PORT TOWNSEND — A hiker who fell more than 15 feet off a trail near Lake Constance last month has regained consciousness following more than a week in a coma, but he’s suffering from a traumatic brain injury and has a long road to recovery, his fiancee said.
Aaron Brengle, 33, of Bellevue remains at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where doctors have performed two surgeries since Sept. 21 to address a broken wrist and a fractured orbital bone, his fiancee Caitlin Ford said Monday.
Brengle also has a broken shoulder blade, four broken ribs and three fractured vertebrae, Ford said.
“He’s slowly increasing his tolerance for being awake and engaging with his family,” she said Monday.
On Tuesday, she emailed that Brengle had been awake for three hours straight, “which is the longest yet.” He was talking more than he had been, she said.
Ford and Brengle have a 6-month-old son, Liam. She said they’re in the process of moving to Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood, because they recently lost Brengle’s income.
A GoFundMe page has been established to help the family with expenses. Nearly $15,000 of a $20,000 goal had been raised as of Tuesday morning.
Ford was with Brengle on the trail southwest of Quilcene in Olympic National Park on Sept. 21 when Brengle leaned against a tree that suddenly uprooted and slid down the rock face. Brengle went with it.
He first landed after a 10- to 15-foot fall, and he slid another 10 feet afterward, Ford said.
Ford reached first responders by phone about 90 minutes later, and a Jefferson County search and rescue team was dispatched.
Brengle was flown to Harborview that night by a crew from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Ford and Brengle’s sister, Angie Hobbs, have been with him nearly every day since then.
Brengle opened his eyes last week for the first time since he fell. Ford said it was only for about three seconds, but it provided his family hope.
“You could see he was emerging from a coma, and it was huge,” she said.
That occurred Sept. 30, and Brengle made more progress the next day, Ford said.
“He was awake for maybe two or three minutes straight, but he definitely wasn’t really there,” she said. “He was kind of zoning out, but that was really exciting.”
Brengle woke up several times throughout the following morning, and his family reassured him.
“We kept telling him the same things like, ‘You’re in the hospital. You fell when you were hiking, but everything is going to be OK,’ ” Ford said.
One on occasion, Ford told Brengle his best friend, Kory Howard, had been there several times. Brengle just had his breathing tube removed but managed to say Kory’s name, Ford said.
While Brengle hasn’t been able to move his fingers or toes on command, Ford said he’s repeating words and recognizing family members.
“I told him I loved him, and he said, ‘I love you’ back,” she said. “I realized he had been parroting back some things that had been said so I asked him if he knew who I was, and he said, ‘Yeah, Caitlin.’
“Then I started crying,” she said.
Ford said doctors have been concerned about Brengle’s eyesight because of the damage done near one of his eyes.
“By seeing me, recognizing who I am and verbalizing it, there’s a lot of stuff working in his brain,” she said.
Since then, Brengle’s progress has remained about the same. He’s awake for an hour or two cumulatively throughout the day, Ford said, but he’s not talking much, and it’s difficult to understand when he does.
“If you ask him what his last name is, he can say it,” she said.
Ford said Brengle has been diagnosed with a diffuse axonal injury.
“In the brain, neurons have a little tail, and it means his brain stretched and pulled these things unnaturally that aren’t supposed to be pulled,” she said. “It’s also why it’s a guessing game on his recovery.”
Ford said doctors have told her they might be able to project how quickly Brengle may recover, and to what extent, at about the six-week mark.
They have another three weeks to go.
Ford said one doctor who has seen Brengle’s brain scans is optimistic he’ll make a full recovery because the injuries don’t appear to be anywhere vital.
“His opinion has definitely helped us,” Ford said. “[The doctor has] seen a lot, and he’s very educated and has good experience.”
Brengle did not have any brain swelling or bleeding, Ford said, adding that his age and good fitness level also are positive factors.
“Everyone kind of has a variation of an opinion,” she said. “There is so much that people and doctors don’t know about the brain still. It doesn’t work like every other organ. It differs from person to person.
“There is a lot of progress that can be made in the first year after a traumatic brain injury.”
Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at [email protected].