BLOOMSBURG, Pa. — A stranger punched Jackie Lithgow in the head seven years ago and sent his life into a violent intermission. While he lay in a coma, pieces of his skull surgically removed, Jackie’s parents pared all their hopes — a college degree, a good-paying job, a wife and maybe some grandkids — down to one raw plea.
On Sunday afternoon, Lithgow, 26, of Carlisle sat on the 37-yard-line of Bloomsburg University’s football stadium in his black cap and gown. The university president, Bashar Hanna, asked him to stand, something he couldn’t do for a long time.
“Jackie, you are an inspiration,” he said.
Lithgow’s mom, Lisa, had three packs of Kleenex in her purse, tears of joy after a sea of sad ones.
On Feb. 23, 2014, Jackie Lithgow, then a 19-year-old freshman, tried to break up a fight at a fraternity pledge party when he was punched once in the back of the head by a football player from another university. Lithgow’s head struck the pavement, fracturing his skull. He was airlifted to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, where Susan Baro, a trauma surgeon, was waiting.
“He was in critical condition,” Baro said Sunday after the ceremony. “He was very sick and we had to put him in an induced coma.”
When the Lithgows, who both graduated from Bloomsburg, reached the hospital, they were greeted by a chaplain.
The coma lasted 15 days. The teen underwent six brain surgeries and fought off a MRSA infection. Lithgow’s traumatic brain injury was ranked in the most severe category on the Glasgow Coma Scale. That often means there’s no response to stimulus, more an end than an intermission.
Baro recalled that first night in the hospital, when Jim Lithgow, Jackie’s father, asked her if he could put the Flyers game on. Father and son were big fans and the team was playing its rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Patients with brain injuries need silence and dimly lit spaces, but Baro, also a Flyers fan, acquiesced.
“I said, ‘Put it on,’ and I sat there and watched it with him,” Baro said.
Baro said she whispered, “I heard you love Sidney Crosby,” in Jackie Lithgow’s ear, thinking the mere mention of the hated Penguins center would get his brain firing again. They laughed about it Sunday.
“That started it,” he said. “That started the wheels moving.”
Lithgow spent months of in-hospital rehabilitation at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, learning the basics: how to breathe and walk and talk. The Inquirer followed his recovery. Lithgow’s parents spent nearly every night with him, from the day he was injured to his final days at Magee, just before Thanksgiving in 2014.
“The dream is not over,” Lisa used to tell her son during that first year. “Just delayed.”
On Sunday, the word miracle was often used to describe Lithgow’s recovery, but Baro believes there was a whole lot of earthly grit and determination involved, too. The Lithgows, she said, made their own light in the tunnel when one didn’t appear on its own.
“This is an exceptional family and this is an exceptional kid,” she said. “It doesn’t often end this way.”
Baro said Geisinger uses a video that Lithgow’s father made of his recovery to show other parents what’s possible.
“Jackie is hope. He allows them to believe it’s possible,” she said.
Lithgow’s goal through recovery was to get back to Bloomsburg, which he made a reality in the spring of 2016. He took a lighter course load, one class the first semester back, then more as he could handle them. A whole team of people at the university worked to get him housing that was both quiet and easily accessible.
The doctors weren’t sure it was the best idea. Lithgow suffers from short-term memory loss, has vision problems, and still needs to take his time when walking. He takes anti-seizure medication and a shunt remains surgically implanted in his head, in case there’s a fluid buildup.
His parents were a wreck when he went back.
“I just wanted to wrap him up in bubble wrap and keep him home forever,” Lisa said Sunday. “But he wanted this.”
Lithgow’s graduation day began at a pub downtown where brothers from Zeta Psi, the fraternity he was pledging the night he was assaulted, encircled him, raising beer bottles and mugs.
“A toast to Jackie Lithgow.”
He was overcome with emotion.
Later, in the bowels of the football stadium, Lithgow stood for photos and a long interview with a local television station. He’d already helped found the Jackie Lithgow Foundation, which helps survivors of traumatic brain injuries, and in about 45 minutes, would be receiving a bachelor’s degree in media and journalism and starting an internship at a construction company in Carlisle next month.
“It’s gonna be joy, it’s gonna be relief, it’s gonna be gratitude,” he told the television reporter.
Name after name was called to the stage. Lithgow’s girlfriend, Julie Bowman, watched from a nearby baseball field. His parents hugged in the press box, doing play-by-play, as he moved closer.
“He’s right by the pole. ... He’s at the stairs. ... He’s next. ... Oh, my gosh,” Jim said.
Jim and Lisa Lithgow embraced and shared more Kleenex when their son’s name was called. Then Lithgow switched his tassel from the left to the right, a small sign that he’d move on to a new stage of adulthood, a simple motion he couldn’t have made years ago, when his life was on pause.