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Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona Blog

She Helped Her Brother and His Restaurant Survive His Brain Injury

Kelly Sample is a restaurant guy. He started in the food and beverage industry in college, covering everything from DJ to manager. But he also had an entrepreneurial streak and wanted to run his business with what he knew worked. In 1994, he decided it was time to open his own restaurant, an Italian eatery named Cucina Tagliani.

Meanwhile, his sister Cindy Owens had a store, Girly Girlz, which was both a retail location and party venue for little girls’ parties. She, too, threw herself into her own business with great success. Celebrity clients included Emmitt Smith, Randy Johnson, and Luis Gonzalez; Bret Michaels even shot scenes from his MTV show there.

“From day one, it was a team effort. While he was in the ICU, we brought in music,” Cindy shares. “He had had strokes and we knew that music helps survivors connect with the outside world. It worked; when we would play his favorites – Ray Charles, Billy Joel, and Norah Jones – he would tap his toes.”

She Helped Her Brother and His Restaurant Survive His Brain Injury

Kelly Sample is a restaurant guy. He started in the food and beverage industry in college, covering everything from DJ to manager. But he also had an entrepreneurial streak and wanted to run his business with what he knew worked. In 1994, he decided it was time to open his own restaurant, an Italian eatery named Cucina Tagliani.

Meanwhile, his sister Cindy Owens had a store, Girly Girlz, which was both a retail location and party venue for little girls’ parties. She, too, threw herself into her own business with great success. Celebrity clients included Emmitt Smith, Randy Johnson, and Luis Gonzalez; Bret Michaels even shot scenes from his MTV show there.

“From day one, it was a team effort. While he was in the ICU, we brought in music,” Cindy shares. “He had had strokes and we knew that music helps survivors connect with the outside world. It worked; when we would play his favorites – Ray Charles, Billy Joel, and Norah Jones – he would tap his toes.”

Both Kelly and Cindy had taken after their father, who owned his own insurance company. They both connected with his strong work ethic and “pay your dues” approach to work.  

The siblings had always been close. But when Kelly was severely injured in a car accident in 2008, that bond became even stronger.

The damage to his body was extensive – two internal organ surgeries, a surgical femur (thigh) rod implant to repair the snapped right leg from the gearshift, and 12 broken ribs that left him with extreme breathing difficulty due to the impact of the steering wheel.

He also had loss of sight in his left eye from a brain bleed, a stroke that caused problems in his right arm and leg, as well as a broken scapula, calcaneus, ankle, and neck that required fusion of vertebrae C5 and C6. What’s more, he had lacerations on his face, arms, and legs, and a deep gash across his left hip from the lap belt.

The night of the accident, doctors told Cindy and other family members to prepare to say their final goodbyes to him. This was something Cindy wasn’t going to accept and kicked the police out of the room as they prepared to record the time of death. Kelly pulled through but had a long road ahead of him.

He underwent almost three months of in-patient recovery at three different hospitals. Nearly five weeks were spent in induced comas, and although her brother couldn’t communicate, Cindy understood how to reach him.

“From day one, it was a team effort. While he was in the ICU, we brought in music,” she shares. “He had had strokes and we knew that music helps survivors connect with the outside world. It worked; when we would play his favorites – Ray Charles, Billy Joel, and Norah Jones – he would tap his toes.”

Cindy also made sure medical professionals would view Kelly as more than just another patient, especially when he was in a coma. “We put up a poster board over his bed that introduced him to incoming staff. It said Hi, I’m Kelly, and had pictures of him and his family, along with details about his life. This made him more human to strangers, which I felt would lead to better treatment.”

She also made sure he was never alone, even at night. “We took shifts, making sure someone was always with him, whether he was in a coma or not,” Cindy recalls. “My daughter Ally was only eight, and she spent many nights sleeping in the couch in his room.”

During this removal from the outside world, Cucina Tagliani, as well as the other two restaurants Kelly had since opened, were suffering due to his absence. It was July 2008 and the economy had taken a downturn. Due to The Great Recession, business was way down at all his locations, leading to one of them going under. Lying in a coma, he had no idea what was happening, much less the ability to do anything about it.

However, Cindy, always the entrepreneur, jumped in and developed a July promotion to keep people coming in during the slow summer months. While she created the idea of a Team Kelly t-shirt promo, his son designed the Team Kelly logo with the big, red tomato. Each shirts cost $10 to produce, then were sold for $25. When people wore them, they would save 20% on their meal while supporting his recovery. Nearly $800-worth were sold. “He had long-term managers to keep things moving,” explains Cindy. “Meanwhile, I tried to build loyalty among customers during this time of need.”

It worked. Business actually increased from the previous year. “We sold A LOT of t-shirts,” Cindy says. This experience also presented a steep learning curve for her. “This was really the only time I was involved directly with his restaurant; before the accident he was very private about operations. Since then, I am his sounding board when he needs to make difficult decisions or just needs another opinion.”

After Kelly was transferred to Barrow Center for Transitional Neurorehabilitation (CTN), the family’s mission become one of out-patient support. For 16 months, as he battled to regain as much of his former life as possible, family members would drop him off at CTN at 8:00 a.m., then pick him up at 4:00 p.m.

During this time, Kelly wanted to jump back into his business, but there were a few things he needed to relearn first – like how to talk, write, and add numbers.

“The team approach was key to his recovery. His two kids, another sister, brother, and even his estranged wife were all in to help him,” Cindy says. “Having that kind of support is key to anyone with a traumatic brain injury.”

Indeed, everyone was helping out – Kelly’s restaurant contractor had ramps built at his home so he could get around and regain his independence.

Today, there is still one of Kelly’s thriving restaurant in Glendale, and he is forever grateful to his family, especially Cindy. He no longer walks with a cane and works tirelessly to keep the spaghetti flowing. “This would have been impossible without a strong support system,” he acknowledges.

Carrie Collins-Fadell, CEO of the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona, has seen other business owners survive a brain injury, but without the supports Kelly received. “Just as no two brain injuries are alike, everyone who is injured is at a different place with their support system, as well as the time and monetary resources that network possesses.”

She adds that it’s not uncommon for a survivor of brain injury to make it through months of grueling recovery and surgeries only to be left with nothing. “Businesses flounder and positions they held for years before the accident, illness, or injury evaporate. When a family pulls together and is there for the long haul of recovery, it’s something to be celebrated.”

But even survivors with highly supportive family’s benefit when the “village” helps out throughout the recovery. “My hope is our community support for survivors of brain injury can evolve and grow, just like our understanding of the brain itself,” Carrie says.

Cindy agrees and has advice for others who are suddenly thrown into the caregiver/support role:

  • First, always speak positively. Even when you’re not sure if they can hear you, they probably can. It also helps you stay positive.
  • Second, always have positive pictures nearby. In Kelly’s case, it helped staff get to know him as a person. The pictures also served as a reminder that his loved ones were there.
  • Finally, be there for them. Even though Kelly was in a coma and couldn’t communicate with doctors, I could see he was in pain. Turns out he was, and they made the appropriate adjustments. You can’t underestimate the importance of that family bond; you know your family member best.

Recovery from brain injury can be daunting but as Cindy points out, having a team can make all the difference. “I think Kelly’s restaurant also played a big part of his return,” she believes. “So much of him is in that place. He is so proud that it’s thriving, and I feel the same about him. You can’t beat a great comeback story.”

ABOUT BRAIN INJURY ALLIANCE OF ARIZONA

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.

What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:

  • Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
  • Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
  • Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
  • Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
  • Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
  • Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165

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