News | Aug. 28, 2016

Road to Recovery

By Beth Reece

 

Doctors said his chances of survival were less than 10 percent. “Send for the priest,” they urged family. But Joe Lehman lived, stunning family and co-workers by returning 10 months later to his job as a criminal investigator at the Defense Logistics Agency’s Office of the Inspector General

On May 15, 2014, Lehman decided to ride his Harley-Davidson to a meeting with Air Force investigators at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. At a four-way intersection only a couple of miles from his destination on post, a silver BMW coming from the opposite direction started to turn left in front of him. 

“But when the driver saw me, he stopped cold in the middle of the intersection. If he’d have stomped on the gas, he would’ve shot right by me. Instead, he left me nowhere to go, so I collided with the right front corner of his car,” he recalled.

Lehman cartwheeled 13 feet over the hood before landing on his head, unconscious and seizing, on the opposite side of the street. Workers in a nearby building stared from their windows as paramedics rushed to open Lehman’s airway. Within 40 minutes, he was airlifted to the trauma center at Prince George’s Hospital Center, where surgeons removed part of his skull to ease the pressure on his swelling brain. He spent the next two months in a medically induced coma. Total injuries: five skull fractures, trauma to his lungs and kidneys, loss of part of his left foot and a permanently bent pinky.

Lehman’s wife, Greta, relived the accident for weeks.

“I woke up every morning at 3 a.m. dreaming that I saw the accident, even though I didn’t. After a while of living in the hospital and going through the Last Rites with the priest, I became numb. We almost lost him twice,” she said.

The Lehmans were never alone. Donna Estep, director of DLA’s Injury Compensation Program, called Greta within 24 hours of the crash to assure her that forms for workers’ compensation were already being processed. DLA’s chaplain offered solace from Lehman’s bedside, and then-DLA Director Navy Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek called Greta almost every night for a week. Coworkers visited the couple at the hospital, bringing food and gift cards.

“DLA wrapped its arms around my family. It truly held us up for a long time,” Greta said.

She made herself part of her husband’s medical team by researching brain injuries and holistic healing. After discovering music therapy and how different regions of the brain respond to various melodies, she put a five-CD player in his room to play a continuous loop of soothing nature sounds, Bach and the Rolling Stones. She studied reflexology and learned the best spots to massage essential oils on his feet. The nurses welcomed her attentiveness and taught her how to hang IV bags.

“It made me feel like, in some little way, I was bringing him back,” she said. 


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“That’s when I thought to myself,

‘There’s a chance I may never walk again.’

It scared me.”

                                  — Joe Lehman

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Doctors pulled Lehman out of the coma July 5. He woke up weak and 60 pounds lighter and was soon moved to the Mount Vernon Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Nurses there rarely let him out of bed.

“They kept pushing me around in wheelchairs, and I distinctly remember asking them, ‘I’m going to walk again, aren’t I?’”

He expected a “yes.” He even expected to be back on the rink with his hockey team the following Wednesday. It was what he did every Wednesday for years before the accident. But the answer he got sounded doubtful and bleak. “We’ll have to see,” a nurse replied.

“That’s when I thought to myself, ‘There’s a chance I may never walk again.’ It scared me.”

Recovery became Lehman’s only goal. With physical therapy, he regained strength and balance. Speech therapy helped him relearn cognitive tasks such as reasoning and logic. And practice improved his ability to perform daily tasks like bathing and shaving.

After two months of intense therapy, doctors sent Lehman home. He still couldn’t climb stairs, so Greta pushed furniture out of the family room to make space for a hospital bed and medical supplies and even had the downstairs powder room converted to a handicapped-accessible toilet and shower. She slept on the floor next to her husband, got up when he needed help to the bathroom and worked from home until he became more agile.

“I was his hands and legs for a long time. After a while, though, the best thing I did was get out of his way and let him take risks,” she said.

Greta was “absolutely opposed” to it when Lehman began talking about returning to work, and coworkers urged him not to rush things. Lehman’s supervisor, Michelle Jordon, was worried about overwhelming him, but happy to see his eagerness to rebound. 

“It meant that no matter how devastating his injuries were, he wasn’t defeated by them,” she said.

Lehman returned in March 2015, starting with four-hour workdays and gradually increasing the hours until he resumed his pre-injury, eight-hour day in May.

“I was desperate to return to my normal life and get back a sense of self,” Lehman said.

The days of collecting evidence and interrogating suspects are probably over for Lehman. While most of his work at DLA involved white-collar crimes such as fraud and sexual harassment, he also investigated homicides, rapes and robberies.

“I have a lot of experience I can call on that never goes away, which is good. But I’m not as sharp or as perceptive as I once was, and I’m well aware of that,” he said.

Estep, who followed Lehman’s progress on a website Greta shared with friends and family, said it was a special day when he returned to work.

“I find it so remarkable that Joe remained steadfast on returning to work despite the severity of his injuries,” she said. “More often than not, I see employees with much more minor injuries who remain off work as long as Joe did or even longer.”

Lehman’s recovery isn’t complete. He still has seizures and symptoms of traumatic brain injury: difficulty concentrating, fatigue and forgetfulness, to name a few.

“A person who goes through a TBI or loses a limb has some serious hurdles to get through. It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Greta said. “It’s a long, long race.”

DLA Human Resources Director Brad Bunn said Lehman is the epitome of a DLA team member who is “resilient in the face of professional and personal challenges,” which is an objective in the DLA Strategic Plan.

“Mr. Lehman’s personal and professional resiliency is a shining example for all DLA employees,” Bunn said.

His physical and mental impairments may endure, but Lehman strives each day to do something he was incapable of the day before. The man who once feared he’d never walk again now plays racquetball and rides a bicycle. He’ll consider himself fully recovered the day he plays hockey again, and while he’s at peace knowing it may never happen, he won’t stop trying.