‘A second chance at life’

Richard Marker woke up in a hospital bed in Chattanooga nearly five years ago, unable to speak, walk or feed himself.

He had spent three weeks in a coma after a carbon monoxide poisoning accident nearly ended his life.

On Friday, the 41-year-old stood on a gymnasium stage before scores of people gathered at the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center, taking a step many never thought he’d take.

He was among 77 students who graduated from the Smyrna center’s most recent round of vocational rehabilitation programs, which give job training to individuals with injuries or physical and mental disabilities.

“This place has given me a second chance at life,” Marker told the crowd.

The center, which opened in 1977, is run by Tennessee Department of Human Services. It is one of eight state-run comprehensive rehabilitation centers in the country.

Marker has been in the center for a little more than a year and recently completed its training program for individuals with traumatic brain injuries.

By his own account, Marker was lucky to be here. One night in Sept. 2007, he dozed off while watching television inside his motor home. Exhaust fumes from the generator slowly filled the vehicle as he slept. The next morning, a coworker came by to see why he hadn’t shown up for work and found Marker unconscious — and barely hanging onto life.

During the next three weeks, the Nashville-native received hyperbaric oxygen therapy at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. After suffering through a heart attack, stroke, and some of his organs failing, doctors thought his chances were grim.

Hope was renewed when he awoke from the coma, despite his impairment.

“We knew he was there,” his sister, Daryl Chansuthus, said. “We could see it.”

But the next four years would be anything but easy. More weeks passed before he was able to form words. After leaving the hospital, Marker live for a year in a Nashville nursing home, where he regained the ability to walk and speak.

His sisters and mother saw promise in his improvements, but they knew more work was needed.

“He was functioning,” Chansuthus said, “but he still wasn’t really there.”

Marker spent time in a brain injury center and a group home before eventually gaining admission to the state’s rehabilitation center. Slowly, the person his family knew began to re-emerge.

“The transitions challenged him,” his sister said. “With each new environment he learned.”

In addition to the program for traumatic brain injury, during the past year Marker went through therapy designed to improve his vision, physical abilities and speech. Instructors also provided him training on job readiness and interviewing.

“Our mission is to help people to go to work and to be as independent as they can be,” said Bill Norwood, the assistant superintendent for vocation services at the center.

In addition to giving its students job training, the center attempts to place them with businesses in need of their skills, Norwood said.

Marker said he’s very thankful for his time at the center.

“This is where I started to learn how to live again,” he said.

Ultimately, Marker wants to return to work as an automobile detailer, which he did for more than a decade before his accident. During the coming months, he plans to complete the center’s training program for automobile maintenance and detailing.

Another immediate goal is to regain his driver’s license and be able to live independently.

“Always choose to be employed and as independent as possible,” he told his fellow graduates.

Marker added: “Don’t think about what others say you cannot do.”

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