Traumatic Brain Injury: Tammy’s Story

Pediatric Care in Florida

Patient Story Highlights

  • Tammy came to the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Trauma Center after being hit by a trolley.
  • She had a host of injuries, including swelling of her brain.
  • Quick surgical procedures stabilized Tammy and she has been making steady progress ever since.
  • Now home, Tammy still has surgical procedures and rehabilitation ahead, but her prospects look bright.
Tammy at Johns Hopkins All Children's
Tammy at Johns Hopkins All Children's

Tammy likes life to be fast-forward, full speed ahead. Patience is not her forte. Words gush out of her. Even with a part of her skull missing, her spleen removed, her face reconstructed, Tammy wants to get from here to there. Now!

Larry, her father, is more cautious. He talks of the long journey. Healing will take time, probably a year. When she wants to go to the movies with a friend, maybe Mom should go too. Don’t rush.

The world of 15-year-old Tammy and her family was upended in November 2023 when she stepped off a bus and was hit by a trolley. She was thrown several feet. She sustained many broken bones, a collapsed lung, lost teeth, traumatic brain injury and more. A friend reported blood was everywhere. She’s lucky to be alive.

Tammy was fortunate that off-duty first responders were on the scene by coincidence and began administering first aid. The incident occurred about five blocks from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, which mobilized 15-20 members of its pediatric trauma team to care for her.

As Tammy’s life hung in the balance, the St. Petersburg Police Department informed her mother, Karyn.

Heading to the Trauma Center

Soon, Larry was the one in a hurry. He had just finished an Army Reserve deployment when he got word in Lakeland that Tammy was injured. He sped along Interstate 4 as he returned to be at her side.

In the pediatric trauma center, Tammy received a CT scan and then was wheeled to surgery where pediatric surgeon Christopher Snyder, M.D., MSPH, removed her ruptured spleen and did other immediate repairs. Neurosurgeon S. Hassan Akbari, M.D., M.S., inserted an intercranial pressure monitor. A subsequent CT scan showed a dramatic increase in the swelling of her brain and a growing blood clot, so she quickly returned to the operating room where Akbari took off the right half of her skull to relieve the pressure by allowing the brain to swell and removed the blood clot.

“She was in a really bad way,” Akbari says of Tammy’s arrival. “She had a lot of instability in her vital signs and her exam. We had to really quickly take her to the operating room for the general surgeons to begin work. After that, her intercranial pressure increased and the second CT scan showed we need to return to the OR for neurosurgery.”

After surgery, when Tammy’s fate remained in doubt, Akbari talked with Larry.

“He gave us the worst-case scenarios,” Larry says. “He didn’t know if she was going to be paralyzed. He didn’t know if she was going to have learning disabilities. He didn’t know anything, but he left it on a positive note where he said youth is on her side.”

Tammy with Dr. Akbari at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital

Tammy with S. Hassan Akbari, M.D., M.S.

Road to Recovery

Tammy, a ninth grader at Boca Ciega High School, was in a medically induced coma for several days. When she came around in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), she was miserable, in great pain and wanted to die. She needed restraints. She cried often.

Most of the bones in Tammy’s face had been broken, and Jordan Halsey, M.D., a pediatric plastic surgeon, reconstructed her face. “Dr. Halsey did an amazing job,” Larry says.

As Tammy began to recover, her resolve, determination and youthful resilience kicked in.

She doesn’t remember much about the PICU, but she moved to the neurosciences unit where she credits several nurses and patient care technicians — including Erin Kowalski, Haley Jacobowitz, Renae Andrews, Peyton Brunswick, Mary Kaye Cancela and Ariana Jones — with boosting her spirits and offering some needed “tough love.”

“They had a really positive attitude, and when I was sad, they were there to comfort me,” Tammy says. “They were always there for me. They did everything to make sure I would be able to walk out of there and be my old authentic self.”

“I was really impressed with Miss Ari (Jones),” Larry says. “She was the one who, if Tammy was capable of it, she made Tammy do it. I thought that was wonderful. Tammy didn’t need to be waited on.”

Tammy was released from the hospital Jan. 3 after 45 days.

Her Story

Tammy has seen various versions on social. It’s why she wanted to tell her own story.

“Nobody tells my story right, and everyone acts like they know it! No, you don’t!” she exclaims, words pouring out of her.

Tammy says she was careful. She saw no traffic. The trolley was obscured by the bus.

“I flew like Superman,” she says of being hit.

What’s Ahead

Larry was apprehensive when Tammy was sent home from the hospital. She was required to wear a helmet to protect where part of her skull was missing. She had a feeding tube.

“I was on pins and needles,” he says. “I thought maybe she should go to a rehab facility, but I’m so glad her recovery has been in the home environment. It is the best setting for her.”

Tammy regularly has outpatient therapy and other treatment on the hospital campus. Her recovery is slow and steady, not the pace she’s looking for.

“She acts like she was never in an accident,” says Larry, emphasizing she still has a long way to go in her recovery.

In a few months, Akbari will replace the part of her skull he removed. Because her bone was not exposed to outside contamination, he will use the same bone he removed, which has been in frozen storage ever since.

“That’s the best-case scenario to be able to use her own native bone,” Akbari says.

After that, Tammy may need some follow up plastic surgery around the eyes and forehead “to optimize her appearance long term,” says Halsey, the plastic surgeon.

She will have follow-up appointments with Akbari regularly during the first year after her skull is repaired but likely only annually beyond that.

“We’ve been very lucky to see how Tammy has recovered,” Akbari says. “It’s really a testament to Tammy’s strength and what she’s done to get herself as far along in her recovery as she’s gotten.”

Tammy says her motivation for recovering was simple.

“I want to be able to do all these things in my future,” she says. “I did not want to spend my future in a wheelchair or on a walker. I didn’t want to feel like an old lady. I want to be able to hang out with my friends and not be the odd one out. I want to have a really successful life and feel — quote, unquote — normal again.”

Tammy is finishing ninth grade with online tutors, but she has a firm goal in mind for the fall: “My goal is to walk through school on the first day of 10th grade.”

She rattles off a list of things she looks forward to after her skull is repaired, including seeing friends, big hugs, being outside and “feeling like I used to feel.”

As Tammy steams forward, Larry gently reminds: “It’s a journey.”