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Two LDS missionaries battle back from brain injuries

Published: Wednesday, April 18 2012 9:28 a.m. MDT

Two missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are fighting their way back from serious brain injuries suffered while serving in Brazil and Canada, respectively.

Elder Britten Schenk, the LDS missionary from Hyde Park, Utah, who was severely injured when he was hit by a bus in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last month, has returned home to Utah.

"When he saw/heard us he stretched out his arms and started to cry," members of the Schenk family reported on the online blog they maintain to keep friends and family members informed of the missionary's progress. "It was a great reunion! Tears of joy, for his safe return home."

Although Elder Schenk has returned to the United States, he still has a great deal of healing and recovery to do from the injuries he suffered to his brain, which have affected him in many ways, including his ability to communicate clearly exactly what he is feeling and experiencing physically.

"One of the biggest challenges before him is his vision," wrote his parents, Steven and Karla Schenk, in the blog. "We are sure that he can see, but it is very limited. We know that we need to be patient and we also know that if it is Heavenly Father's will, it will happen."

For the Schenks, the past month has been an arduous journey, filled with exhilarating highs and devastating lows.

"When we got off the plane in Brazil we were greeted with the news that the CT scans revealed that Elder Schenk had been several days without blood supply or oxygen to his brain," the Schenks wrote. "When he arrived at (the hospital) the neurosurgeon said, 'Why did you bring him here? There is nothing we can do for him.'"

But through the weeks, many of the professionals who have worked with the young missionary "have acknowledged Divine intervention in Britten's case," the Schenks said, adding their spiritual feeling that God "hears and answers all our prayers, in his own time and way."

"We are so grateful to him for his infinite mercy and miracles in Britten's behalf," the most recent blog posting concluded.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, another LDS missionary has been going through a very similar recovery process following an automobile accident in February that ended up spilling over onto the sidewalk and injuring several pedestrians.

Elder Tyler James Johnson of Taber, Alberta, suffered severe head trauma and multiple fractures when a car that had been involved in an accident near a busy intersection veered onto the sidewalk and hit several people including Elder Johnson, who was "street contacting" – talking to people on the streets about the LDS Church – with his missionary companion.

"Tyler was not in good condition," his mother, Cherie, said of the initial reports from the neurosurgeon who operated on her son the day of the accident. "(The doctor) suggested we come to Toronto as quickly as possible."

For a period of time Elder Johnson was in a medically induced coma, as the medical team focused on injury to the missionary's brain. "Every step of the way we have seen little miracles and surprises and unexpected things," said Cherie, who has maintained a special Facebook page to keep family and friends apprised of Elder Johnson's condition and progress.

For example, before Elder Johnson had reached a point where he could speak, his mother downloaded a keyboard app to her iPad. The young missionary is a musician who has composed a number of songs. She hoped the iPad keyboard would reintroduce music to her son. But when she handed the keyboard to him he immediately played the melody of the beloved Mormon hymn, "Come, Come, Ye Saints."

"That is the hymn that his dad and I would sing to him while he was in the coma," Cherie said. "It was like a message from him telling us that he's in there, that he's aware of us, and that he's happy we are there."

As Elder Johnson has continued to recover, his parents brought a full keyboard into his room.

"We thought he'd have to relearn it," Cherie said, "but he just sat down and started playing."

Elder Johnson quickly became known as "the music patient." When he's playing, the nurses will gather near his room, and other patients will stop what they're doing to listen. Cherie is convinced that Elder Johnson's music has been an important part of his rapidly progressing recovery. She is also convinced that he is going to be completely well again.

"We expect him to have a full recovery," she said. "We have felt that from the very beginning, and he is definitely on that path. We feel he is going to be completely well."

But to reach that point will take some time.

"Right now he doesn't have vision in his left eye – that is where he took the brunt of the hit," she said. "We are hopeful that will heal with time."

According to the doctors, it will require 6-12 months for Elder Johnson's brain to heal. Meanwhile, they feel he's ready to leave the hospital. He will be transferred to a nearby rehabilitation center as soon as there is an opening – probably sometime this week, Cherie said.

"We have been very blessed throughout this experience," she said. "The doctors and hospital staff have been amazing. We have had so much support from family members and friends. The mission and the ward here in Toronto have showered us with incredible love and support and tender care.

"We feel very, very blessed."

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