Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Faith So Bright

The Herald Journal did a story on Britt.   I thought I would put it on the blog for those that wanted to read it.               Written by: Lance Frazier           Photo's courteous of: Eli Lucero/Herald Journal
Britten's odyssey:  Faith and miracles

When Britten Schenk tells the audience at a Hyrum fireside that “I’m so thankful that I am here,” it’s more than a figure of speech.

After being hit by a bus on March 16, 2012, while serving an LDS mission in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Britten has spent the last 18 months recovering from a traumatic brain injury. During that year and a half he has had to learn to talk all over again as he dealt with the frustrations of memory loss, and he still suffers daily bouts of nausea, nerve pain in one foot and headaches brought on by the titanium plate in his skull.
Through it all, Britten has remained remarkably upbeat, stunning family, friends and therapists with his swift recovery and his knack for putting others at ease.
“This is where Britten is so great — he jokes about his accident,” says Trevor Frank, a pal of Britten’s since their days at Mountain Crest High School and now a student at Utah State University. “Somebody asked him, ‘Have you been on a date?’ And he said, ‘Of course not, you know why?  I
 got hit by a bus!’”
To watch Britten casually navigate the campus at USU, where he is again taking classes, or to hear him chat with friends, one would never guess that doctors originally told Britten’s parents that he wouldn’t live. But the fact that the 22-year-old looks so normal masks the enormity of the challenges he still faces. In a speech therapy session in mid-September, Britten struggles to come up with the word connected to these three words: beverage, white, cow. He finally works his way around to “milk,” but it takes 15 seconds. The next word, “pillow,” he gets immediately after hearing the clues soft, head and sleep. But that is the nature of traumatic brain injuries and aphasia, where one’s language memory bank is basically wiped clean and has to be rebuilt one word at a time.
“Everybody thinks he’s great, he’s better, but they have no idea of the struggles he faces,” says Britten’s mother, Karla Schenk.


