She Awoke To A New Life—& A New Mission

Melissa Bailey Photo“Donna! How’s this?” asked a senior fiddling with the opacity meter on Adobe Photoshop. He figured it out on the second try—far more quickly than his teacher figured it out after she had emerged from a three-year slumber unable to walk, talk or move.

The teacher, Donna Frederick-Neznek, who’s 62, guided students through Photoshop one recent day at High School in the Community (HSC), a teacher-led magnet school on Water Street.

She learned the computer program through brute persistence, studying each component over and over as she recovered from a brain injury that sent her into a three-year deep sleep. Now she’s teaching her students that same unflagging, no-excuses approach to learning in the art room at New Haven’s newest turnaround school. She learned how to learn again as an adult with a second lease on life. Now she’s applying those lessons to teaching high-schoolers, including special-needs students, how to learn.

How to learn Photoshop, for instance, which took her 12 workshops to master.

The other day Frederick-Neznek began second period in the computer lab, switching on an overhead projector to lead kids through the latest chapter in Photoshop.

“OK, everybody, open up your in-file,” she directed. “What you are going to do today—what you are going to love!—is to get to know the layers.”

As she led them through a lesson on overlaying graphics, a senior named Matt raised his hand to ask how to change the opacity of one of the images. She pointed him in the right direction.

“I don’t want to tell you how to do it. You figure it out yourself,” she replied.

He consulted a worksheet and found the button to call up the opacity-meter.

Then he asked Frederick-Neznek how he was doing. She nodded at his quick apprehension of the new skill.

“Play with it. Have fun,” she urged.

Frederick-Neznek’s own path to mastering Photoshop, and to the classroom, came through a far longer, more arduous, odds-defying route.

Surgery Gone Wrong

Her story begins in Australia, where she launched a career as a professional illustrator for magazines and ad agencies. She served as a press officer for the lord mayor of Sydney, handling public affairs for the city council. She was raising a teenage daughter. Life was great.

Trouble began on a fateful camping trip to Lamington National Park in Queensland. She came back from the trip and began to experience strange symptoms: her body would go numb on the right side. Her face would contort uncontrollably. She lost consciousness for short periods of time. In late 1982, a doctor identified the problem: There was a sack of fluid in her brain, pressing up against her optical nerve. She was diagnosed with encephalitis, inflammation of the brain. Doctors believe the infection stemmed from an insect bite on her camping trip. They urged her to undergo surgery.

“If I did not have this operation, I was going to go blind,” she recalled.

Shortly before Christmas that year, she went into the operating room. Doctors went into her skull, emptied the fluid from her brain, and inserted a tube called a “shunt” that runs down through the neck to drain brain fluid into the stomach. She emerged from the surgery and had a big Christmas party with her 15-year-old daughter. She quickly deteriorated. Within a week, she was back in the hospital.

It turned out the doctor had screwed up the procedure. She returned to the same doctor, whom she would later remember as the “neurosurgeon from Hell.” When he tried to insert the shunt a second time, the procedure went awry again. This time, she didn’t wake up.

Frederick-Neznek could breathe on her own, but was completely unresponsive to outside stimuli. She said she spent six months in a coma in Sydney before her mother, who was caring for her, decided to take her to the U.S. in search of better medical care.

Frederick-Neznek said she doesn’t know the details of how she got to New York. Her mother later told her it was an epic journey by commercial airplane. The airline took out 10 passenger seats to accommodate her stretcher. Her mother, a devout Catholic, organized prayer groups to assemble and pray over her during layovers.

“Every time we landed, I had a prayer group there for you,” her mother later told her.

The prayers were answered: Mum, brother and Donna arrived in New York safely. Mum checked her daughter into New York hospitals, but needed a long-term facility. She found the Forestville Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Forestville, Conn. Frederick-Neznek lay there while her mother searched for the right neurosurgeon to wake her up.

She lay there for two and a half years before her mother found a doctor she trusted to repair the botched surgery she had undergone in Australia. “My parents were so unsure about letting a doctor go into my head,” she said. “They really didn’t trust the medical profession.”

The stakes were high: “At that point, it was, if this doesn’t work, we’re going to let her go,” Frederick-Neznek said.

