Eyad Khalifeh was going to die.
Near midnight on Friday, Sept. 17, 2010, encircled by masked trauma doctors at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, his eyes did not see, his mouth did not speak, his body did not respond to pain.
An hour before, Khalifeh, a 17-year-old senior and varsity wrestler at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, had picked up two classmates in his gray Ford Mustang convertible. He drove them to a park, chugged multiple cans of the sugary, caffeinated, alcohol Four Loko, then, heading toward a house party, slammed the muscle car into a tree on East Front Street in Plainfield at more than 100 mph.
"It sounded like an explosion," said Juanita Harriatt, 63, who lives at 1105 East Front Street, about 100 feet from the site of the accident. "I thought my house was going to blow up."
Khalifeh’s two friends, one of whom was catapulted onto the pavement, escaped serious injury. Khalifeh’s head, however, smashed into the car’s windshield. By the time paramedics rushed him through the doors of Robert Wood Johnson’s Emergency Room, he was what doctors and EMTs call “3T,” shorthand for the worst possible score, out of 15, on an early test that determines brain activity.
“We thought he was going to end up being an organ donor,” said Dr. Rachana Tyagi, the neurosurgeon on call that night.
The term “brain dead,” however, is a legal definition – one that requires certain tests to confirm that a patient cannot possibly recover from his injuries, Tyagi said. As the doctors worked feverishly to assess Khalifeh, they found that he responded to some stimuli – somehow, somewhere, the cogs in his mind still turned.
Doctors removed the top-right portion of Khalifeh's skull to relieve pressure on his brain, which was swelling as his body pumped it full of blood, white blood cells and other fluids, Tyagi said. Through IVs, the doctors administered antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and sedatives.
Then, with Khalifeh lying in a deep coma, they waited. Whether he would ever wake, and, if so, what he would be like when he did, was beyond anyone’s guess.
“Patients that are 3T to 5T, their survival for looking like this is in the single digits,” Tyagi said. “The percentage of people who do well is near zero.”
According to Scotch Plains-Fanwood Schools Special Services Director Thomas Beese, who visited Khalifeh at the hospital, Khalifeh’s friends and family “were down to vigils. That’s what was left.”
Two weeks later, Khalifeh slowly started to come out of his coma. His mind would wake to move a thumb, then a hand, before returning to the depths of unconsciousness. Hours or days later, he would mutter one word ‑ then two.
“It’s just the way the brain heals,” Tyagi explained.
At the end of September, Khalifeh spoke his first words. At a doctor’s instructions, he rasped, “Hi, mom.” His mother, Debra, had hardly left his bedside for the entire two-week ordeal.
"Want me to show you what I did?" Debra, 50, asked in an Oct. 3 interview. Sitting in the waiting room of the pediatric intensive care unit at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, she stood from her chair and jumped. "I was like, 'Yes! Yes! Yes!'" her hands clenched, her face turned heavenward.
In the weeks that followed, Khalifeh’s recovery picked up speed. Through two months of daily therapy sessions at the residential rehabilitation center at Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick, he regained his speech, his balance and his memory, both short- and long-term. His muscles, emaciated from weeks of lying in a bed, began to rebuild.
His condition improved so rapidly, he began to tell anyone who would listen that he would heal in time to graduate. “I kept talking about it and talking about it,” Khalifeh said.
Family members, doctors, nurses, therapists and friends suggested he temper his expectations, however, trying to insulate him from what could very well prove a crushing disappointment. “Even my mom got fed-up and told me to stop,” he said.
On Dec. 6, doctors discharged Khalifeh, clearing him to go home weeks ahead of schedule. Barely a week before, Tyagi had put the top-right portion of Khalifeh’s skull back into place, a two- to three-hour procedure called a cranioplasty (the portion of skull that she removed in September had been stored in a freezer).
At the Fanwood satellite of Children’s Specialized Hospital, Khalifeh continued to undergo physical, occupational and speech therapy, this time as an outpatient. That, too, he finished ahead of schedule. In mid-January, little more than a month into the program, he convinced Beese, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood School District’s special services director, that he was prepared to begin taking classes again.
“When I found out that I was going back to school, I was jumping, screaming, ‘I’m going back to school!’ I was acting like a little kid,” Khalifeh said.
As Beese described, “I always say, ‘My crystal ball is broken.’ I never say no. I always say, ‘Let’s give it a try. If you prove me wrong, I’m just as happy as you are.’”
To all but his closest friends, Khalifeh had kept his return a surprise. As he strolled past lockers and classrooms, “people were screaming from across the hall, ‘Eyad!’” Khalifeh said. “Even teachers – I got a drink from a water fountain, looked up, and my marketing teacher was there with her hands open to give me a big hug.”
