BLOOMSBURG, PA. – A stranger hit Jackie Lithgow in the head seven years ago and put his life on a violent hiatus. While he was in a coma with parts of his skull surgically removed, Jackie’s parents reduced all their hopes – a college degree, a well-paying job, a wife, and perhaps a few grandchildren – to a single plea.
On Sunday afternoon, Carlisle-based Lithgow, 26, sat in his black cap and robe on the 37-yard line of the Bloomsburg University football stadium. The university president Bashar Hanna asked him to get up, which he was unable to do for a long time.
“Jackie, you are an inspiration,” he said.
Lithgows mother Lisa had three packs of Kleenex in her handbag, tears of joy after a sea of sadder.
On February 23, 2014, Jackie Lithgow, then a 19-year-old freshman, was trying to end a fight at a fraternity party when he was struck in the back of the head by a soccer player from another university. Lithgow’s head hit the sidewalk and fractured his skull. He was flown to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, where Susan Baro, a trauma surgeon, was waiting.
“He was in critical condition,” said Baro on the Sunday after the ceremony. “He was very sick and we had to put him in an induced coma.”
When the Lithgows, both graduating from Bloomsburg, reached the hospital, they were greeted by a chaplain.
The coma lasted 15 days. The teenager underwent six brain surgeries and battled MRSA infection. Lithgow’s traumatic brain injury was ranked in the severest category on the Glasgow Coma Scale. This often means there is no response to stimuli, an end rather than a pause.
Baro remembered the first night in the hospital when Jim Lithgow, Jackie’s father, asked her if he could set up the Flyers game. Father and son were huge fans, and the team played against their rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Patients with brain injuries need rest and dimly lit rooms, but Baro, also a Flyers fan, gave in.
“I said, ‘put it on,’ and I sat and saw it with him,” said Baro.
Baro said she whispered, “I heard you love Sidney Crosby,” into Jackie Lithgow’s ear, thinking the mere mention of the hated Penguin Center would make his brain burn again. You laughed about it on Sunday.
“That’s where it started,” he said. “That set the wheels in motion.”
Lithgow spent months in hospital rehabilitation at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, learning the basics: breathing, walking, and speaking. The investigator followed his recovery. Lithow’s parents spent almost every night with him, from the day he was injured to his final days in Magee, just before Thanksgiving 2014.
“The dream is not over yet,” Lisa told her son during that first year. “Only late.”
On Sunday, the word miracle was often used to describe Lithgow’s recovery, but Baro believes there was a lot of earthly resolve and determination as well. The Lithgows, she said, made their own light in the tunnel when you didn’t show up alone.
“This is an extraordinary family and this is an extraordinary child,” she said. “It doesn’t often end like this.”
Baro said Geisinger was using a video Lithgow’s father made of his recovery to show other parents what is possible.
“Jackie is hope. He makes her believe it is possible, ”she said.
Lithgow’s goal through recovery was to return to Bloomsburg, which he accomplished in the spring of 2016. He took a lighter course load, a class back in the first semester, then more than he could handle. A whole team of people at the university worked to get him a place to stay that was both quiet and easily accessible.
Doctors weren’t sure if it was the best idea. Lithgow suffers from short-term memory loss, has vision problems and has to take time to walk. He is on anti-seizure medication, and a shunt is surgically implanted in his head in case fluid builds up.
His parents were a wreck when he returned.
“I just wanted to wrap him in bubble wrap and keep him at home forever,” Lisa said on Sunday. “But he wanted that.”
Lithow’s graduation day began at a downtown pub with brothers from Zeta Psi, the brotherhood he promised the night he was attacked, circling around him, raising beer bottles and mugs.
“A toast to Jackie Lithgow.”
He was overwhelmed by emotions.
Later, in the gut of the football stadium, Lithgow stood for photos and a long interview with a local TV station. He had helped found the Jackie Lithgow Foundation, which helps survivors of traumatic brain injuries. He would be getting a bachelor’s degree in media and journalism in about 45 minutes and starting an internship with a construction company in Carlisle next month.
“It will be joy, it will be relief, it will be gratitude,” he told the television reporter.
© 2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit beiquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
During his freshman year at Bloomsburg University, Jackie Lithgow suffered severe head trauma that nearly claimed his life while trying to end a fight. Despite all adversity, he graduated from college at Bloomsburg University on May 16.
The student resisted the chances of finishing college