OCEANSIDE — A Camp Pendleton Marine, just back from six months in Afghanistan, returned to Tri-City Medical Center on Jan. 4 to thank the people he says gave him his life back.
Just 15 months ago, the thought of Justin Hawk being able to fight for his country half a world away seemed extremely remote. He was engaged in an hour-by-hour battle for his life in the intensive care unit at Tri-City Medical Center. Hawk fractured his skull in a freak accident at an apartment on base. At first, he showed no outward signs of injury other than appearing sleepy. Twelve hours later he still was still very foggy and not himself. A corpsman took a look at Hawk and recognized early signs of severe brain injury and told his buddies to take him to the Tri-City emergency department.
Hawk was suffering from a massive 4-inch brain hemorrhage and he had at least three blood clots in his brain. Typically, with a traumatic brain injury like Hawk’s, the patient will be flown by medical helicopter to a regional trauma center — about a 15-minute flight from Tri-City. Hawk’s condition was so dire the doctors determined he probably didn’t have 15 minutes. Even though it was late on a Sunday night, Tri-City neurosurgeon, Thomas Nowak, was in the hospital and immediately operated on Hawk.
Hawk’s mom, Kathy Hawk, said the first few days were very touch and go.
“Justin had all sorts of complications. Dr. Nowak had to operate again to remove part of his skull to give his swollen brain more room. He was in an induced coma and he had a breathing tube. In those first few days, I couldn’t even talk to him, because whenever I did the sound of my voice made the pressure in his brain go up,” Kathy said.
Hawk spent a total of 33 days in the ICU. According to ICU nurse, Angie Perez, the fact that he was just 19 years old and a Marine gave the entire staff a little extra motivation.
“There was nothing we wouldn’t do for him. We were just as determined as he was to get him back to normal. Once he was out of the woods, he was determined to stand up. It took at least six of us to hold him up on his walker because he was nothing but skin and bones. When we got him to his feet the whole unit; nurses, doctors, other families, just burst into applause,” Perez said. “He was young, and healthy and fighting for our country so we were going to fight as hard as we could for him.”
Brain injury patients require a great deal of rehabilitation therapy. Hawk came to think of all the therapists, and doctors and nurses as his “platoon.”
“I just wanted to come back and say thank you and pay my respects to everyone at Tri-City for all they did for me to get me back to where I needed to be, to give me my life back,” Hawk said.
Hawk was injured in September 2009. By February 2010, he was back on active duty and in April was deployed to Afghanistan. He doesn’t remember everything he went through. His mom says he’s not quite ready to hear all the details. But one thing he does know is he will never forget his Tri-City “platoon.”
“I appreciate everything that everybody did here to bring me back to who I am. It’s the only reason I’m here.”