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Sandy • In 1998, Laurent Neu was riding his motorcycle home from his brother's Fourth of July party. As the University of Utah senior neared the intersection of State Street and 4100 South, he was hit by a driver as she made a lane change.
When Neu awoke from a coma weeks later, he found himself in University Hospital with bandages all over his head, a ventilator helping him breathe, and unable to speak. Doctors told his wife and two children that he had less than a 25-percent chance of survival from what they called a TBI traumatic brain injury.
Twelve years after the accident, Neu, 42, became a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and living proof of music's healing power.
"[Music] helped with his speech," said his wife, Kerrie Neu, of Riverton, who sang with him throughout his rehabilitation. "It gave him a sense of purpose and confidence."
Neu's stirring four-song performance closed the 22nd annual Families and Professionals Conference sponsored by the Brain Injury Association of Utah Thursday at the South Towne Expo Center. More than 250 TBI survivors, their caregivers, doctors and educators gathered to learn, among other topics, how music therapy could treat TBIs in ways that other therapies could not. The title of the conference was "Returning to the Rhythms of Life."
The keynote speaker was Michael Ballam, founder of Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, who had worked with his fellow tenor Neu in the years before the motorcycle accident. Music therapy, Ballam told the audience, is "imposing order on an orderless brain."
That simple maxim encapsulated the message of the day a message about people with TBIs and the people who love them finding solace and inspiration amid tragedies.
According to the Utah Department of Health, one of the sponsors of the conference, about 2,000 Utahns have suffered TBI's from falls, car or motorcycle crashes or self-harm so far this year. Nearly 600 died.
Those who survived join an estimated 56,000 TBI survivors in the state, said Ron Roskos of the Brain Injury Association of Utah. The association has been able to reach only a small minority of those who could use compassion, a lending hand or ear and job training. Neu works as an inventory receiver at Day Murray Music Education House after receiving training from the association.
Too many Utahns think that TBIs are a death sentence, Roskos said, but people like Neu demonstrate that, while life can become more complicated, it can be no less sweet.
After years of therapy, Neu shows no physical signs that part of his skull was removed to reduce the pressure on his frontal lobe. He said sometimes he feels self-conscious and is unable to find the exact words for what he wants to say. But when he does speak, it is clear, accompanied by a facial expression that explains why he was called "Smiley" by his nurses from the first days of his recovery.
Neu's high tenor is what has kept him from avoiding the pitfalls of depression. His goal since he was 18 was to be a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he said softly.
So Thursday afternoon, in a spartan conference room in the South Towne Exposition Center, he delivered a song that gave him hope after the accident one his wife sang with him.
Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
"Over the Rainbow" has been performed so often, by the likes of Judy Garland, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and even Katherine McPhee, that it's hard to be moved by it anymore. But not Thursday.
If happy little bluebirds fly above the rainbow,
Why, oh, why can't I?
For information about the Brain Injury Association of Utah, go to www.biau.org