A few days before the biggest UF medical school test of the year, Ray Brown sped 550 miles to Tennessee to clear his mind.
That was typical Ray, his 32-year-old brother Tom Brown said. He was never quite sure where Ray would go next — Haiti to look after people, Iraq to tend to Army vehicles, UF to train to be a doctor — but Tom always knew Ray would come home again safely.
Ray, 31, was headed back to Florida on June 21, but something went wrong.
His car crashed, the metal twisting, the glass breaking. He was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn.
There, family watched him open his eyes. They saw the blank stare — the expression of the brain-damaged.
There was a far-off look in his eyes, like he was trying to wake up from a dream.
While he fights and slowly recovers, his family is facing its own nightmares: dwindling savings, little to no financial help and no insurance.
But they’re far from giving up.
Ray spoke for the first time Wednesday. He stood up for the first time a few weeks after the accident. He can squeeze a ball and hold his mother’s hand.
His once Superman-like muscles have atrophied, making him look like a mortal again. His curly brown hair and beard are growing in, his facial hair trimmed as others see fit.
He’s getting better, but the progress is slow going.
After being released from Erlanger Medical Center Monday, Ray was taken to St. Augustine to stay with his mom. She always had a little room set up for Ray, just in case he decided to visit.
But this time, instead of watching her boys wrestle in the kitchen, she’s watching as various therapists help her youngest boy take baby step after baby step toward recovery.
As Ray’s silver car cruised down a Tennessee highway, glinting in the late afternoon sun, the Brown family’s nightmare began.
He was driving back from Nashville, Tenn., on Interstate 24. It was about 4 p.m., and he wasn’t far into his trek.
His car drifted out of his lane, and he jerked the wheel to fix it. He overcorrected, slamming the right side of the car into a passing semi truck.
Nearby witnesses — one who was a doctor and off-duty officer — ran to help him. While the man tended to Ray, a woman found his phone and called Tom and his mother.
“All we knew was he was being med-flighted to the hospital,” Tom said. “You can only imagine the scenarios you run through in your head when you have a loved one go through that.”
They drove all day and through the night to be by his side.
Until this week, Ray’s family didn’t know if they’d be able to get him into a rehabilitation program. He couldn’t stay in the hospital, because he was well enough to be discharged, but his family said he needs intense therapy, both mentally and physically, if he’s going to improve.
He’ll get medical care provided by Veterans Affairs at his mom’s house until a rehab program agrees to take him. For a while, programs wouldn’t take him, because he couldn’t respond to commands.
With his recent progress of talking sporadically, his family is looking into getting him into Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. If everything goes as planned, Ray could be set to go to the VA in two weeks.
A big hurdle is the money.
Ray doesn’t have insurance, and he’s all but drained his Medicaid.
At home, little things like Ray’s Ensure shakes add up at about $2 a pop. But long-term care is a whole other matter.
For now, VA-contracted therapists visit Ray regularly, but his family isn’t sure how long they can expect that to last.
“We’re still in the dark in terms of what he’ll need and what he’ll get,” Tom said.
Before his accident, Ray was on his way to UF to take Step 1, a comprehensive science skills test. It is universally known within the UF medical school as the most important and stressful exam to happen all year, said UF medical student Amy Driebe, 24.
If you don’t pass, you don’t advance to the third year of medical school. And how well you do could determine which field you can specialize in.
But friends say Ray wasn’t stressing about the exam. The last time 26-year-old UF medical student Benjamin Srivastava saw Ray, he was in Library West, calm amid the chaos of cramming students.
“I feel now, studying for this test, I’m reaching my maximum potential,” he told Strivastava.
Driebe said she ran into Ray earlier in the year at Target. While she and most of her medical school friends were bundles of stress, Ray looked relaxed and collected.
“He was just so calm, and like, ‘This is going to be fine. I have complete faith in you,’” she said.
For those who knew Ray’s penchant for meditation and calm manner, his answer came as no surprise. Nothing could faze Ray.
She said many of her classmates are in shock after learning about his accident and brain damage.
“Ray was one of the best people I’ve ever met,” she said, pausing. “He just had so much in his life. He was just going in such an amazing direction. It just couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.”
Ray’s demeanor wasn’t given to him. It was earned.
After high school, he realized he needed to make a change in his life, so he followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined the Army, becoming a diesel mechanic and serving in Iraq, his brother said.
Ray kept the details to himself — only mentioning fragments of stories of how the ground shook during mortar raids — but somewhere in the smoke and sand, he had his awakening.
Tom said Ray came home mature, focused and ready to plan for the future.
He focused on his health by exercising more, meditating and keeping a close watch on what he ate, sometimes testing out peculiar diets. His friends would post new concoctions on his Facebook wall, like sugarless cakes.
Soon, he graduated from the University of South Florida and was headed to UF’s medical school with dreams of pursuing Doctors Without Borders.
His friends said he was motivated, yet kept his sense of humor. He had an unparalleled ability to dedicate himself to his work while keeping a calm presence.
Since the accident, Ray’s class has banded together to get the word out about Ray’s condition to see if there’s anything that can be done to get him medical help or donations.
“He’s an amazing person,” Srivastava said.
They thought he’d be a great doctor one day.
When medical students start their studies, they expect to be healing strangers. They don’t expect for one of their own to show up in their emergency room or to be on their charts. They belong in lab coats, not paper gowns.
“I think there’s this idea that when you go into medical school that you aren’t going to get sick,” Driebe said. “We have a hard time talking about it.”
Contact Meredith Rutland at email@example.com.
Ray Brown, a UF medical student, is an Army veteran who planned to become a doctor to help others abroad.
Ray Brown, 31, is slowly recovering from brain damage after he crashed his car on June 21 when returning to Florida for a medical school exam.