MIT graduate triumphs over personal tragedies

October 13, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

piano that has been an important part of his rehabilitation therapy to recover from a brain hemorrhage. By Greg Farrar

piano that has been an important part of his rehabilitation therapy to recover from a brain hemorrhage. By Greg Farrar

A red-and-white beach ball bounced brightly against the overcast sky, skipping across the heads of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students clad in black caps and gowns June 5.

Among them was John Pavlish, a 2003 Skyline High School graduate. For him, the day was one that had been in the making for more than six years.

“It was the day of my grandmother’s birthday. I thought a lot about her, because she was so proud I was attending,” Pavlish said. “She died before I graduated, but I thanked her for giving me the courage to do what I have.”A storm on both coasts

As the Hanukkah Eve storm raged against the Pacific Northwest coast Dec. 14, 2006, the perfect storm was raging inside John Pavlish’s body while he studied for finals.

“Two days before the end of the semester, he called me and said, ‘Mom, I don’t feel good,’” his mother Sally Pavlish said.

He had been sick for nearly a month before placing that call to his mother Dec. 13.

Feeling feverish, developing a purple rash over his lower legs, having cold sores in his mouth and losing his appetite were among many things he’d been dealing with, he said. But when he went to use the restroom that night, it was the last straw.

“I looked down at my urine and it was completely red,” he said. “I thought, this isn’t normal.”

After being sent from the school’s infirmary to Massachusetts General Hospital, hematologists diagnosed John with a rare blood disease. Essentially, bacteria had infected his blood stream and his body’s defenses were trying to rid his body of it, he said. Unfortunately, his body couldn’t tell the difference between good and bad blood, so it was trying to get rid of it all.

After steroids and other medication, he was told he would be fine after resting in the hospital.

After making a few reassuring phone calls to relatives and friends, he said he developed a headache on Dec. 14.

“I was excited, because it was my first time in a hospital and here, the nurse told me to call for anything. I had my own butler,” he said, with a smirk.

After taking Tylenol, he said he lost consciousness.

A fight back from the brink

It was the second telephone call that sent a chill through those in the Pavlish home.

“In the middle of the night, I got a phone call from a neurologist,” Sally Pavlish said. “He told me they needed permission to operate on my son, that his situation and prognosis were grave, and that I needed to come out right away.”

A CAT scan revealed a large brain hemorrhage in John’s left occipital and temporal lobes. It was caused by the low blood levels in his body.

“They usually don’t do that type of surgery on people,” John said. “The surgeon said he only did it because of my age, my health, that I wasn’t addicted to drugs and I didn’t have a typical brain — it was smart. It was one that went to MIT.”

Stepping outside of their home to leave, the Pavlish family — Sally, John’s father Robin and his brother Paul — was met with disaster. High winds had knocked down trees on residential streets and state highways, and power outages scoured the area, including at Sea-Tac International Airport.

While she drove to Portland to catch a direct flight to Boston, John underwent two surgeries to relieve pressure in his brain.

When the Pavlishes arrived at the hospital, John remembered who they were, Sally said. But he was missing the majority of the left portion of his skull, because the swelling of his brain had been so great, they couldn’t put it back on.

That wasn’t the hardest part, though, John said.

“I would put my finger up there and it was squishy, so I had a helmet,” he said, still fascinated. “But the worst part was, they wouldn’t let me shower by myself or cut my hair.”

It remained that way for months, until they could replace that piece of his skull.

Through it all, “the school was so supportive,” Sally said. “They helped me find a graduate apartment, so I could live near John. I don’t know of any other school that takes care of their students like that.”

All roads lead back to MIT

Thankfully, he retained many of his physical abilities, like walking and writing, unlike many people who undergo a traumatic brain injury similar to his, John said.

However, he did lose peripheral vision in his right eye and portions of his language center, Sally said.

In Seattle, John had to relearn to read, write and spell words, do simple arithmetic and recoordinate his eyes to work together.

“He had to relearn simple things,” Sally said. “Like going through alphabet flash cards. He got to the letter ‘n’ and he wanted to use the word nylon.”

“But I couldn’t think of how to spell it,” John said, remembering the frustration. “So, I wrote down the chemical formula for it.”

The same happened when he attempted a simple division problem. He found he couldn’t do it, but he could complete a calculus equation with ease.

“I think many of the rehab people who have worked with head trauma felt that John’s prognosis was not good and that he could not return to college and finish his degree,” Dr. Mary Ellen Reinhart, of the MIT Infirmary, wrote in an e-mail.

Even John was uncertain where he might end up.

“There were dark points,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my friends and family to cheer me on, I don’t know if I should say this, but there were times I felt like committing suicide, because the only things I felt like I could contribute were my organs. My brain was dead.

“It took a long time, but I’m proud of the little things I’ve done,” he added.

After a year and a half of rehabilitative therapy sessions, often more than 15-20 hours per week, he said he felt ready to return to school.

“When he exceeded ability of medical therapists, it became clear that coming back to MIT would further his rehabilitation though difficult,” Reinhart wrote.

Taking one class each semester in fall 2008 and this spring, John finally realized his dream and shook the hand of the president of the college while he got his diploma June 5.

“I used to look into his crib and wonder what his life would hold,” Sally said. “I never thought that this would be part of it. But I’m glad he doesn’t always listen,” to what others say.

“John has a brilliant brain and is gifted, so even if some of it was damaged, there is still more there than many people,” Reinhart wrote. “As a result of all of this, he certainly has become a very different and admirable young man.”

Today, John looks to his future and is still uncertain of exactly what he wants to do.

“I’ve thought of doing consulting work for IBM,” he said, although he still flirts with the idea of attending graduate school.

“I look at things in a different way,” he added. “I’ve stopped dwelling on who I was, but I focus on what I can do now.”

On the Web

Read more about John’s recovery on his blog at

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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