By Matt Snyder
HERMITAGE — Last Christmas, Pfc. Brian Zreliak came home to the Shenango Valley after a car accident in Fairbanks, Alaska, left him with brain injuries that thus far have prevented him from walking or speaking.
Zreliak’s father, who’s also named Brian, said his son began to smile when he came home and even laughed as old friends visited, told stories and recounted memories.
Brian was injured 17 months ago just before a scheduled deployment to Iraq. The sport utility vehicle he was in rolled over 12 times, throwing him from the back seat where he’d been sleeping.
Zreliak said his son is making good improvement and has regained some motor control, even though he isn’t walking or talking yet.
“He shakes his head ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and he gives us the thumbs up,” Zreliak said. “He’s well aware of what’s going on.”
“You can just feel Brian’s coming back,” said his mother, Nancy Zreliak. “He understands more.”
Mrs. Zreliak said doctors have been unable to give the family a long-term prognosis because of the damage to Brian’s brainstem, but she believes he will walk and talk again.
It is a recuperation that will take time, Zreliak said, and recently the path took a harsh turn as Brian lost some ground to a relapse.
Zreliak said Brian had been eating well and operating an electric wheelchair after some time at UPMC Southside Rehab in Pittsburgh.
He’d been saying ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘mom,’ and Brian had even taken several steps with the assistance of a walking machine, Zreliak said.
For a while, Mrs. Zreliak expected him to walk out of the hospital. But she said the relapse began after a new battery of medication.
Zreliak said the relapse may have been caused by agitation, by the anger and frustration of Brian becoming more aware and waking up.
“He kind of lost all that (progress),” he said.
At home now, Brian is off the medication and seems to be less agitated. He has been improving again, his mom and dad said.
Brian is expected to be retired from the military on Dec. 29, Zreliak said, which could limit some of their treatment options for physical therapy to veterans’ clinics.
However, he said much of Brian’s improvement occured at home, where they also provide their son physical therapy, and he is not worried.
“We have our ups and we have our downs. The good Lord, he just always comes around and helps us,” Zreliak said.
At home, Brian’s sister, Nancy, is also taking care of him, with other family members pitching in.
The family takes Brian to the park, out shopping, to the in-laws and to church on Sundays. Zreliak said he still gets supportive phone calls and inquiries about his son’s condition, and congregations at many churches still pray for Brian’s recovery.
Community members have offered assistance in a home renovation expected to make Brian’s room wheelchair-accessible, and Mrs. Zreliak hopes to get a grant to help fund the addition.