‘He is absolutely one of the very few miracles I’ve seen in my career’

Connor Keith, back at one of his favorite places: On the deck at a swimming pool.
Connor Keith, back at one of his favorite places: On the deck at a swimming pool

January 30, 2022, is a day Connor Keith will never remember.

After a night out with friends visiting bars on State Street in Madison, Keith, a senior at UW–Madison, made the decision to walk home to his apartment. So, he ventured out into the cold that winter night.

The next thing Keith remembered was waking up in March, in a patient room at the UW Health Rehabilitation Hospital. He later learned from his parents that he fell about 12 feet from a wall behind a building on campus, landing on his head.

The chain of events that his family, friends, doctors, nurses and others pieced together for Keith is as incredible as the fact that he is still alive today.

After the fall, Keith lay there on the ground in the cold, unconscious and alone in the dark behind a building, where nobody would typically be walking. His friends didn’t know where he went, and his parents certainly had no idea where he was.

Three UW–Madison employees just happened to be walking by the place where he fell and one of them happened to notice a “jacket,” or at least what they thought was one, Keith said.

“They didn’t know it was me at first,” he said. “But, by an amazing chance, they saw me laying there and called 911.”

Keith was taken to University Hospital by ambulance, where he was first put in the care of Dr. Mustafa Baskaya, neurosurgeon, UW Health, and professor of surgery, UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

The emergency medicine team, in consultation with Baskaya, immediately began working to save Keith by inducing a coma after placing an intracranial pressure monitoring device into his brain ventricle and administering medications to reduce brain swelling. Later that night, Baskaya removed two larger pieces of Keith’s skull to relieve the pressure on his brain since his intracranial pressures became uncontrollable with conventional measures.

“He had a less than 10 percent chance of survival or even coming out of the coma — and even less than that of having no physical or mental impairment,” Baskaya said.

Thankfully, the Keith family didn’t even get to hear those odds because the care team was working so quickly to save Connor, according to Nancy Keith, Connor’s mother.

“I’m very glad we didn’t know the odds, because it would have been far more horrible,” she said. “Later, we had to have a reality check with him, and tell him, ‘You might not be able to drive or have a job,’ but he said, ‘No, I will.' "

After spending most of February at University Hospital recovering, he was transferred to the UW Health Rehabilitation Hospital on Feb. 24 to begin his tedious recovery.

Connor was forced to discontinue his education mid-semester and pull the plug on his passion to educate children as a swim coach. But the idea of never doing these things again never really occurred to him, he said.

“I never really did not plan on going back to school in the fall,” Connor said.

But in March, a large section of his skull was still at University Hospital, on the other side of Madison, and he was unable to walk and hardly able to talk. The fall semester was only seven months away.

His goals were ambitious, to say the least, according to Dr. Ben Gillespie, physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, UW Health, and clinical assistant professor, UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Under the care of Gillespie’s team and with support from family and friends, Connor made astounding progress. It wasn’t easy, especially at first, Gillespie said.

Connor, like many patients with severe brain injuries, would often become agitated at times, but helping to manage his ups and downs were key to his rehabilitation, according to Gillespie.

So, Gillespie’s team began to focus on Connor’s sleep/wake schedule. Then for the next three weeks, Connor underwent intense rehabilitation for about three hours each day that included occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy.

Connor learned to talk, walk and use his body again, but there were still no signs that a full recovery was possible. His conversations with the therapists were often nonsensical; he would mix thoughts about random topics or items into conversations.

Until one particular day.

Gillespie and his resident were completing morning rounds when they witnessed something. “What do you notice about him today, what’s different?” Gillespie said.

“The resident smiled and said, ‘Connor’s back,' " to which Gillespie replied, “Yes, he is.”

For the first time, Connor was using his memory to clearly form a thought and articulate it to the rehab team. He had seen a person from his past in the hall at the rehabilitation hospital and brought it up in talking with his therapist. At first, they didn’t believe him, Gillespie said.

“We thought it was made up until we confirmed that person was whom Connor said he was,” he said.

From that point on, Connor’s recovery was nothing short of unbelievable, Gillespie said.

Day after day, Connor’s level of function continued to rapidly improve from both cognitive and physical standpoints.

“To this day, I’ve never seen a recovery like this,” Gillespie said, “People have asked me, ‘How is this possible?’ Because 99 percent of people would not have survived an injury of this severity, but here he is going back to college in the fall.”

Two factors might have contributed to this incredible recovery: Connor’s age and physical conditioning, Gillespie said.

Connor was a competitive swimmer in high school and continued to stay in shape by coaching swim at the Madison Aquatic Club and Monona Swim and Dive Club, and through regular workouts of his own.

On March 17, he had the procedure to reattach the skull fragments.

Then, Connor was able to return home. He continued rehab appointments, but nobody could have expected this outcome.

In June, just four months after surgery to repair his skull, Connor took his first jump back in the pool. And, just five months after surgery, Connor completed a diving test to the bottom of a 17-foot pool to become a lifeguard at the Nicholas Recreation Center at UW–Madison, not far from where his accident took place.

Physical recovery wasn’t the only measure of his incredible progress. In August, Connor took a cognitive impairment test to determine what accommodations might need to be made for him to return to school in the fall, if that was possible at all.

“It went really well,” Nancy said. “He can take a full load of classes in college with just a few accommodations.”

Connor showed virtually no mental impairment from the fall, drug-induced coma or surgery, and he would be returning to UW–Madison’s School of Education to continue his studies to become a physical education teacher – just as he had intended all along.

Sharing this story is very important because it’s a cautionary tale, he said.

“Don’t ever let a friend leave a party or bar alone if they have been drinking, and please be responsible,” he said. “I’m the exception by a mile, most people do not end up like me.”

Sharing his incredible story is also important because while he was silent in his room for more than a month, he didn’t get to thank all the people who cared for him and supported him and his family from outside the hospital walls.

“I would not be here if it wasn’t for the amazing people who helped me, like the UW–Madison employees who called the first responders, and the police and paramedics who arrived at the scene, to the people in the hospitals who cared for me, kept me alive and helped me thrive once I was awake again,” Connor said. “I could never thank them enough.”

Neil Brauner, a family friend whose children Connor coaches in the pool, is a certified registered nurse anesthetist at UW Health who just happened to be working the night Connor came to the hospital after the fall and assisted in his initial surgery.

Brauner explained that most people in his condition simply do not make this kind of recovery, period, let alone this fast.

He also was the anesthetist for Connor’s surgery to replace the skull fragments in March. The circumstances that cold night in January, including that he was even found and that Baskaya happened to be on call that night, to the rapid recovery Connor made following his coma are simply astounding, Brauner said.

“I did not think Connor was going to survive, having worked in the Neuro ICU and Trauma and Life Support Center,” he said. “He is absolutely one of the very few miracles I’ve seen in my career.”

Connor Keith in hospital bed, smiling as he recovers.