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Music triumphs over silence

Forrest Stone Allen and Liz Gilliland perform at The Hill School in Middleburg as part of A Place To Be music therapy. Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
After Forrest Stone Allen suffered catastrophic brain trauma from a snowboarding accident, the doctors said that he probably wouldn’t wake up from his coma.

Three-and-a-half years ago, Stone, a resident of The Plains, went snowboarding without a helmet right after he turned 18. He hit a patch of ice and slid into a fence, severely damaging his skull and brain. Paramedics airlifted him to the University of Virginia Hospital Trauma Center for urgent care.

He remained in a coma for about 12 days. Specialists told his family that they shouldn’t expect him to wake up.

“But he did,” said his mother, Rae Stone. “He woke up and he made great progress. He had a number of really serious setbacks and has had 14 major surgeries now and still has several ahead of him.”

The biggest set-back that Forrest faced was losing his voice. He was able to speak until May 25, 2011, when he had a serious complication during a medical procedure and ended up back in another coma and on a ventilator for weeks.

“He couldn’t talk or communicate with us,” said Rae. “At that point really he couldn’t even control his breath. Just to blow a feather off your hand, he couldn’t even do that. He couldn’t hum. He really could only answer 'yes' with one finger or 'no' with two. He had to have really intensive 24-7 care for over two years.”

At that point in Forrest’s recovery he started working with Tom Sweitzer, who was working toward his master's degree in music therapy at the time.

Sweitzer had taught music and theater classes to Forrest since he was in third grade at The Hill School in Middleburg. The two stayed connected over the years and Forrest looked up to Sweitzer as a role model.

Before Forrest’s accident he volunteered to work alongside Sweitzer through the Virginia Special Arts program by helping children with disabilities in theater productions.

“It was right after that, about six months after that the accident happened,” said Sweitzer. “Then we reconnected when he was in the hospital.”

Sweitzer started out getting Forrest to hum. He then used melodic intonation therapy to help with Forrest’s memory.

“The theory behind it is that your mind remembers the pitches that you talked on,” said Sweitzer. “Once it remembers that your muscles and your system begins to remember how to move your mouth and your tongue and to make sound.”

After a year-and-a-half of intensive work, Forrest gradually learned to speak again.

“One day a nurse was with me and she woke me up and I said, ‘Good morning.’ And those were my first two words,” said Forrest.

After getting his master's, Sweitzer founded A Place to Be Music Therapy in Middleburg.

“Our mission is to help people face, navigate and overcome life’s challenges through the arts,” he said. “Forrest definitely has helped A Place to Be find who we really are. It’s been a long journey with him since the day that I saw him in a vegetative state.”

Forrest is now able participate in the nonprofit’s theater camp and productions. Last weekend Forrest performed in a dance number in A Place to Be’s production of “Best Friend.”

Throughout his journey toward recovery and the process of relearning to eat, drink, breathe, speak and walk again Forrest was able to maintain his humor, charm and positive outlook on life.

“One of the greatest blessings that we have is that Forrest’s personality is intact,” said Rae. “Sometimes after a severe brain injury the person experiences real personality changes. Forrest is always and continues to be a sunbeam. He’s always been optimistic and cheerful and had a great sense of humor and that personality is still very much intact and very much a gift to all of our family and certainly to the people around him.”

His outgoing personality was evident backstage of the “Best Friend” production, where he could be seen joking, flirting with girls and exuding an aura of confidence and pride in himself.

“He truly is one of the bravest people that I have ever met in my life,” said Sweitzer. “Every day he walks in a room and smiles and makes everybody feel better about who they are. All of us that wake up in the morning and something hurts or you have a problem, you broke up with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you have a family problem, there’s divorce, whatever’s going on Forrest has helped all of us see that you can get through the day and that means that you can keep the journey going on in your life.”

Forrest has attained a healthy view on life’s struggles, one that takes some people a lifetime to realize.

“My outlook on life is that there are lots of up and lots of way downs,” he said. “I think you have to ride out the downs to get to those high ups. That’s my view on life.”
Sweitzer recalled a time that Forrest put one of his minor struggles in perspective for him.

“About two months ago I went to have a session with him and I had really bad allergies and I said to him, ‘I’m so sorry Forrest, I’m completely out of it, my head is killing me,’” remembers Sweitzer. “And Forrest looked at me and said, ‘You have no reason to complain.’”

Forrest just graduated from Kettle Run High School this past June. He plans on continuing his education at university and possibly taking over his mother’s business.

“My one hope my entire life since I began to be able to sing and remember things has been to replace my mom in her job called Dolphin Quest,” he said. “That’s lots of fun. You get to swim and do programs with dolphins and I’ve always been an ocean life fan.”

Forrest and those close to him have found a way to turn a life-altering accident into an experience with a positive outcome and an inspirational message.

“It was terrifying. As a parent you always want your children to have joyful, productive, healthy, happy lives. To fear that all that was gone for your youngest son is just, it’s still unimaginable to me having lived through it,” said Rae. “We count our blessings everyday and are grateful and celebrate the smallest things. We’ve learned through this journey to really celebrate every milestone and every gift of life.”

For more information about A Place to Be, visit http://www.aplacetobeva.org/music-therapy.php.


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