When classes start at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Monday, Tyson Ward will begin his senior year there.
When school began a year ago, the Mount Juliet, Tenn., resident was in a coma.
Tyson spent 99 days in a coma following a June 10, 2010, accident in which the bass boat he and his father were in collided with a bass boat piloted by another father and son in a narrow channel between islands on Percy Priest Lake.
"We were practicing to be in a tournament [the following] Saturday," he said. "We were pre-fishing. My dad and I do a lot of bass fishing together."
Tyson's mother, Cathy, said accident investigators theorize the men on the boats didn't see each other. At the last moment, they believe, her husband saw the oncoming boat and turned a hard right, she said.
Instead of a head-on collision, the other boat T-boned and then jumped the Wards' boat.
"It's was just the wrong place at the wrong time," the 22-year-old chemistry major said. "It was just bad timing. It was not necessarily anybody's fault."
Tyson was taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, while his father, Ed, was taken to Baptist Hospital in Nashville.
Both were in comas. Cathy was told neither was likely to survive.
The big sleep
After the initial shock of the accident, Cathy said, she felt a peace about the fact her husband and son had been taken to different hospitals and that they had different types of brain injuries.
"I felt comfortable in my relationship with God," she said. "I felt [the different hospitals were] the way God wanted it to be. I felt confident that each was going to get the very specific care he knew they would need."
In addition to the brain injury, Tyson had four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung and an injury to a bone in his lower spine that eventually developed a massive ulcer.
In addition to his brain injury, Ed had a part of his scalp sheared off.
The first few days after the accident were critical for both.
Once Tyson's spleen was removed, he stabilized somewhat. His father made it through several hurdles, including several heart stoppages and a hemorrhaging of blood that confounded doctors.
"Each time I would start a prayer chain about the specific thing," Cathy said. Somehow, she said, "those problems would magically go away."
Two weeks after the accident, Ed woke up and began to improve physically.
About the same time, Tyson was moved to Select Specialty Hospital in Nashville, which had therapies to try to wake him from the coma.
While he was there, his family was told he needed to have a third surgery for his collapsed lung but probably wouldn't survive it.
At that point, Cathy said, she and her daughter, Camille, split a list of family, friends and church members to contact and ask to pray specifically that antibiotics -- and not surgery -- would cure the pneumonia in his lung.
"The elders of the church came and laid hands on him and prayed around him," she said. "Hours after that, we were told it was a miracle -- that the infection already was starting to recede."
In mid-August, Tyson was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The transfer was a wonder in itself, Cathy said, because she had been told Select Specialty had done all it could do for him and that his family needed to find a nursing home.
Before she could investigate that feared next step, a representative of the Atlanta center contacted her after hearing of her son's spinal ulcer. The center could admit him for surgery on the ulcer but did not have room in the brain-injury area in which it specializes.
"The horribleness [of the ulcer] ended up being a blessing," Cathy said.
Tyson had the surgery, but the recovery was slow.
And still he slept.
On Sept. 17, Cathy walked in her son's room, and Tyson said, "Hi, Mom."
"He had been talking to the nurses," she said. Except for his weak voice, "it was as if he woke up on a normal morning."
Tyson has no memory of the first two weeks after he awoke due to post-traumatic amnesia, but his mother said he asked her questions for five hours.
He also has no memory of his accident and the three previous months.
"All I know is what I've been told," Tyson said.
Once he awoke, the Shepherd Center involved him immediately in speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, recreational therapy and psychological therapy.
"The hardest part for me," Tyson said, was being asked to do "simple things I had never had a problem with. They were things I never thought about before like getting dressed or feeding myself. I definitely had to relearn everything."
Eventually graduating from a wheelchair to unsteady legs, he moved from Shepherd's inpatient to outpatient program. His father was released from a different Atlanta facility about the same time, and the two were reunited in their outpatient therapy.
"That was one of the most rewarding times for me," Cathy said of the two-plus months the three were united in an Atlanta apartment. "My husband and son were finally under same roof, and I was taking care of them [and] seeing them get better every day."
They were released from the Shepherd Center on Dec. 23, but both began another round of rehabilitation in Nashville in January.
Tyson had arm surgery in March and eye surgery in June -- he's had almost a dozen surgeries in all -- and continued to make strides. On the first anniversary of his accident, he climbed aboard and rode his bike, a trail of friends and neighbors cheering and following him.
He took three general-education classes at Middle Tennessee State University in July in preparation for returning to UTC.
Last week, Tyson's parents helped him move into his sister's Highland Park apartment.
"He's done so great," said Camille. "He works very hard. He's learning to live life day to day."
Tyson said he's ready.
"I am nervous," he said. "It's a new environment. But I'm very excited. I'm looking forward to it. Ever since I can remember, I've been ready to get back. It's certainly going to be a little bit different."
Tyson returns to UTC with legs he said are sometimes "wobbly" and "uncoordinated," a right arm that "locked up" and has a limited range of motion due to his brain injury, and a voice "quite different" than the one he had before June 10, 2010.
However, he returns with the excitement of a new challenge, the confidence of feeling "very supported" by family, friends and the CRU ministry at UTC, and the willingness to convey what he went through.
"Someone told me, and I believe it's correct, that [despite] everything I've been through, there's not a doctor who can say they're the reason I'm alive," Tyson said. "Nothing but God could have saved me from what I was supposed to be. [Doctors] said I would never wake up, walk or talk. I believe this was God showing his power, using this opportunity to show what he can do."
But, he said, "in no way should anyone think I'm more loved by God. I was just given a story different than anybody else. It's the same God I truly will, for the rest of my life, tell people about."
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...