The accident
“Britten Schenk was living his dream,” Karla says at a fireside in Hyrum on a recent Sunday. In spite of enduring the usual frustrations that missionaries encounter, his letters to home were full of positive thoughts about Brazil and his spiritual service. On Oct. 31, 2011, he wrote about the difficulties he and his companion were facing, noting that they were “bummed out because we had been working so hard and good these last three weeks ... and then everything went wrong.” The letter went on to observe that trials are put in our lives to “make us rise just a little higher, do just a little better,” and that they “shape who we are.”
The letter includes a well-known quote: “Just as a gem cannot be polished without friction, a man cannot be perfected without trials.” To this day Karla wonders if the letter wasn’t a foreshadowing of things to come.
Britten was about 21 months into his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, three months from returning home, when he and his companion prepared to cross a busy street in Sao Paulo, the ninth-largest city in the world. With their view blocked by a large post, his companion hung back as Britten stepped into the street. A bus traveling at an estimated 30 mph struck Britten solidly on the left side of his head.
Taken to a nearby hospital, Britten lapsed into a coma as his parents, Steven and Karla, scrambled to catch a flight to Sao Paulo. The news they received when they arrived at the hospital was not good. “There’s nothing we can do for him. He will not survive,” one doctor pronounced. Surgeons had removed the left side of Britten’s skull to release pressure from swelling, and no blood or oxygen were getting to his brain.
“We were going to the hospital to tell Britten goodbye,” Karla says.
At the hospital she frantically searched for her son but couldn’t find him among the handful of patients on that unit. The staff had to direct her back to one of the rooms she had checked, where Britten lay, his swollen head shaved, a gigantic zipper of a scar tracing the side of his skull, tubes running into his mouth, face battered beyond recognition. Nevertheless, Karla says, “When we found him and held his hand, it was a great reunion.”
The next day the medical staff reported that some blood was flowing to his brain and upgraded their forecast to a chance of survival, but little chance of regaining function. Soon after that Steven and Karla spoke to Britten’s peers at a mission conference, passing along the assurance they felt they’d received: Britten would be OK. They stayed in Brazil for a month and had what Karla calls “many discouraging days in the hospital” as Britten, once he woke from the coma, battled pneumonia, fevers as high as 106 degrees and diabetes insipidis. About a month later he was cleared to return to the United States, and was transferred to Salt Lake City in a private jet with full medical crew.
Coming home
The time he spent at University of Utah Hospital was, Britten says, “The worst two months ever.”
Along with six or seven needle pokes daily, he dealt with spells and seizures related to the titanium plate in his head. He had not spoken before arriving in the United States, but was soon able to greet visitors, and now began speech therapy at the most basic level. In a video of those early sessions, Britten lays in bed, holding a pencil and paper, as the therapist tries to get him to repeat “Ohio.” Britten mumbles something that sounds like “Olaska,” able to access the portion of his brain related to states but unable to select the right one. Instead of giving up, though, he asks the therapist to say it again. She switches to “Oklahoma,” which Britten is able to say. As if a door has been unlocked, he then blurts out “Ohio.”
It’s one tiny example of the countless steps in the process of re-learning language. (Of course the Portuguese, which he once spoke so well that he was mistaken for a native, was also wiped out. Today he says “about half” of that vocabulary has returned, but without the fluency of pronunciation he once owned.)
Along the way, the list of what the family considered to be miracles lengthened. Surgeries had been expected on the multiple small bones that had been broken or displaced in Britten’s face. Amazingly, they healed on their own and returned to their proper positions. Another surgery was on tap to correct the 40 percent hearing loss he suffered after the accident. Two months later, his hearing tested normal. One neuroopthomologist examined one of Britten’s MRIs not long after the accident and said, “When I look at your MRI, I can’t even see how you’re walking or talking.”
“Britten has had many miracles happen in his life,” Karla says. “The Lord has a plan for Britten.”
Karla says that in those early days the joy of seeing Britten alive was tempered by the step-by-step revelations of how serious his injuries were.
“We came to the realization that he was blind (early on),” she says. “Then it was, give me a day or two to adjust, and you pick yourself up and move on.”
Finally, by the end of May, Britten was cleared to return home to Hyde Park. The family continued to come to terms with his limitations, which included severe damage to his eyes. Although he has experienced some improvement in sight in his left eye, the nerves in his right eye were severed and he has no sight on that side. In that left eye, which also experienced nerve damage, about half remains dark, while one fourth has some limited vision, and the “good” quarter has 20/60 vision. His peripheral vision remains so limited that he is unable to qualify for a drivers’ license.
“I could tell it was getting better because I could start seeing my fingernails,” Britten says. “Now I can see details of my fingernails, and the hair on my arm.”
Sight restrictions haven’t kept Britten from staying actively involved in sports, one of his loves during high school, when he carried 165 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame as a champion swimmer. (After the accident he lost 50 pounds. He now weighs about 145.) He plays volleyball once or twice a week, and his quick reflexes and soft hands reflect the athleticism that made him an excellent basketball player. It speaks to his courage that, with what is essentially tunnel vision, he is willing to step onto a volleyball court and face sizzling spikes.

