues to be) intense and sometimes difficult. As a swimmer and triathlete, he understood the power of personal achievement, delayed gratification and goal-oriented results. But he also says he was stubborn and proud, and sometimes resisted his therapists. In other words, there were good and bad days.

"I think I took a turn for the better," he says, "when they put me in the pool."

That's surviving

"My Mom wants me to grow my hair longer so you can't see it," he says while rubbing his head during a recent lunch in Palo Alto.

He's talking about his crew cut. He has a crew cut, and under it he has a massive scar that nearly runs from ear to ear over the top of his head. This is where they removed the skull to relieve pressure and save his life. A second scar in back from the other craniotomy looks like an ax wound. On his throat like a button is a tracheotomy scar where a tube was inserted so he could breathe. The feeding-tube scar on his abdomen is a purple welt.

You look at these wounds and think, "That's surviving."

And this is thriving: Today, Scott Henderson lives independently. He drives. He swims, bikes, runs, reads and does most of the things everyone does.

When he visits doctors who worked on him in the early days, they all say the same thing, according to girlfriend Jill Hampton: "We never thought you'd improve like this." "He's blown the doors off everyone's expectations," says Hampton. "He's become an inspiration."

To be sure, he has had to adapt. High-level cognitive skills such as reasoning, problem-solving or prioritizing no longer come effortlessly. Elements of his personality have flattened. Short-term memory loss continues to be a problem.

After the accident, his weight dropped to 170 pounds, but it has since climbed to an uncomfortable 250. He says one reason is because he easily grows bored exercising.

Rehab continues several times per week. But remarkably it no longer defines his days. At one local athletic club, he's an assistant swim coach; at another he's assistant water polo coach. When not on the pool deck, he volunteers at an agency that provides assistance and education to laid-off workers. Soon, he'll begin coaching adults with reading deficiencies.

Looking back

What about his old life?

"I don't think about it," he says simply. "Sometimes I wish it didn't happen to me, but that's it."

Well, how often does he say "Why me?" Once a day? Once a week?

"Never," he quickly answers, then adds, "I'm just waiting to get back to normal. I don't need to do all the things I used to, but I'd like to have the choice to do them."

He's back at Stanford swimming -- no longer leading a lane five days a week as before. But he's there -- there among the crashing waves, swimming about 40 minutes and trying to get the stamina to reach one hour. With the help of his rehab therapists, he's also training for a 7.5-mile road race with the goal of running the whole way.

Last autumn, near the one-year anniversary of his hospital discharge, Henderson returned to the Maui Channel, this time with a Stanford Masters team competing in the channel's popular annual relay race. He swam a 30-minute leg.

It was slow. It was extremely tiring. It was not on par with his amazing ten-mile solo crossing a few years earlier. All things considered, it was far, far better.

Originally Published: 20050601.

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