It was a simple household chore that turned into a two-month medical ordeal for 67-year-old Gene Nees.
Nees says it was late evening on June 22, 2011, and he was taking out the garbage at his downtown Savannah home. On his way back inside, he noticed vines growing on the air conditioning unit. An easy fix, he figured. He climbed onto a ladder, tugged at the vines, and fell backward off the ladder, then forward onto the pavement.
All he knows about the accident is what he was told by his wife, Dara. He has no memory of that summer day.
“I was only out for a minute or so when my wife found me,” he said. She took him to a local hospital where a CT scan showed he had suffered a brain injury. Immediately, hospital personnel called an ambulance to transport Nees to Memorial University Medical Center’s (MUMC) Level I trauma center.
Nees spent two weeks in intensive care. Blood clots had formed on his brain but because he had a pre-existing health condition. Nees’ physician did not want to operate. As his condition improved, he was moved to MUMC’s neurological unit. He went home about a month later with his doctor’s one stipulation: he had to begin outpatient therapy at The Rehabilitation Institute at MUMC within a few days.
Nees suffered from severe headaches, poor balance, and speech difficulties. His doctor ordered therapy two days a week, three hours a day, for eight weeks.
“So my ‘angels’ went to work on me,” Nees said.
“Gene’s angels,” as he dubbed them, included Jennifer Jolley, speech therapist; Emily Mathis, physical therapist; and Krista Wilson, occupational therapist.
“I had trouble remembering words so Jennifer helped me with that,” he said. “Emily had me working on the Nautilus machines. She got me to sweat.
“And Krista helped, primarily, with my coordination, getting my hand and eye to work together again,” he said.
In addition to the “angels,” Nees had “Gene’s jump-starters,” as well. “They got me out of bed in the morning,” he explained.
Unlike some patients, Nees recalls having very little physical discomfort during his therapy. “Therapy was occasionally painful, but I was very much in favor of feeling better,” he said.
And he wanted to get back behind the wheel of a car. His injuries made driving impossible for a while. “I couldn’t drive for a long time,” he said. “Then Krista tested me to see if I could drive. I proved to her I could.”
After only five weeks of therapy, his physician said he was free to go. “I really enjoyed my angels. I was a little disappointed and upset that I was leaving,” he said, flashing a devilish grin.
Nees seems to take his accident and injuries in stride. He had already beaten prostate cancer in 2000 right before he moved from Connecticut to Savannah. He and his wife had fallen in love with the city during a weekend getaway only months earlier.
After he completed his cancer treatment, he informed his partners at their Manhattan executive search firm that he was retiring to Savannah. He and Dara bought an 1860s-era home in Savannah’s historic district.
“There was a lot to do to the house," he recalled. During the renovations, they lived in one room for 18 months.
After the work was completed, this former self-described “Type-A” workaholic couldn’t stay down long. Within a few years he had joined with a local businessman to form a new executive search consulting firm in Savannah. The company now employs Nees’ oldest son, who works from his home in New Jersey. Both of Nees’ sons and his four grandchildren live in New Jersey.
Nees has noticed other changes in himself, too. “I used to be a cigar-and-martini-every-night guy,” he said. “Now I have no interest in that."
Before the accident, Nees said, “I had a very short temper and I lost it easily and quickly … That part of me doesn’t exist anymore.”
A golfer and avid bicyclist, he doesn’t know yet if he will be able to hop back on a bike any time soon. “It’s a dangerous sport,” he said. “When I was 5, I fell off my bike and hit my head on a street curb.” He’s not taking any chances this time around.
His 2011 accident cost him his senses of taste and smell – a huge loss for a wine connoisseur and food lover. He hopes to gain them back over the next few months. “I miss that tremendously,” he noted. He’s lost 30 pounds already.
Nees gets a chance to reunite with his “angels” while he is volunteering at The Rehabilitation Institute.
“Jennifer asked if I would work with older people who’ve had brain injuries,” he said. “I think I’ll bring a very positive attitude and an ability to tell stories.”