Caleb Binkert’s past year is a story of strength, perseverance and courage. During the past 12 months, Caleb relearned to walk and talk, graduated from high school and, with help from his family and Gillette Children's, made a remarkable recovery from a traumatic brain injury. Caleb and his mother, Liz, share their story of holding on to hope during some very dark days.
Caleb Binkert wrapped up a preholiday evening shift as a cashier at a Target in Vadnais Heights, Minnesota on November 6, 2020. He put on his bike helmet, his reflective clothing and started biking home around 9:30pm. Caleb, 17, does not remember anything from that day as he rode through a crosswalk to continue his journey home.
In an instant his life changed.
As he started peddling through the crosswalk a car driver hit Caleb and he was rushed to the Level I Pediatric Trauma Center run cooperatively by Regions Hospital and Gillette Children's in St. Paul.
“At ten o’clock at night we suddenly heard loud pounding on our front door,” Caleb’s mother, Liz Binkert recalls. “My husband, Eric, and I were startled. We heard the police identify themselves and they told us to open the door. We knew in that instant that something was wrong.”
Liz and Eric Binkert went directly to the Regions Hospital emergency room and were told they could not immediately see their son because a team of doctors were working to stabilize him. A doctor told the Binkerts Caleb had a collapsed lung, a lacerated liver, a broken jaw and a traumatic brain injury. He also needed a breathing tube and was unconscious.
Hours after the accident doctors cautioned the Binkets that Caleb’s head injury was so intense that he might remain in a coma for the rest of his life.
“It really was agonizing to sit in the waiting room and wonder what was happening with your child,” Liz recalls. “That was one of my darkest days.”
After three hours of waiting Eric and Liz were finally able to see their son. “We saw Caleb in the neuro intensive care unit. It was so hard to see him and to not know what was going to happen,” Liz recalls.
The Level I Trauma Center run by Regions and Gillette offers the highest level of care for children and teens who have experienced trauma such as a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Often one of the first Gillette providers parents see is a pediatric rehabilitation medicine specialist (PMR). These doctors are trained to evaluate and treat children and teens with a variety of complex health conditions. Many of the PMR doctors at Gillette are Certified Brain Injury Specialists (CBIS). That means these providers have received special training designed to address the needs of people who have a brain injury.
Finally, a glimmer of hope
After two weeks at Regions the Binkerts received their first glimmer of hope.
“Day after day Caleb was just lying in bed and unresponsive,” Liz says. “He had his eyes open but we could tell he was not really with us. Then one day as I was talking to him he smiled. I knew he recognized me. That was a good day.”
On November 25, 2020 Caleb was stable enough to be transferred to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit at Gillette. Due to COVID-19 precautions the Binkerts could not get an extensive tour of the Gillette rehabilitation program and gym before Caleb was transferred. “We trusted Dr. Aldahondo and her colleagues,” Liz said. “We heard good things about Gillette and had faith Caleb could be helped.”
“One of the first people we met when we got to Gillette was Dr. Aldahondo,” Liz says. Aldahondo is a pediatric rehabilitation medicine specialist.“Dr. Aldahondo outlined a care plan for Caleb and explained that once he was stabilized he could be transferred to Gillette for an extensive inpatient rehabilitation program. At that point we didn’t know if Caleb would ever walk or talk again. Things looked so dark,” Liz recalls. “But we were reassured by Dr. Aldahondo. Right away the team at Gillette told us Caleb was entering a rigorous rehab program,” Liz recalls. “They said they were going to get Caleb up and moving. They were going to work on getting him to talk and they were going to do everything they could to help his brain heal and recover.”
Gillette has one of the largest pediatric rehabilitation programs in the upper Midwest and is one of three pediatric specialty programs in Minnesota accredited by the Commission on the Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF). Gillette is one of eight U.S. pediatric inpatient rehabilitation facilities to have CARF accreditation for both its pediatric specialty and pediatric brain injury programs.
Caleb spent at least eight hours a day doing therapy. He received physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, recreational therapy and music therapy--which was a particular favorite for Caleb.
During his initial weeks at Gillette Caleb still had his jaw wired shut. This made speech therapy even more of a challenge. “I really missed hearing Caleb’s voice and being able to communicate with him,” Liz says. “One day as he was being wheeled back into his hospital room after a speech therapy session Caleb looked at me and said, ‘I love you mom!’ It was one of the first times he really spoke and I just burst into tears. It was wonderful.”
Everyone at Gillette stays positive
Caleb was determined and worked hard in all this therapy sessions. His parents were impressed by his progress and by the program at Gillette. “Everyone at Gillette stays positive,” Liz says. “They all really focus on what your child CAN do and they keep telling you your child will get better. That’s just a huge relief and makes a big difference as you’re going through such a difficult time.”
Thanks to extensive therapy Caleb is now able to walk with some assistance and talk.
The physical therapists at Gillette work to help a child regain strength, balance, endurance and mobility. The occupational therapists help children build the skills they need to perform everyday functions like eating, dressing, self-care and playing. The OTs and PTs work with speech and language therapists (SLP) as part of a highly collaborative team that ensures each child gets the best possible care and recovery.
“All the therapy sessions felt like gym class,” Caleb says with a laugh. He’s looking forward to eventually resuming high school and he even wants to return to his job at Target.
Caleb is still struggling with regaining his memories. Dr. Aldahondo says he should be able to regain some of what was lost. “Recovering from a traumatic brain injury takes time. I tell patients that their brain is still healing and recovering for a year or two after the traumatic event,” Aldahondo says.
A family history with Gillette
The Binkert family was grateful for Gillette even before Caleb became a patient. Caleb’s grandmother, Lynn Bedell, received scoliosis care at Gillette in the 1970s. Liz Binkert remembers her mother telling her about the time she spent at Gillette’s Phalen Clinic and the nine months she spent in a cast to help her spine.
“My mother received great care at Gillette and now her grandson is also getting help,” Liz says. “It shows how Gillette helps families.”
A high school graduate
Besides working on his recovery from a traumatic brain injury, one of Caleb Binkert's most remarkable achievements is the fact that he graduated from high school. His mother calls his accomplishment "amazing." She adds, "After the accident we were not sure Caleb would be able to graduate--and we were very pleased he actually graduated on time." Liz Binkert says it was very emotional to see her son graduate. The family was mindful of COVID-19 precautions and held an outdoor graduation party for Caleb with a food truck and friends.
Caleb is now considering a career in nursing. "I was influenced by the excellent care I received at Gillette," Caleb says. "My mom is an ICU nurse and combined with my my experience at Gillette, I think I have a very good idea about what it takes to be a good nurse."