Harper strives for normal life after brain injury
John Harper remembers the date well: Aug. 18, 1979.
What Harper has no memory of is what transpired the following eight weeks. On that summer day, more than 34 years ago, Harper was knocked off his moped and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for two months, and when he awoke he was only faced with more challenges. Harper had to re-learn how to talk and how to walk.
At the time, Harper was 15 years old and a student at Fairfield High School. He has no memory of the events that transpired in the summer of 1979, but he does remember his last day at school and what was going through his head at the time.
Harper had a summer job that was nearly full time, at 32 hours a week. He was excited at the prospect of getting his license in a few months. Harper dreamed of becoming a radio disc jockey one day and a member of the Air National Guard, two things he was not able to do because of the accident.
Harper said that, like a lot of young people, he thought he was too “cool” to wear a helmet. It was a decision he would soon regret. Harper recommends everyone riding a two-wheeled vehicle, whether it’s a motorcycle, moped or bicycle, wear a helmet. He has spoken at numerous drivers’ education classes about the importance of protecting the most valuable organ in the body, the brain.
In the immediate aftermath of the collision, doctors were pessimistic about Harper’s recovery. They told his mother he would probably die from his head injury before he ever awoke from his coma. Then, once Harper did awake, they told his mother it would take a full year for them to operate on him. In fact, it only took three months, a feat Harper attributes to his physically fit condition.
Harper was unable to speak for a period of time, and instead had to rely on hand gestures for communication. Before the accident, Harper learned to finger spell to communicate with his friend Doug Millhouse, who was deaf.
“The first thing I asked for when I came out of my coma was a can of Pepsi,” Harper recalled. “It had been eight weeks since I had any caffeine in me.”
Harper loves nothing more than to tell jokes. He is especially fond of puns and wordplay. When people ask how he is, he responds by saying, “hefty ticket,” meaning “mighty fine.” Just before bidding farewell to a friend, Harper tells them, “purchase, purchase,” meaning “bye, bye [buy, buy].”
Harper said people assume he acquired this sense of humor since his accident, but he said he’s always had it. He said his whole family likes to joke around.
“According to my little sister, when they did brain surgery on me, they took my brain out and left the blood clot in,” he said.
After waking up from his coma, Harper was not in a jovial mood. He was full of anger toward the woman who knocked him from his moped. He said he wanted to sue her for “10 gazillion dollars.” He was upset that she never had to pay any compensation to him, even to replace his moped.
His anger has dissipated over time, and Harper is ready to forgive the woman who sent him into a coma. He is sad that she has never apologized or even spoken to him to find out how he is doing.
Physical therapy was no laughing matter, either. Harper had to re-learn how to walk. He credits his mom and his physical therapist Sue Phillips for making him run the trails in Fairfield five days a week to stay fit after his coma.
Harper continues his fitness regimen by using an exercise bike in his apartment. His movements are limited by a brace on his right foot that he has to wear because he has “drop foot,” characterized by a difficulty in moving the toes upward. Harper believes this problem is partly due to the failure to perform sufficient range of motion exercises after the accident.
The next few years were not kind to Harper. He spent time at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, but he said the doctors did not know how to treat a head injury survivor like him because they are rare. He said the doctors he saw throughout that decade gave him more medications than he thought he needed, which caused him to sleep more than he wanted.
Harper had his heart set on returning to Fairfield High School to earn his diploma. Unfortunately, he could not work out an arrangement with the school and instead opted to enroll at what was then Hawkeye Institute of Technology, now Hawkeye Community College. He obtained a General Educational Development degree from the college in 1991. His favorite subjects in school were biology and math.
He was determined to get his GED because he saw how hard it was for his mom to get a job without a high school diploma. But that was about to change.
“One good thing about this incident is that my mom got her GED, and so did my cousin Chris and a whole bunch of my mom’s friends,” he said.
Harper said he believes he is the first head injury survivor in Iowa to get a GED.
The biggest problem Harper has is getting people to realize he is a fully functional, competent adult. His speech impediment and unusual gait cause many people to assume he is mentally challenged.
Harper has lived in Fairfield for the past 15 years and has worked at Tenco Industries the entire time. Tenco Industries employs people with disabilities. Harper says he hopes to get a job “on the outside” someday. His dream is to become an auxiliary police officer here in Fairfield.