Bob Neal of North Huntingdon was 34 when he was the superintendent of a special coatings painting crew, traveling and working on power plants.
One fateful day in 1982, on the 13th floor of a plant, he was crossing a catwalk to send his crew to lunch when a floor grate that hadn’t been bolted down flipped up. He fell a total of 32 feet, hitting a light pole with his leg before landing on another grated catwalk.
He was in a coma for seven days and suffered a brain injury as well as leg, neck, shoulder and internal injuries.
“My life today as I stand here before you, every day is a roller coaster with really low lows — lower than any low you want — and higher than any high you want,” Neal said.
After decades of recovery, the 66-year-old has regained the ability to live an everyday life and is determined to help other brain injury patients.
“I always think that I’m not doing enough,” he said. “I still worry about whether I’m helping people enough.”
Officials at the Acquired Brain Injury Network of Pennsylvania believe Neal has gone “above and beyond the call of duty,” said Executive Director Barb Dively.
The group this spring gave Neal an award for his service and advocacy.
“He just really is a treasure,” Dively said. “He really understands; he remembers what it was like.”
Neal works as the Westmoreland County education coordinator for the organization, based outside Philadelphia.
Dively said his enthusiasm has been an inspiration for other brain injury patients, who can suffer strokes or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He’s always recognized improvement is possible, but you have to work for it, and he understands all these things because he went through it,” she said.
Neal has contributed to newsletters, spoken at community events and in college classrooms, and contributed to research studies on brain injury treatments.
With Neal’s boisterous personality and booming voice, it’s no wonder people like Tom Caldwell, who have heard him speak, have been inspired.
“I know in our Rotary there were members who were touched and people who could be helped after hearing this program,” said Caldwell, president-elect of the Mt. Pleasant Rotary Club, to whom Neal spoke in May.
Neal has helped to produce a 10-minute DVD for the Conemaugh Health System to encourage brain injury survivors and their caregivers to participate in support groups.
“The important thing is if you want a life after brain injury, you need to have a support system,” Neal says in his portion of the video.
Research and awareness have come a long way since his accident, he noted.
Four months after his fall, Neal returned to work, but he had to leave after two months because he suffered blackouts.
At first he took 28 medications, including 12 for pain. Now he takes just four to allay long-term side effects. He still struggles with a migraine every day.
“It took me about 26 months to learn how to navigate life with a migraine,” he said, adding that at its worst he has to take medication to fall asleep.
Years passed before Neal could process conversations without repeating himself and thinking fast enough to focus. He still needs downtime after long periods, he said.
“After 32 years, I can buffalo my way through anything, but I can’t do it on a 24-hour basis around my girlfriend or my family,” he said. “There are times when my hidden scars surface.”
In 2002, he started participating in support groups and working with the brain injury network. He also works out every day to remain active and healthy and works on projects at his home.
“For me to help people, I have to help myself,” Neal said, adding that he plans to continue helping others for as along as he can. “I want to leave them with that hope that it’s going to get better.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or [email protected].