Nine years since accident, Stantons showcase strength

Terri Stanton leans in close to get her son Joseph’s attention during his 25th birthday party. Stanton suffered a traumatic brain injury in a skateboard accident the summer after his sophomore year of high school. He was a state swimming champion at Kingwood Park and still holds three school swim records, despite only competing his freshman and sophomore seasons.

Kathleen Ortiz, Staff Writer

Sandwiches, dip and cakes filled the kitchen table at the Stanton household as guests filed in wearing “crazy pants” as requested on the invitation. Joseph Stanton, the birthday boy, wore a yellow pair of Rugrat pajama pants. Five balloons were attached to his wheelchair.

The wheelchair and Joseph’s condition are constant reminders of the former Kingwood Park swimmer’s accident almost nine years ago. Every birthday and milestone is a celebration for the Stantons.

“I was hoping that Joseph would be one of those huge miracle cases, but his brain injury was so significant,” Joseph’s mom Terri said. “It was very severe and very extensive, so the fact we even still have him is a huge miracle.”


On the first day of summer in 2010, Stanton’s mom and his sister Audrea were planning a wedding shower. Joseph was the only other family member at home. He was bored of just hanging around. He grabbed his longboard, rolled his eyes when his mom told him to be careful and took off. Twenty minutes later his mom got a call: Joseph was seen lying on the street.

Joseph had only a small abrasion on his back and was in a fetal position with his eyes closed. His mom could not wake him. Terri had no idea what it meant when a neighbor noticed Stanton’s pupils were dilated and fixed.

In about 40 minutes, they reached Memorial Hermann by ambulance. The 6-foot-1 state champion and All-America swimmer, who was not wearing a helmet while riding his longboard, was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.

“The chief resident didn’t think it was worth his effort to operate on him because he was going to die anyway,” Terri said.

The next few hours were a blur. About 8 and a half hours after arriving at the hospital, a new doctor started his shift and decided something could be done in surgery.

Joseph surpassed expectations by surviving the next 24 hours. Nonetheless, that one slip off of his longboard changed his life.

The 16-year-old spent a year in the hospital. His dreams of playing varsity football his junior year and reaching the Olympics his senior year in swim were replaced with long hours of therapy.

His family converted their Kingwood home into a mini hospital with specialized equipment and staff. With a tracheostomy, daily respiratory therapy and a PEG tube for feeding, Joseph’s schedule and medical needs are intricate.

For two years after the accident, the Stantons still received mail from Ivy League universities and other schools recruiting Joseph. Terri saved them all in her desk.

She does what she can now to continue to stimulate Joseph’s mind, getting him out of the home as often as they can. He attended his younger sister’s basketball games at Rice University as well as weddings and field trips to ships and beaches. Activities are also organized at home to keep him busy.

“We don’t know another brain injury survivor that has even half as much brain damage as Joseph has but is still living,” Terri said. “The longest one we’ve ever heard of was seven years.”

Joseph’s favorite caregiver arguably was also his most unlikely. When they were younger, Joseph and his older sister Audrea rarely got along. They butted heads often as the two middle children.

Audrea was visiting from Belmont University the night of Joseph’s accident. He invited her to go longboarding with him, but she passed. As soon as she arrived at Memorial Hermann that night, however, she became Joseph’s fiercest advocate.

“I remember just like spending all day looking up what normal numbers were for heart rate, intracranial pressures, and figuring out what all the machines were attached to him,” Audrea said. “I had seen some nurses who didn’t give Joseph the best care, and I had to stand up and be his voice for him. It took a few years to get there, but Joseph is the only reason I left the music industry to pursue nursing.”

Two months before graduating from Belmont University in music business, Audrea called her mom and told her that she was meant to be a nurse. The impact of Joseph’s accident had changed her entire perspective on her own life.

Her mom insisted she finish her original plan, but Audrea quickly went back and graduated from Belmont again. Finally, she was a nurse. For her internship, she took care of her brother. For five months, she learned his routine and worked with him daily.

She learned how much Joseph still understands despite his inability to express himself.

While he can’t communicate with us, he is still there and understands everything,” Audrea said. “He reacts and feels emotion just like you and I. He is no empty shell.

— Audrea Stanton, Joseph's sister

Audrea said emotion overcame Joseph when he was told the family’s Great Dane puppy was being put to sleep after developing aggressive cancer in her face. Immediately after hearing the news, tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Joseph has a special ability to feel our pain and suffering with us,” Audrea said.

Joseph has spoken only one true word since the incident: Audrea. She said that hearing him say her name made her feel as if he was communicating to her that he trusted her. Although Joseph was not able to walk or talk at her wedding, the family is praying he will be do so by his younger sister Gabrielle’s wedding in November. The family is constantly looking at various treatments that could help Joseph. They also look at trials done abroad.

For now, they enjoy the little moments with Joseph. It has been almost a year since he had to be hospitalized. He communicates with his eyes. He lets his family know when he’s bored by shutting his eyes while they’re speaking. He has a red button on the side of his wheelchair that says catch phrases like, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

Joseph blinks his eyes once for “yes” and multiple times for “no.” On good days, he answers the questions his family poses. Terri Stanton said the communication is sporadic, however. Sometimes weeks can go by with no definite responses from Joseph.

During those rougher weeks, his family gets by with funny memories from when he was young.

They remember the time he went to a swim meet in Florida and used all his spending money on gifts for his parents and three sisters. His mom still remembers him getting in trouble in elementary school for using a safety pin to try to pierce a classmate’s ear. Joseph told his mom the kid had asked him to do it. She also laughs about the time he shaved his head before the state swim meet without telling her.

On good days, like his 25th birthday party, his family is able to make new memories. His eyes were wide open when his mom and a family friend showed him a photo of him dressed up at camp as a little kid. They fed him some icing off the cake. They took new photos and captured memories of a birthday many thought he’d never see.

“There’s that memory of living a great life,” Terri Stanton said. “Your life is wonderful, everybody’s happy, you don’t really have many challenges out of your normal day to day. And in the blink of an eye, your entire life and world can change forever.”