During the past year Britten has attended speech therapy several times a week, first working with Kathy Gantz at Logan Regional Hospital, usually accompanied by his mother or grandfather. As Steven works with his construction business, Karla has been Britten’s near-constant companion. As Britten has become an in-demand public speaker, together they have made the rounds, including a visit to a juvenile lockdown facility in Provo where Britten spoke a couple of months ago. After his presentation, says Karla, many of the boys “lined up to hug him and shake his hand,” while others quickly left the room. Then those who had left returned, carrying pencils and paper, asking for Britten’s autograph. “Half of them were crying,” Karla adds. “It was pretty awesome.” Not long after, Britten began to receive letters from those young men. One gave his thanks for “helping me feel that I can have faith again.” Another said he planned to be baptized into the LDS Church when he returned home to Nova Scotia.
The Schenks stayed in touch with one of Britten’s neurosurgeons at Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in Brazil, Dr. Guilherme Carvalhal Ribas. When they emailed to inform him that Britten had returned home safely, Ribas replied that staff members were still talking about his recovery. “I comment to my friends that we usually see one or two miracles per year among the patients we take care (of),” he wrote. “Britten is definitely one of them!”
Road to recovery
Traumatic brain injuries are notoriously fickle. According to, while post-TBI physical impairments can hinder functional independence, the behavioral, cognitive, emotional, psychosocial and personality changes associated with TBI frequently lead to even greater problems. In other words, re-learning to speak is tough enough, but most victims of brain injury suffer other, serious side effects. Many people dip into major depression or mood swings, and doctors have a hard time predicting how each situation will play out. Very often the person becomes despondent or experiences bouts of rage.
Among TBIs, Britten’s has to rank among the most serious, which makes it all the more amazing, those around him say, that he is more or less the same person he was before the accident.
“His personality is the same, he’s the same funny kid,” says Britten’s high school buddy Frank.

