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We’re Moving Again – A Hockey Player with Guardian Angel Impacts Brain Trauma Treatment

George Kraft should be dead.

Lucky for him he has a guardian angel. It doesn’t hurt that he has been playing hockey all his life – and hockey players are tough.

This is the story of George Kraft’s incredible life and how he is impacting the lives of brain trauma patients as a participant of Landmark Education’s Team Management and Leadership Program.

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“It was the wildest thing,” said George. “I heard a little whisper in my head. It said, ‘Put a key under the mat and tell your brother where it is.’” The voice was his guardian angel. “Someone was looking out for me and saved my life.”

A few days later George didn’t show up for work. His coworker, Nancy, knew something must be wrong. George was never late for work, and if he thought he’d even be 5 minutes late, he’d call. Nancy called George’s brother that Tuesday morning.

His brother went right over and found the key under the mat, just where George told him to look a few days earlier. He unlocked the door and found George lying on the floor of his bedroom, unconscious.

George was rushed to the hospital, where it was determined he had a brain aneurism. He was born with a congenital defect – there was a weak spot where two veins meet in his brain.

“When my blood pressure got high enough it just went boom. Picture a fire hydrant going loose,” George said.

The doctors performed an emergency craniotomy. They cut out a piece of George’s skull the size of the back of his hand to repair the ruptured blood vessels.

The diagnosis was not good. In fact, the doctors didn’t expect George to live. At one point there were 14 tubes coming out of his head and his body swelled up so much he looked like the Michelin Man. He was in a coma for weeks.

“When I woke up, they were taking staples out of my stomach,” George said. That was Sunday, January 30, 2005.

The last thing George remembers was coming home from Steak & Shake after coaching his hockey team on Monday night. He had just begun taking blood pressure medicine and he was feeling really fatigued before the game. So he chose not to skate that night, and instead just coached from the bench.

That should have been a sign that something was seriously wrong. Looking at the 6’-1’’, 215-pound defenseman, you would not have guessed he was 41. He could skate every minute of the 45-minute game (three 15-minute periods) without missing a shift. Professional hockey players average less than 30 seconds of ice time per shift and are usually on the ice for only about a third of the game.

When George awoke in the hospital, he found out that he was paralyzed on his entire left side. He needed to use a wheel chair to get around. He had a hole in his head where the piece of his skull was removed that felt to the touch like he was pressing on a water balloon. It would be seven months before it was replaced.

Being bedridden, George needed a urinal and bedpan, which is not comfortable or easy to use. “I prayed to God, Please let me at some point walk to the bathroom again.”

In July, seven months after the aneurism, George was discharged from the hospital to a nursing home, where he stayed until October.

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George is currently in his second quarter of Team 2. He first participated in the Landmark Forum in 2003. In May and June of 2008 he took the “Communications Access to Power” and “Power to Create” courses and immediately joined the “Team Management and Leadership Program” in August.

Originally his Game in the World was to return to his practice as a Chiropractor. George had made an arrangement to join another Chiropractor, but in April 2009, she told him she had to move her office and she didn’t have room for him in the new space. “It was no fault of hers, but still very disappointing,” he said.

Having the distinctions of the communications curriculum, George was able to be with any communication. Had it not been for being part of TMLP, “I probably would have looked for a position somewhere else,” he said. “As a chiropractor with only one functioning hand, chances would have been very limited.”

That’s when George decided to create a Constraint Induced (CI) Therapy Unit at Belleville Memorial Hospital where he was receiving treatment. “I would have never seen the possibility had it not been for Team,” said George.

CI uses what’s called brain plasticity, the remolding of your brain to bring about change. It helps people with brain injuries get back the motor functions they have lost. Essentially it’s retraining the brain to send the signals to operate muscles. Dr. Edward Taub founded the therapy and has a clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Patients must qualify for the treatment by sending a personal video demonstrating they are able to do all the exercises required in the therapy. After a year on a wait list, George was accepted to the program. In the fall of 2008, George went to Alabama to work on the use of his left leg. Three weeks later his walking strength increased by 40 percent.

“This treatment is over 95 percent effective, which is amazing for physical therapy,” George said.

During his treatment in Alabama, George had a 45-minute conversation with Dr. Taub about the possibility of starting a CI Therapy unit like Taub’s in the St. Louis area.

“He looked at me like I was half crazy and wished me luck.”

Six months after the arrangement to return to his chiropractic practice had fallen through George approached Belleville Memorial, located in Illinois 30 miles east of St. Louis, about the idea of opening a CI Therapy Unit.

“I used the distinctions of the communications courses to acknowledge the Director of Rehabilitation, Mike Tuckey and the entire staff at Belleville Memorial for their teamwork,” said George. “I enrolled others in my vision. I proposed we get the occupational therapists trained in CI inside the rehab unit.”

Tuckey realized the benefit this would have for his unit and the patients in it. He saw that it could set Belleville Memorial apart from other rehab centers.

Together, Tuckey and George enrolled John Kessler, the Vice President of the Rehabilitation Division, in the possibility of the new unit. The timing was perfect. Belleville just broke ground on a $200 million Rehabilitation Building that will be state of the art in the St. Louis area.

Kessler was so receptive, the hospital has committed to sending six occupational therapists to Birmingham in November for the next training session. Two of those therapists are part of George’s Game in the World Team. Heidi Haskins, Belleville’s lead Occupational Therapist, who worked with George during his rehabilitation, and Marie Matthews, the technician in charge of the Occupational Therapy unit, were both instrumental in convincing Tuckey to create a CI unit.

George expects to be working in the unit in about a year. “Patients with brain injuries need a chiropractor to help reintegrate the brain,” he said.

George Kraft has been on an incredible journey the past five years. Through all the time he has spent in hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation he never lost his old defenseman’s mentality or gritty toughness. “I made up my mind that there are some things I can’t do, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do what I want to do,” said George.

15 years ago George Kraft feels he was called to serve others, which led him to become a chiropractor. Now he is using his own rehabilitation from a brain aneurism as the inspiration to help others have the life they want.

“The distinctions of Landmark’s training basically gave me the insight and drive to keep going,” said George. “I know this is something I can accomplish.”

written by Steve Schapiro and edited by Shash Broxson