University of Southern California

On the 45th Day of My Coma...
October 14, 2011 • by Ernie Sickenberger

Easter Sunday of 1998, a minister leaned over my hospital bed in Torrance. I was in a non-drug-induced coma, completely unresponsive for 45 days. I had taken time off from my final weeks at the Marshall School of Business to go snowboarding in Big Bear. I was not wearing a helmet, and struck a tree. My diagnosis: severe traumatic brain injury.

The minister said a prayer, then spoke louder, and louder, telling me "Jesus loves you… He loves you…" and then finally shouting, "He loves you!" At that point I opened both my eyes, as if to say, "What are you yelling at me for? I was sleeping so well and you messed it all up."

From that moment on, I had just one goal: to go back to USC and graduate. But first I had to re-learn all the things that most people take for granted: breathing, eating, drinking, walking, talking. My level of persistence was incalculable, because it matched the level of my greatest supporter: my mother. The hospital staff used to cower in fear at the mere sight of her. I also had tremendous support from my brother, from Ms. Nicole Rivera, my ex-girlfriend, and from numerous friends.

The difficult work began in the fall when I came home. My speech was assessed at 0% intelligibility, and I could not dress myself, walk, or do any personal care. My doctor referred me to Dr. Beth Fisher, Director of Neurological Disorders at USC. She worked endlessly on my behalf, proving Trojans take care of one another. I started intense physical therapy, adaptive physical education, and speech therapy, deciding to work at achieving one small internal change every day. I would fight on and make it back to USC.

I was extremely self-conscious about the way I spoke, so I took every speech class at Los Angeles Harbor Junior College. Nine years later, I was ready to return to Marshall. The school supported me every step of the way, from Tom O'Malia, of the Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, to Kazi Mamun, my advisor, and Dr. Richard Eastin who taught Microeconomics for Business Decisions. Dr. Eastin even offered to pay one of his grad students to tutor me. I told him, "This is the most difficult class I've ever taken." He grinned at me and said, "…It's nothing compared to everything else you've been up against."

I graduated from the USC Marshall School of Business May 15, 2009--eleven years after my accident. I am a living testament of what being a member of the Trojan family is all about: We are there for each other. As I look for a job now, I know that my Trojan family will be there for me again. I hope to use all I've learned about therapy to help others get to their next stage of recovery. It's not over. You've just got to want it and you can go far.

From the inside out, I am a Trojan. The Marshall School of Business never gave up on me. Please don't give up on Marshall. Support the school that gave me so much – give today.

Fight On!
Ernie Sickenberger, BS '09