Salina It’s been two years since doctors removed part of Chris Orr’s skull and put it in his abdomen.
They did this so the Salina man would have a better chance of surviving a traumatic head injury that had caused his brain to swell.
After removing the section of skull, doctors put a protective cap over Chris’ exposed brain.
He wasn’t given much hope — about a 20 percent chance of survival, he heard later. There was a good chance he’d end up severely disabled, or more likely, dead within a week.
He survived his ordeal, but at a great cost.
Because Chris’ brain injury was primarily to the frontal lobe, he lost a lot of his short-term memory, developed vision and balance problems and faced difficulty with his visual memory.
“I can’t remember faces,” said Chris, 36. “I can be talking with someone, and they’ll leave the room and come back an hour later, and I won’t remember who they were. If I know someone from church and see them in the grocery store, I won’t know who they are because I’m seeing them out of their normal setting.”
Even those closest to him are not immune.
“Sometimes I haven’t remembered my wife,” he said as his eyes began to tear.
Tears come easier to Chris now, along with emotional highs and lows and anger — normal results of massive brain trauma.
But it’s been two years since his injury, and Chris is still alive. For that, he’s forever thankful.
“I’ve beaten the odds,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance.”
Day of the accident
Chris doesn’t remember anything about Nov. 18, 2006, except that he was looking forward to a “guy” weekend of football and fun. Chris, a former sportswriter for the Salina Journal who also had published a high school sports magazine, was a fan of all sports, especially baseball.
He also was a passionate Kansas State University Wildcat fan, and there was no bigger game that weekend than the showdown with Kansas University in Lawrence.
Chris intended to go to Lawrence on a Saturday, and then head to Kansas City to join Sigma Chi fraternity brother Josh Callahan for a Kansas City Chiefs game Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
He ended up in Kansas City, but far from the way he intended.
While riding on the Cat Tracker, a converted school bus that took Wildcat fans to games outside Manhattan, Chris struck his head on a concrete bridge near the stadium.
The bus had a ladder leading to a metal deck on top. Several other people reportedly were sitting on top of the bus, but only Chris and Shawnee resident John Green struck their heads as the bus passed under the bridge. Green, 27, was killed instantly.
Because of a pending lawsuit, Chris was unable to discuss the circumstances of that day — not that he remembers anything about it.
“I can’t remember anything two weeks before the accident,” Chris said.
Chris was flown to the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, where he was put in the hospital’s neuro-intensive care unit.
His wife, Stacey, had stayed behind in Salina with the couple’s two young sons, Caleb and Tyce. She received a call informing her of Chris’ injury from Chris’ father, Jerry, who had been called by a person riding on the Cat Tracker bus.
“I got the boys and tried to throw things in a suitcase,” she said. “It was awful. It was the longest drive of my life.”
When Stacey arrived at the hospital and first saw Chris, she was shocked.
“Tubes were coming out of his head, machines were all around him, and there was a tremendous amount of swelling,” she said.
A few days after his arrival, the front of the top part of Chris’ skull was removed to allow his brain to continue swelling and begin to heal itself. The skull portion was put in his abdomen to allow blood flow to continue so it later could be reattached.
Chris was in a coma for about a month. Josh Callahan, who had been looking forward to spending Sunday with Chris at the Chiefs’ game, instead found himself by Chris’ bedside, looking into his fraternity brother’s battered face.
“It was shocking to see him,” said Josh, who originally is from Baldwin City and now lives in Hays. “He looked like he’d been on the wrong end of a bad fight.”
Sign of hope
No one knew when or if Chris would awaken, but Josh said he was given a sign of hope just before Christmas that Chris might be coming back.
“I gave him the handshake we always give each other in public when greeting a fellow Sigma Chi,” Josh said. “He shook my hand with that grip.”
When Chris began coming out of the coma, it was a gradual process, Stacey said.
“It’s not like you see on TV where they wake up right away,” she said. “One day he’d open one eye. One day he’d be awake 20 minutes and go back to sleep.”
Stacey stayed by Chris’ side during most of the month of his coma, reading newspapers, books and cards and letters from friends and relatives sent to the hospital.
Finally, Chris awoke.
“He had a tracheotomy (an incision in the windpipe to allow breathing) so he couldn’t talk,” Stacey said. “It’s hard to say if he knew who I was right away.”
Chris thought he said “I love you” to his wife, but he can’t remember if it really happened.
After regaining some strength, Chris began physical, speech and occupational rehabilitation at the hospital. That lasted through Feb. 11, when he was released.
“There were some days during rehab that he knew who I was, and some days he didn’t,” Stacey said. “One day he thought I was his sister.”
Throughout this time, Chris’ skull was still in his belly and he still wore a protective cap to protect his exposed brain.
“The least they could have given me was a Royals or Chiefs hat,” he said.
Doctors reattached Chris’ skull on Feb. 9, two days after his father’s birthday.
“I didn’t get him (his father) a birthday present that year, so that was his present,” Chris said.
Returning to ‘new normal’
After returning to Salina, Chris continued to receive therapy until October 2007. While he has continued to improve since then, he knows he’s far from being 100 percent.
“My balance is not good — I’ve fallen down the stairs at home three times — I have some double vision,” Chris said. “I’m seeing a psychiatrist for my emotional issues, and I’m still on disability.”
This fall, Chris achieved an important milestone in his recovery — he went back to work. Before his injury he had left sportswriting and was managing The Jacket Shack, a store at Salina’s Central Mall.
But he still wanted to write sports stories, and he was given a chance to do so at the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle. Editor-publisher Dave Bergmeier hired him to work 30 to 35 hours a week covering local sports events at Abilene and Dickinson County schools.
“He’s been able to keep up with things and works hard at it,” Bergmeier said. “He knows how important sports is to our market, so he’s really focused on doing a good job.”
Chris said is grateful for the opportunity.
“I always thought I’d be able to go back to work,” he said. “I covered a wrestling tournament in Salina and was able to see my byline again. It was one of the best days of my life.”
Callahan said he’s seen profound changes in Chris’s appearance and abilities since sharing that fraternity handshake two years ago.
“He’s come a tremendous way,” Callahan said. “At first he was like a little boy. Just in the last year, you can definitely see he’s grown up again. There’s still a ways to go, but where he’s come in two years is amazing.”
Chris’ recovery challenges haven’t always been easy on those around him — Stacey, Caleb and Tyce, now 13 and 9 respectively.
“The part of the brain he injured controls emotions and personality, so he’s a whole different person now,” Stacey said. “But then I see actions that remind me of the old Chris. We’re still in the process of figuring everything out.”
The boys are taking the changes in their father as well as they can, Stacey said.
“They know he had an accident and had a brain injury, but I’m not sure to what extent they understand everything,” she said. “But kids are resilient. I’m just thankful the boys still have their father.”
Stacey also is thankful for friends, family members and “everyone else for the support, help and prayers they have provided us over the past two years.”
For two years, Stacy said, her family has been “a work in progress.”
“We need to get the family back to normal,” she said. “But it will be a new normal.”