Shannon Thomas at graduation after TBI rehabilitation

Patient Story

An Unanticipated Head Injury and Incredibly Bright Future

Posted By Meg Washburn

“We thought she was going to die and called in a priest...”


In 2011, Diedre Thomas excitedly dropped her daughter, Shannon, off at college for the first time. Two days later, everything changed. In the middle of the night, Diedre received a call and learned that Shannon was in a car accident, hit by another driver who ran a red light. She had experienced a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma. Shannon soon underwent a craniotomy to relieve pressure on her brain. “We thought she was going to die and called in a priest,” said Diedre.

But Shannon made it through. Two weeks later, she transitioned out of intensive care and was stable enough to be transported to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). At the time, she remained largely unresponsive and unable to follow commands. “Our family lives in a Chicago suburb, so we were aware of RIC’s global reputation,” said Diedre. “We knew it was the place Shannon needed to be.”

When Shannon arrived at RIC, her family was fully aware of the long road ahead of her. She would embark on an intensive regime of daily physical, occupational and speech therapy to relearn the activities most take for granted, from walking to eating to speaking. Nenad Brkic, MD, served as Shannon’s physician and oversaw her care. Diedre recalls a turning point days into Shannon’s stay at RIC: “Our biggest goal early on was to get Shannon to respond to us. From the beginning, I would routinely ask her to hold up two fingers if she knew me. One morning, she finally did. I knew this was the first step to reclaiming the Shannon we love.”

That was just the beginning. From there, Shannon made notable progress. The next day, she began to talk in breathy whispers. Then, during a music therapy session, Shannon quietly sang a popular song. “We noticed a huge difference in Shannon at RIC,” said Diedre. “Very soon, she was eating meals on her own and even mastered the ability to walk unassisted.” 


Shannon was discharged a month after beginning therapy at RIC. Since then, she has kept quite busy. She engaged in continued therapy through RIC’s DayRehab Center in Willowbrook (now the Burr Ridge Outpatient and DayRehab Center?). She re-enrolled in college and even traveled abroad to Paris, France and Lima, Peru. Recently, Shannon hit a milestone that her family once deemed impossible: she graduated from college following just four years of study.

“If you would have told me in 2011 that I’d be witnessing Shannon’s graduation in 2016, I never would have believed you,” said Diedre. “Shannon’s spirit of determination and RIC’s care have made this possible.” 

Shannon plans to pursue a career in social work and hopes to one day work for a hospital, a dream inspired by her experience. “She has no fear anymore,” said Diedre. “Her future is incredibly bright.”

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