ASPEN - Jeff Reese never lost his sense of humor or his tendency to smile a lot despite nearly losing his life when his vehicle was struck by a drunken driver.
Now Reese is trying to fully recover his ability to speak so he can more easily share his corny jokes.
Reese, 50, an Aspen native, and his wife, Susan Grove, 57, were struck head-on the night of May 8, 2008, as they rounded the Emma curve on Two Rivers Road outside Basalt. They were returning home from a Colorado Rockies baseball game. The other vehicle, driven by Oscar Canas Portillo, crossed the center line and gave Reese nowhere to go.
Both Reese and Grove were knocked unconscious and suffered brain injuries. The right side of Grove's lower body was crushed. Her back was broken. She needed a hip replacement. Reese's right ankle was shattered, and his left knee was injured. In essence, they were mangled.
Because of all the physical problems, Reese's slurred speech was initially the least of his problems. During the healing over the last 41⁄2 years, the speech issue became more irritating to him.
"My mind was always sharp," said Reese, who has a master's degree in accounting. He knew what he wanted to say, he just couldn't make the words come out clearly. It's a condition called aphasia, common among stroke victims and people who suffer brain injuries.
Earlier this year, Reese got a tip about a facility that specializes in helping people like him. A friend of his mother has a niece who suffered a brain injury and experienced difficulty recovering her ability to speak clearly. That woman went to the University of Michigan Aphasia Program. Reese and Grove met the woman, Marla, at a support group for people who have suffered brain injuries. The only support group of its kind meets in Glenwood Springs. Marla highly recommended the University of Michigan program.
Reese attended the intensive, four-week program in October. A "speech and swallow study" determined that cartilage connected to his hyoid bone was sheared off on the left side, according to Grove. The horseshoe-shaped bone is directly beneath the tongue. The connected cartilage supports the vocal cords. Because of the injury, muscles in his throat were trying to compensate.
The University of Michigan Aphasia Program started in the 1940s to help victims of World War II who had suffered brain injuries to improve their ability to speak, according to Dr. Joanne Pierson, associate director of the program.
It's one of the oldest facilities of its kind and one of only a handful in the country. The Michigan program includes 30 hours a week of intense therapy, she said. Its staff consists of clinically trained, professional speech-language pathologists.
The work includes speech and language therapy, music therapy, education for family members and caregivers and social-recreation therapy, such as an outing to a Detroit Tigers game.
"We want them to live their life as fully as possible despite their speech (challenges)," Pierson said.
The clients come from all walks of life. Reese said he befriended a former Navy SEAL who suffered a brain injury in a car accident and a lawyer who was stabbed in the head.
Some clients experience extensive progress in one session. Others come back for additional sessions. Overall, clients show a 19 percent improvement in speech, according to Pierson. More about the program is available at www.aphasiahelp.com.
Reese is thrilled with his improvement. "Before I could do one word at a time," he said. "Now I can talk on the phone."
He has worked with a local therapist in the past to recover from his various injuries. Now the therapist is getting information on what Reese can do to improve his speech, and they will resume their work.
Reese has been advised to practice blowing bubbles to improve his speech, so several times per day he gets out a plastic water bottle with a straw and blows bubbles.
Carrying on a conversation with him still requires focus and occasional requests for him to repeat something, but he definitely strings together longer sentences, and many of the words are now much clearer that earlier in his recovery.
Grove said it is easy for her to detect an improvement in her husband's speech.
"He still has the same sense of humor," she said. "Now we hear it more." (During a 45-minute conversation with a reporter, Reese told numerous puns directed at himself or his wife. She rolled her eyes at most of them and said they were "bad." He counters that they are clever.)
Reese's speech has improved enough that his best friend, Roger Marolt, hired him back at Marolt CPA in Aspen. Reese worked there before his accident, and last year at tax time, he came back temporarily to help out. This fall, the firm landed some additional clients so Marolt rehired Reese. It's gratifying, Marolt said.
"If your best friend can't help you, who can?" he asked.
Reese is grateful. "Roger offered me my job back, which is the best thing in the world," he said.
He is working part time at the accounting firm for now and part time for his father's business, Airport Liquors. He is motivated to improve his speech to be more effective on the job.
"I'm very lucky. My goal is to get back and do the best I can for Roger and my dad," he said.
Reese was once an expert skier, an avid hockey player and an all-around athlete. He's now trying to work himself back into shape. The Aspen Club provided him with a free membership. Challenge Aspen provided him with a scholarship so he can ski.
Reese has been cleared to participate in downhill skiing since his brain injury has healed. He said his knees are still sore enough that he must take it easy. Once his speech improves, he hopes to coach hockey.
Grove said she's still partially paralyzed in her right leg. She is forgetful because of her brain injury. She lost her job as a nurse at Aspen Valley Hospital and cannot get hired at other medical facilities. She volunteers at the Thrift Shop of Aspen and has studied jewelry making at Colorado Mountain College. She hopes to teach skiing again, as she did part-time for 10 years before the accident.
Participation in Aspen's St. Mary Catholic Church is a big part of their lives. They said they are grateful to so many people in Aspen who have assisted them. They finally were able to build a home at W/J Ranch in Woody Creek. They had been scheduled to meet with an architect the day after the drunken driver hit them. Planning was delayed a few years.
They have mixed emotions about the man who caused all their pain and suffering. Canas pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular assault causing bodily injury and was sentenced in February 2009 to 12 years in prison.
"He took our life away," Reese said, quickly adding that he feels sorry for the man's wife and children.
Grove said she is just happy Canas didn't kill someone.
While they would obviously prefer not to be dealing with the medical issues they continue to face, they said life overall is pretty good.
"I look forward to being the best I can be with what I have," Reese said.