Frederick-Neznek went into surgery again. She said she doesn’t know the details of the operation, beyond that it involved fixing the shunt so that it drained her brain fluid correctly. This time, the procedure went smoothly. Three years after she conked out on the operating table in Sydney, Frederick-Neznek came to in America.

She said she emerged in a “foggy, foggy mental state,” not knowing where she was. The people around her had American accents. She could hear and see, but not much else.

“When I came out of coma, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even roll over.”

“In my mind, it was a dream,” she said. She recalls people entering her dark room, wheeling her down a hallway, putting her in a tub of water, drying her off again. “I’m rolled down darkened halls, back to a room, and it’s my room.

“After a while, I realized, ‘Hey. I’m in a hospital.’”

“I’m going to get well,” she recalled telling herself. “I’ve got to get my life back.”

At first, she could move only her eyelids. She communicated by blinking—one blink meant “yes.” Two meant “no.” Then she graduated to pushing a buzzer with her right index finger (one buzz for “yes,” two for “no.”)

She credited a young physical therapist by the name of Debra Edens with helping her through an intensive recovery. Edens, now 55, recalled with enthusiasm how a silent patient bloomed into a close friend.

“She was bedridden when I met her,” said Edens, who now works at Middlesex Hospital.

“When she came out of the coma,” Edens recalled, “she didn’t speak. She had only eye contact.”

At first, Edens would talk to her while moving her patient’s limbs. Frederick-Neznek listened, her eyes lighting up when Edens would talk about her family.

“Slowly, a sense of self and consciousness returned,” Frederick-Neznek recalled. Slowly, she regained control over her body, which had been transformed. Her leg muscles had atrophied. She had “foot drop,” which means her ankles no longer formed right angles. All that she could remember from the last three years was “the roar of something mechanical.” There was “no white light. No angels, nothing.” Her long-term memory was intact, though her short-term memory failed her. If she met someone in the morning, she would forget them by night.

“My whole reality of the person who I was, was shot. ... I was now a TBI”—a traumatic brain injury patient. She shared a wing with a 26-year-old boy who had “blown off half of his head” in an attempted suicide, and a young woman named Suzy who was reduced to the mental state of a 4-year-old by a drunken driving accident.

“I’ve got to get out here,” she recalled thinking.

An Artful Way Out

She slowly regained her footing in the world. She learned to stay upright in a “standing box,” so her body could remember what it was like to be vertical again after years of lying down. She eventually graduated to a wheelchair.

Edens, the physical therapist, kept talking to her patient, telling her stories about her young children.

“Then, one day, she spoke,” Edens recalled. “She said ‘yes.’ It wasn’t a nod. It was a word.”

After Frederick-Neznek had recovered enough to welcome visitors, she saw a young woman walk into the nursing home, followed by a trail of nurses. When she saw who it was, “I just broke down in tears.”

“My girlie was all grown up,” she said. The last time she had seen her daughter, Aishah, she was only 15. Now she was 20.

By that time, mom had learned to speak again, though her voice was faint, like a little girl’s.

Edens hosted Aishah at her home while she visited Frederick-Neznek. “We became close friends. It took off from there,” Edens recalled.

She devoted herself to building strength and movement, logging extra hours of physical therapy after her regular sessions. Every goal Edens set for her, she surpassed.

“I was chomping at the bit to get out,” Frederick-Neznek recalled. She discovered one avenue of escape: “I found out that I could get out of the nursing home” if she took a class at a nearby university. Earlier in her life, she had studied at the Art Students League of New York and received a bachelor of fine arts from New York’s School of Visual Arts.

In 1988, she looked for a class at Central Connecticut State University. “The only thing that anything to do with the arts,” she said, was arts education. So she signed up for a class and arrived via wheelchair. 

She ended up studying about how the brain develops creativity. “Hey, this is really interesting,” she recalled thinking.

She realized that she had already been intensively studying the learning process. Before her coma, she had been the type of student who never needed to study. Now, she had to break everything down into chunks so her brain could process it. In her own recovery, she had been “learning how to learn again”—how to sound out words, how to move parts of her body. She found a new sense of purpose in sharing that learning with kids.

“I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to walk, but I was sure I could teach kids,” she said.

