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Student Rebuilds Life After Near-Fatal Brain Injury

Wednesday, December 05, 2018 9:44 AM

It was a typical Wednesday afternoon in March 2017 for Northwestern University MBA student Winnie Yang. A native of China, Yang had just wrapped up a class at the Kellogg School of Management. As she crossed Clark Street near the Evanston lakefront to head home, her life would be forever changed—and nearly lost—in just a matter of seconds.

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Struck and run over by a car, paramedics rushed Yang, 27, to NorthShore Evanston Hospital, comatose and with her life hanging in the balance. Within minutes of her arrival at the Emergency Department, Yang was in the operating room with NorthShore Neurological Institute Surgeon Shakeel Chowdhry, MD, undergoing emergency surgery to repair a massive brain bleed.

Life-Saving Surgeries
Dr. Chowdhry and his expert team removed part of Yang’s skull and temporal lobe to relieve the swelling and pressure on the brain. While an MRI before surgery revealed bleeding on the left side of the brain, as Dr. Chowdhry performed the initial surgery he suspected there also was bleeding on the right side of Yang’s brain. He would tackle that issue with a second surgery later that same night.

“It’s not very common to have that sort of extreme injury on both sides of the brain, but there were subtle signs during surgery and we could see irregular pressure from the opposite side,” explained Dr. Chowdhry. His experience in treating these kinds of complex brain injuries not only saved Yang’s life, but also put her on a solid path to healing.

A Grueling Recovery
Yang’s journey back from the brink of death has been full of challenges, including a two-month- long coma. Today, almost a year and a half after the accident and following countless hours of intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy, she has made remarkable progress. Dr. Chowdhry, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, credits NorthShore’s Emergency Medicine team with stabilizing Yang so quickly before surgery, which further improved her odds for survival.

Coming out of the coma initially, Yang didn’t recognize anyone—including her parents, who flew to the United States four days after her accident and have been at their only daughter’s side throughout her recovery. Her father, Xin Yang, still gets tears in his eyes talking about the day she finally recognized him, smiled and said his name.

“Even the nurses were hugging each other. We finally found hope,” said Xin Yang through an interpreter.

Power of Perseverance
Slowly Yang’s Mandarin Chinese language skills came back to her, as she began the grueling work to regain her strength and mobility.

Her progress is exceeding expectations. Yang has shown extraordinary determination and grit working to relearn English and master basic tasks of everyday living—from dressing herself to walking unassisted, all with the goal of returning to Northwestern to finish her MBA sometime next year.

“I know that Dr. Chowdhry saved my life, and I’m so grateful for all the care I’ve received at NorthShore,” added Yang, with her parents nodding in agreement. “My goal now is to help people with brain injuries turn their lives around.”

While it is impossible to fully predict Yang’s future, Dr. Chowdhry remains hopeful she will fulfill her dream of completing her graduate degree and begin a life dedicated to helping others. “As smart and as driven as Winnie is, she could make a very big difference in this field.”