Bryan Stow, attacked for being a baseball fan, finds his new calling

Baseball fan beaten after game wants his life back
Baseball fan beaten after game wants his life back

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Story highlights

  • San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow was brutally attacked in 2011
  • The former paramedic spent months in a coma
  • Now, he's helping people again by spreading an anti-bullying message to children

This is part of an occasional series called "Rewind: Where are they now?" It catches up with people who stumbled into the headlines and then faded from view.

San Francisco (CNN)In the auditorium at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, hundreds of students cheer as Bryan Stow walks on stage with the aid of crutches to the rousing guitar chords of the ultimate '80s inspiration song, "Eye of the Tiger."

Rising up, back on the street
    Did my time, took my chances
    Went the distance, now I'm back on my feet
    Just a man and his will to survive
    The lyrics sum up Stow's remarkable progress since the former paramedic was attacked five years ago by two men in the parking lot of Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium. The story made headlines around the country for its shocking brutality.
    Stow, an avid San Francisco Giants fan, had driven from Northern California with two friends to see his team take on the Dodgers on Major League Baseball's opening day in 2011.
    As the game ended, Stow and his friends were on the hunt for a taxi back to their hotel. Wearing their orange and black Giants garb, the group was heckled while making their way to the cab line.
    Stow says he doesn't remember anything from the game, but his friends say they were blindsided by the attack. Stow's only major sin that night: wearing a Giants jersey in a sea of Dodgers fans.
    "I heard the crack," Stow's friend Corey Maciel testified at trial, recalling Stow's head hitting the pavement with a sickening sound.
    Stow was unable to break his fall, and his skull was severely fractured. His attackers then repeatedly kicked him in the head and ribs as he lay on the ground.
    The man who found a calling jumping out of ambulances to save people's lives was suddenly the victim. And the prognosis was grim: brain damage.
    Bryan Stow spent nine months in a coma after he was severely beaten in an unprovoked attack in 2011.
    For the next nine months, the 42-year-old father of two clung to life in a coma. The only things that kept him alive were the machines pumping air into his lungs and the feeding tubes providing nutrition to keep his body functioning.
    But Stow is not in the Lincoln High auditorium today to relive the horror. He has come to try once more to save lives, albeit through another method. As unlikely as it seems, Stow has found his voice as a powerful speaker. His message: The thugs who attacked him in that parking lot were basically the same as schoolyard bullies. Older, stronger, more dangerous, yes, but bullies, nonetheless.
    "Stand up to the bully," he urges the students. "Tell them you don't think it's cool."
    How Stow got to a place where he could muster both the physical strength and mental confidence to speak in public is a testament to modern medicine, the love and support from his family, and his personal will.

    A milestone walk along the beach

    On a recent spring day, Stow is on his way home after setting foot on the beach for the first time since his injury.
    With the aid of crutches outfitted with special pads, Stow was able to gingerly walk a couple hundred feet on the warm sand. The 20-minute effort has left him tired, but the milestone has him in good spirits as he gets into the front seat of his father's minivan.
    "I used to be put in the back like groceries, but now I'm in the front seat. I'm calling the shots," Stow often says when he speaks to students.
    It's the small victories that Stow seems to relish now, and hearing him recall those early days of recovery, you understand why.
    "I went from being in bed in the hospital to being placed in a wheelchair and then back to bed. That was the event of my day."

    24½ pills a day

    Divorced before the attack, the now 47-year-old Stow lives with his parents in his childhood home in Capitola, California, a small enclave near Santa Cruz.
    His mornings begin with eight pills, which he takes before he even gets out of bed. The medicine helps prevent seizures and blood clots. At noon, 4½ more pills follow. At night, another 12. That's 24½ pills a day. Missing just one dose could land him back in the hospital.
    His parents are his primary caregivers. Professionals help for a couple of hours in the mornings and evenings, assisting Stow with the daily tasks able-bodied people take for granted: showering, using the bathroom, getting dressed.
    "After waking up, I had to learn how to live again," Stow says. "I had to learn how to walk again."

    A remarkable recovery, but challenges remain

    How far he's come is not lost on those who are closest to him.
    "What's more remarkable is he's going to improve," says Dr. Robert Quinn, who has been working with Stow for two years in his rehabilitation.
    He attributes some of that improvement to a pair of surgeries "to remove bone growth on Stow's hips and left elbow."
    Patients with severe brain and spinal cord injuries are known to have spontaneous bone growth, a condition called heterotopic ossification. In clinical terms, it's the presence of bone in soft tissue where bone doesn't normally exist.
    The surgeries have helped with mobility, but Stow still faces challenges using his left arm, able to raise it only about as high as his nose and to bring it only about 6 inches to his face.
    "That's pretty sad," Stow says.