John Scholz, head coach of the wrestling team and one of Khalifeh’s visitors at the hospital, said he was both happy and relieved. “It was great to see him,” he said in a telephone interview. “From the beginning, it was so scary for him and so scary for everyone around him, not knowing what his quality of life was going to be. He’s springing back to doing everything he was able to do in the first place. He’s lifting again, he’s working out, he’s doing things. It’s just amazing.”
Khalifeh, described by friends as a popular, well-liked student, made sure to take advantage of the time he had left as a high school senior. At prom, he danced for nearly five straight hours. Wearing a white tuxedo and purple vest, he was hard to miss.
“He didn't even take off the jacket,” Eli Acosta, one of Khalifeh’s friends and classmates, said in a telephone interview. “It was too hot in there, I don't know how he did it. But he kept going…. Even the boring parts, all these pictures and stuff, he was excited about everything, no matter what it was about prom.”
The culminating achievement, however, was graduation. On June 22, almost exactly nine months after the crash, wearing a cap and gown of Raiders blue, Khalifeh strode across the stage erected on the Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School football field, embraced Board of Education President Trip Whitehouse and accepted his diploma. The applause from students and their families was thunderous.
“It was a thrill,” Whitehouse said, whose son had attended school with Khalifeh since the third grade. “I didn’t know prior to that that he’d be participating in graduation…. That might have been what caused me to give him that bear hug.”
For Khalifeh, the experience marked a triumph. “No one knows the feeling I felt,” he said during a July interview at his family’s home on Algonquin Drive. “I felt as if I was some big conqueror. Everybody said I wasn’t – everybody’s negativity, I had that in my head. I did what everybody said I couldn’t.”
Khalifeh’s brain is still healing, but it appears he will suffer few, if any, long-term defects from the injury, Tyagi said. His chief complaint is intense fatigue upon waking up in the morning, but he said that fades after about a half-hour. He's become a regular at the gym, already rebuilding the stocky physique he once had as a wrestler.
His recovery is nothing short of remarkable – the type of success that comes once in a doctor’s career, if at all. “Some people are miracles. If you believe in miracles, he’s probably it,” Tyagi said. “He really got a second chance, and I think he knows it.”
Khalifeh, an active member of on Terrill Road in Scotch Plains, said simply, “God saved me.” Sitting in his family’s dining room, he wore a white T-shirt, and perhaps appropriately, Superman-themed pajama pants. His hair, shaved for the multiple brain surgeries, had grown into a thick black poof sticking straight up from his head. He said he didn’t plan to cut it for some time. “When I say ‘God saved me,’ I don’t just mean I have the ability to live. I mean I have the ability to do everything I did before. There’s life, and then there’s living.”
Khalifeh said he intends to work in medicine, ideally as a doctor. It’s a plan he said he nurtured prior to the crash, but was only reinforced after he experienced firsthand the capabilities of modern medicine.
“Being in the hospital helped me a lot,” he said. “Doctors gave me information about med. school and pre-med.” Tapping the side of his head, he added, “I’ve been studying the brain."
Khalifeh said he plans to pursue pre-med. at Messiah Christian College in Pennsylvania, starting in January. He needed a few credits before enrolling full-time – in August, he completed an English class at Union County College, which made him eligible to enroll in English 101 at UCC in time for the fall semester.
The charges he faced from the collision were minor. On Aug. 9, a judge suspended his license for 30 days and fined him $100 for underage drinking. The driving-while-intoxicated charges were dismissed.
Khalifeh said he has made certain promises to himself for this second chance: not only to pursue the pre-med. program, but also not to drink to excess (“drinking isn’t a sin, drunkenness is,” he stated), to maintain close relationships with his family and faith, to regain his physical strength, and to save enough money to buy another Mustang GT.
“I love that car,” he said.
Khalifeh’s two passengers, Andres Quijano and Andres Rodriguez, both 19, declined to return phone calls and Facebook messages seeking interviews for this piece. According to Khalifeh, Quijano is pursuing a degree at Lincoln Technical Institute, and Rodriguez hopes to become a pharmacist. Neither faced charges from the crash. However, on Monday, the reported that it had arrested Quijano for allegedly driving while intoxicated on Westfield Avenue.
One year after the crash, Khalifeh said he still thinks about it everyday. “It doesn’t hurt me to think about it,” he stated. “It doesn’t hurt me to talk about it. It happened. I have no regrets.”
Looking back, he said he “thanks God for this experience,” a feeling he strongly expressed during an interview at Children’s Specialized Hospital on Nov. 30, roughly one week before the cranioplasty.
“Look at me! I’m the same man I was! I’m a better man than I was! It’s made me stronger,” Khalifeh said. The right-top portion of his head, missing the skull, was concave – it looked deflated. As he stood to pose for a photo, his mom, Debra, tried to hand him the blue-and-white helmet he was supposed to wear whenever he walked the halls of the center, in case he stumbled. But Khalifeh stepped away.
“This is me, mom,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “I’m strong. Let them see. This is me.”
One year later, Khalifeh is, more than ever, himself.