She did, indeed, learn to walk. Edens recalled seeing Frederick-Neznek take her first steps, supported by parallel bars. Staff at the health center videotaped the moment—“It was that amazing.”

Along the way, Edens said she saw Frederick-Neznek blossom into a highly verbal woman who, once she regained hand-eye coordination, began to draw beautiful greeting cards.

“It was truly a miracle,” Edens said, to see her patient transform from an “infantile state” to a highly functioning human being. “Being part of it was so rewarding.”

Frederick-Neznek practiced walking in the privacy of her own room, sliding off her bed at night to take a few, brave, independent steps. When she could finally walk without support, the first person she showed was her mother, who had stayed by her side through her whole recovery.

“She was just ecstatic,” Frederick-Neznek said. After giving her daughter life a second time, Frederick-Neznek’s mother passed away shortly after Frederick-Neznek’s recovery. She hadn’t told her daughter, but she had been dying of leukemia the whole time.

A Purpose For “Coming Back”

Starting a new chapter of her life in Connecticut, Frederick-Neznek found purpose in devoting her life to kids. She went on to get her masters in arts education from Southern Connecticut State University. In her first teaching job, she taught arts to students in Farmington, some of whom had serious disabilities. Some couldn’t speak or hold a paintbrush. She helped them Velcro a paint brush to their hands. As they spread paint across a page, she delighted to hear them yell with joy.

“Maybe this is what I’m meant to do. Maybe this is why I came back,” Frederick-Neznek recalled thinking.

Frederick-Neznek joined New Haven public schools as an art teacher in 1995. This is her second year at HSC, where a high proportion of kids have endured trauma and disabilities. Seventeen percent are officially designated as having special needs, the highest of the nine traditional high schools. She said she uses her life experience as a basis for a no-excuses, high-expectations attitude in class.

“If I can do this, you can do this,” she tells her students, with good-natured dramatic flair. “I was dribbling! I couldn’t walk! You’re far more advanced than I was.”

Frederick-Neznek can now walk, up to five or six blocks without difficulty, with the help of a leg brace. She said she has had no lasting cognitive damage from her injury. After her coma, she got a 6th-year degree in advanced educational leadership from SCSU and studied painting at Yale.

She said she aims to raise the bar on arts education, which historically was seen as “a filler” in school. In her class, she said, “I expect them to learn.”

Learning new material after own ordeal was significantly more difficult than beforehand, she said. To learn Adobe Photoshop, she took an Introduction to Photoshop course—three times. Then she took Photoshop I—also three times. And the same with Photoshop II and III. In all, she took 12 workshops to master the program.

“I did it over and over and over,” she recalled.

“I do find it difficult to learn new things,” she said. “I have to put the work in.”

That experience, she said, makes it much easier for her to break down new concepts to kids.

“You Are The Master”

In her Photoshop class, she demonstrated each step in graphics manipulation on a projector, then had kids work from a worksheet to follow the steps on their own.

Most of them picked up on it quickly.

“Make your font bigger,” Frederick-Neznek urged at one point. “You are the master.”

“I am the font-master,” repeated senior Tyshawn Lowery, magnifying the words on his screen.

“I think this is pretty cool,” announced Matt, the senior, from across the room, as he played with the opacity of an image of a CD.

He gave this review of his teacher: “She’s a little hard in the beginning, but once she starts to get to know you, she learns what you like to do.”

Despite her firm classroom style, Frederick-Neznek finds space to joke with kids, make them hot chocolate, and share personal stories about their families and lives.

In the hallway outside the computer lab, Matt griped to her about his mom, with whom he is not on speaking terms.

“Trust me,” Frederick-Neznek told him. “When you are my age you will have learned to love and appreciate your mother.”

“Nothing in life,” she later reflected, “is permanent.”

Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:

High School Of The Future Debuts, Briefly
Gay-Rights Teach-In Goes Off-Script
Nikita Makes It Home
15 Seniors Head To College Early
No More “B And A Smile”
Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
Guv: End Social Promotion
History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”

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posted by: Tom Burns on March 8, 2013  6:47pm

Donna—You are a true superstar—so talented—and I thought this about you before I heard this story—-Thanks for all you do—Tom