    The wisecracking patient

    For those who knew him before the attack, the big question in his recovery has always been about the severity of his brain injury.
    It's difficult to quantify; brain injuries are unique and the healing process is also varied.
    But anyone who spends time with Stow will soon realize it's easy to carry on conversations with him. He listens and responds to questions. He speaks in complete sentences and has a wide vocabulary.
    And his humor comes easily and naturally.
    When asked if he's always been a Giants fan, the man whose bedroom resembles a mini museum to his beloved team responds: "Uh, yeah, hello."
    For his sister, Bonnie Bush, her older brother is "similar, but different."
    "He's more caring and more loving than he used to be. We can't walk out of the room without him saying, 'I love you,' and he needs a hug before we leave," she says.
    Quinn says that while Stow hasn't had a normal neuropsychological examination for a long time, "his ability to incorporate different kinds of input has dramatically improved. He's really got a sense of humor. That means he's aware of himself and the context of his situation and other people around him. He's learning and developing new ideas. He's got an adult intellect. And he's really challenging himself to grow, which is probably the most important thing."

    Finding his new calling

    Everyone in Stow's life readily acknowledges it is the anti-bullying speaking engagements that seem to be having the most positive impact in his life. In essence, they are allowing him to work again, improving his self-esteem and giving him a reason to get out of bed.
    The person who deserves the most credit is Brandy Dickinson, Stow's speech language pathologist, who has been working with him since 2013.
    Early in Stow's recovery, she took him to a preschool so he could work on some basic communication skills.
    "It's really fun to get adults and children together when someone needs to work on speaking, memory and processing," she says. "There were five or six kids. It was really safe. It was a good start."
    After a few visits, Stow and Dickinson knew the kids were likely to ask what happened to him.
    "We didn't know what was appropriate to say to the children, so we just came up with 'I got hurt by adult bullies,' and it just made so much sense. Like 'Wow, Bryan, you're changing lives here.'"
    Eventually Stow and Dickinson came up with a slide show that shows pictures and videos of Stow in all his physical stages -- before the attack and after.
    It comes just before Stow pivots in his presentation to the message he really wants to resonate with the students: Bullies destroyed my life and if left unchecked they could destroy you or your loved ones as well.
    To drive home the message, they show pictures of teenagers who killed themselves after being bullied. It is raw and powerful, and sometimes students burst into tears while sharing with Stow their own personal experiences with bullying.
    So far, he's been to about 30 schools in California, ranging from elementary to high school, and he's booked for the rest of the school year, averaging two new visits per week.
    A foundation in his name has been set up so he can expand his travels and pay for the costs. This fall he will cross the Pacific Ocean to speak to students in Hawaii.
    When his presentation at Lincoln High School is over, the kids rush the stage to take pictures with him.
    "I was treated like a rock star," he says. "As dumb as that sounds, it felt really cool."

    'Filthy, dirty people'

    Still, Stow has his low points.
    In his private moments he is saddened by the things he can't do.
    "I want to go dancing with a nice woman. I really want to do that," he says. "Bowling. I can't do that anymore."
    Of his attackers, Louie Sanchez and Marvin Norwood, he calls them "filthy, dirty people."
    Both accepted plea deals for the attack.
    "One got eight years, the other got four years. Baloney."
    It's the rare time Stow shows a flash of anger.

    'I want to live again'

    Financially, it's estimated that Stow's lifetime medical care costs could total $30 million.
    Alleging that lax security played a significant role in the attack, Stow sued the Dodgers organization and was awarded $18 million.
    But he'll get only a fraction of it.
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    Jurors concluded that Sanchez and Norwood should be responsible for $4 million, though it's not expected Stow will get a dime from them. And after the attorneys and insurers get paid, he will receive less than $6 million, which will be paid out over several years.
    "We try to be very frugal," says his mother, Ann, a retired church secretary.
    To keep costs down, she and her husband ultimately decided against hiring a full-time caregiver. They have learned how to take care of Stow themselves.
    With his improvement, fortunately, it's getting a bit easier.
    One of Stow's primary goals is to live a more independent lifestyle, which his rehabilitation doctor believes is realistic. Stow could eventually live on his own, as long as he has people around to help run errands and provide transportation.
    "I don't just want to sit back and survive," Stow says. "I want to live."
    By all accounts he is doing just that.
    To contribute to the Bryan Stow Foundation, visit http://bryanstowfoundation.org