That hasn’t been easy, according to Britten, who says he gets frustrated and angry more quickly now. Staying positive, he says, “has been really hard, probably harder than before. With me, I did learn a lot in my youth — attitude is everything.”
One story that sticks with Britten is something his mom told a girls basketball team she was coaching. Undefeated to that point in the season, the team came into halftime of a particular game trailing by a wide margin. With Britten listening from the side, Karla told the girls the story of a successful businessman. When people asked the secret of his success, he told them, “Each morning, I have two choices: Am I going to have a good day or a bad day? I always choose to have a good day.” Then, during a robbery, the businessman was shot in the head. He survived, and somehow so did his bright outlook. When people asked him how he coped with the injury, he told them the same thing: “Each morning, I have two choices: Am I going to have a good day or a bad day? I always choose to have a good day.” (Karla’s players, too, were motivated, and came back to win the game.)
“I’ve been kind of doing that with my life, especially the last year and a half,” Britten says. “But it is hard with the TBI; now I have to think before I talk.”
Since they spend so much time together doing homework and attending speech therapy, Britten says, the easy target when he does lose his temper is the person closest to him: Karla.
“I have trouble seeing and I can’t talk as good as I want, and I get really frustrated with that,” he says. “It’s just my brain that makes me get mad and yell, and then I feel bad and tell her I’m sorry.”
For her part, Karla says it has helped that she understood the nature of brain injuries and was told to expect some outbursts. “That’s not him — he’s never raised his voice to me in his life until now,” she says. “But he’s learning to control that, and I’m so glad I’m here to help him work through it.”
The aphasia has made school a tremendous challenge for Britten, even though it had no impact on his intelligence. The problem is simply retrieving words. Britten’s grandfather, Val Andreasen of Providence, remembers his grandson being asked what color the grass was soon after the accident. He could write the word “green” but couldn’t say it. Now imagine trying to write a college-level essay without a full range of vocabulary.
This is where Britten’s rare work ethic pays off, according to Debbie Amundson, clinical supervisor of Speech-Language Pathology in Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education at USU. Amundson has worked with Britten for over a year and says he “pretty much shows progress every visit.”
His verbal expression has improved quickly, and the goal in his weekly sessions now is to “transfer that into writing.” Amundson said that re-learning after aphasia isn’t as easy as simply hearing and immediately “recovering” lost words. Usually it takes multiple repetitions to lodge a word firmly in the memory bank, although she says with Britten, “It’s amazing how often he can hear something once and have it.” His injury impacted his ability to write, to speak, to listen and to read, she notes.
“The thing that’s so amazing about Britten is how he’s so open and willing,” Amundson says, noting that most TBI patients have to be prodded. “He’ll ask for help. ... I never have seen such a worker as he is.”
So impressed was Amundson with Britten’s progress that she nominated him to be the ambassador for Utah’s Speech-Language Hearing Association. He accepted that position, which has led to yet more public speaking.
During a recent speech session, as Britten works with a student instructor, Amundson watches from an observation room, taking notes on both teacher and pupil. The instructor asks Britten to define “synonym.” He answers, “A word that means the same as another word.” Watching intently, Amundson makes a fist and quietly exclaims, “Good job, Britt!”
When Dr. Lisa Milman, a professor in speech-language pathology at USU, met Britten she assumed that “something very mild had happened to him” because he communicated so well. In 20 years in the field, she says, “I don’t know that I’ve found anyone as inspiring as Britten. He has succeeded in so many goals.”
Speech therapy is expensive, with some sessions at the hospital costing $180 an hour, so friends organized a fundraising 5K event last summer. Britten’s Run was held Aug. 18, 2012, and the community turned out in droves. Others made donations that may have been small financially but were gigantic spiritually. On the family blog,, Karla tells the story a young woman in their ward who put together a bake sale to raise money for Britten’s care. Then there were the two neighbor boys who came to the house one evening. They gave Britten a handful of grubby bills and said, “We made these braided wrist bands and sold them at school, so we could raise money to help you pay for your therapies.”
Where it all started
Britten grew up in Bancroft, Idaho, the second of four boys. (His older brother, Logan, and his wife Lora live in North Logan. Canon is a senior at Mountain Crest, and Jaxon is a 7th-grader at Cedar Ridge Middle School.) As a grade-schooler Britten struggled, and he was diagnosed with ADHD in third grade. In 7th grade his first-semester report card was filled with F’s. Knowing he had to improve, Britten forced himself to do his homework before texting friends.
Eight years ago the Schenks moved to Nibley (they now live in Hyde Park). Along the way Britten became such a good student that he graduated from Mountain Crest with a 3.9 GPA and 28 college credits under his belt.
Britten loved being outdoors, playing ball and hanging out with friends. As a 5-foot-5 sophomore he feared he wouldn’t be able to make the basketball team at Mountain Crest, so he went out for swimming. He made the team but was relegated to the 6th (slowest) lane. A couple of months later basketball tryouts began and Britten decided to try out after all. He would go to a two-hour swim practice and then hustle to the gym for tryouts. He made it to the final cut and realized he might have a conflict between the two sports, so he went to the basketball coach and told him he was also swimming. Britten was cut on the final day of tryouts.
That didn’t mean the end of basketball.  He and some buddies put together a rec league team they dubbed the Cyclones, and the members of that team are close to this day.

Meanwhile, in the pool, Britten moved up lane by lane, becoming a captain as a junior. As a senior he finished fourth at state in the backstroke and was part of a state champion relay team.

