February 16, 2017

Volunteer finds common ground with trauma patients

By 5 each morning, businessman Doug Brown is already hard at work, making calls to colleagues around the world.

Former patient Doug Brown serves as a volunteer in the Vanderbilt Trauma Center, visiting with patients and family members and offering encouragement. (photo by Susan Urmy)

By 5 each morning, businessman Doug Brown is already hard at work, making calls to colleagues around the world.

But despite the many demands of his career as owner and president of an international company in the automotive industry, there is one day each week that Brown makes the patients in the Vanderbilt Trauma Center his top priority.

Each Thursday, Brown comes to the 10th floor of Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital, which houses the region’s only level-1 trauma center and therefore the most critically injured patients in the area. He visits with patients and family members in the 31-bed unit, offers words of encouragement and, as appropriate, asks them if they would like for him to pray.

He takes meticulous notes so that he can reference them the following week if he sees that patient again, or if he later meets them at Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital, where he also volunteers.

Outside this unit, Brown may or may not have much in common with the patients he sees, but within these walls, they share a common bond.

On Dec. 28, 2013, Brown was attempting to fix a second-story window at his Hendersonville, Tennessee, home when he fell through, toppling 17 feet onto the brick sidewalk below.
Brown, 67 at the time, sustained multiple breaks and fractures, including a shattered pelvis and a broken arm and wrist.

The accomplished businessman, husband and grandfather, who is also an active leader in his church, a frequent global traveler, a pilot and an avid water skier, was forced to stop everything following his accident.

Initially confined to a wheelchair with months of therapy and healing ahead of him, Brown says the emotional trauma that followed was almost as difficult as the physical pain.

“It about killed me,” Brown said. “I felt like I was dying on the vine.”

Two months later, he took his first steps since his accident in the office of his surgeon, Alex Jahangir, M.D., associate professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation and medical director of the Vanderbilt Center for Trauma, Burn, and Emergency Surgery at Vanderbilt.

“When Dr. Jahangir asked me if I could walk to him, he was only standing a couple of feet away, but he might as well have been at the other end of a football field,” Brown said. “But, I did it, and this gave me hope for the first time since my fall.”

Brown steadily improved and was back on his slalom water ski by July, a goal Jahangir and Brown had discussed just hours after his fall upon meeting in the operating room prior to surgery. However, Brown’s physical healing was only half the battle.

To aid in the emotional healing, Brown joined a peer support group offered through the Trauma Center, and he also took an online course in trauma recovery through the Trauma Survivors Network called Next Steps. Through these efforts, he learned about the value of peer mentoring.
Working with Trauma leadership and staff, Brown received formal training from VUMC’s Volunteer Services Department to become a peer mentor.

“I am confident that peer mentoring is of high value. It helps patients and families to have peace and calm in a time of storm and gives them hope for some level of recovery and life,” Brown said.

“This work is a team effort which would not be possible without the cooperation of the Trauma Unit management and staff, and I am grateful to each of them for their support.”

To date, Brown has visited more than 1,400 patients as a peer mentor in the Trauma Center and Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital.

“There’s no substitute for patients hearing from someone who’s been through trauma,” said Jahangir. “Doug can relate to these patients in a way I can’t because I’ve never been a trauma patient. I don’t know how to quantify this, but I believe that Doug and people like Doug have saved lives. He has given hope to people who before felt their situation was truly hopeless.”

Following his accident, Brown says he has slowed down, learned to separate things of importance from things that are not, and doesn’t spend time on the latter. Further, he says he’s made more time for what matters most, which to him includes his wife of 51 years, his adult son and daughter, his six grandchildren, and his weekly visits to the Trauma Unit.

“There are a lot of hurting people in the world who need hope, and some of them happen to be in the Vanderbilt Trauma Center,” Brown said. “I feel like God has put me in a position to give hope and has used a very painful and difficult situation in my life to help others.”