Tyson Jergenson, a fellow Cyclone now studying at BYU, says he met Britten at church when both were high school sophomores, “and we’ve been really good friends ever since.”
Some of the Cyclones would sneak out to toilet paper the neighbors’ house, or skip school to go cliff diving at Hyrum Dam, Jergenson recalls. “Just a bunch of random, harmless things. But mostly we just played a ton of basketball.”
One summer Britten arranged for four of them to go to Grace to check out his old stomping grounds. They loaded 4-wheelers and headed out to camp, arriving after dark in a clearing, where they set up tents. In the morning they found themselves in a pasture pocked with cowpies, the tents smeared with manure. Then they went to “shoot the flume,” floating down an irrigation canal, only to encounter water so low they were soon covered in leeches. Such a disastrous weekend couldn’t help but become a treasured memory.
“Everything went wrong but it was a super-good time,” Jergenson says.
Frank, another Cyclone, remembers going on group dates with Britten that “were always fun because we’d have these side conversations where we joked around and laughed.”
“Britten was a very upbeat, happy-go-lucky kid,” Frank adds. “He was always smiling, very personable. He loved people and wanted to know how they’re doing. Whenever I’d have a bad day he’d help me get out of my rut. That’s one of the things that attracted me to him as a friend — he can lift up others.”
Britten smiles when he talks about the seven Cyclones, whose mothers met monthly while they were on their missions to update one another on their sons’ progress.
“The best thing was just being with each other,” he says. “We could talk about anything. We were basically brothers.”
Britten counts himself lucky because he stills enjoys 4-wheeling, going to dances and being outdoors: “I think I’m blessed because a lot of people (with a TBI), the things they like to do change, but I still love the same things.”
After high school Britten enrolled at USU for a year and took pre-med classes, planning to become a dentist. Only one general class remains for him — English 2010, which he is taking now.
When he accepted his mission call in early 2010, it fulfilled a lifelong goal.
The future
Since last month, Britten has lived in an apartment on Darwin Ave. with four roommates. His classload at USU includes a guitar class, an LDS Institute class, regular speech sessions and that English 2010 class. He was taking a careers course at the beginning of the semester, but had to drop that one after the writing demands became too great.
It’s all part of Britten figuring out how much he can handle as a student. A few weeks ago, reading a single page from his English text took 40 minutes, and he was reading about 50 words a minute. By late September he was reading 90 words per minute. It’s too soon to say whether that will be enough for him to thrive at a college level.
One of his goals right now is to settle on a career. Weighing factors such as work atmosphere and family time, he has tentatively narrowed his interests to coaching, working in a parks and recreation department, and physical therapy. He considered speech therapy but reasons that his physical endurance is greater than his mental endurance right now, and speech therapy is mentally fatiguing.
“I just love doing stuff like that,” he says of physical therapy, “and I also love anatomy.”
His own physical recovery, which started with learning to walk with support and progressed to agility work with Nick Smith at the Sports Academy and Racquet Club and appointments with medical specialists in spine, throat, stomach, neurology, vision and digestion, is still ongoing.
The closest thing he has to a job now is traveling the public speaker circuit, although that doesn’t generate income. Still, he enjoys the presentations and the effect he has on others.
“I like doing those (presentations) because it makes me feel like I’m still on my mission,” he says.
Then there is the social component. Although Britten is very comfortable socially — during a recent lunch at the USU cafeteria he easily struck up a conversation with the student sitting next to him — his demanding schedule makes it hard to find the time and energy to pursue girls.
“All my friends are getting married and dating, and I have to stay home and study,” he says. “It’s been really hard. ... I focus on the good, and all the blessings and miracles.”
His father, Steven, says “what makes Britten truly remarkable is his relationship from an early age with Jesus Christ.”
“I feel like I’ve seen the help I’ve had from God,” Britten says. “I definitely pray and ask for the help I need. I know I can’t do anything by myself, I need help from friends, my mom and dad.”
At the same time, he says, he knows he can’t “just wait for God,” but needs to do the best he can each day.
With a TBI, he says, “you gotta go with it. You don’t like the changes, but ... .”
Considering all her son has already overcome, Karla says, “I feel he was prepared in every possible way for this challenge — physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
Britten stays other-focused — he’s thrilled for his brother Canon’s upcoming senior season on the Mountain Crest basketball team — and patiently works on his recovery, once again moving up one lane at a time.
“I know every person in the world has agency, and I can do what I want to do,” he says. “Of course with the TBI it’s a hundred times harder. But we can get the strength we need to change bad things and do the positive things. I think God has a plan for me and that’s why I was allowed to stay on this earth.”


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Privelage to Share My Story

Since the USHA Conference, Britten has had the privilege to speak at many functions, including firesides.  His most memorable and touching experience is when he talked at a "lock down facility" for boys. 
This facility was for troubled boys who have had a very difficult and trying childhood.  Britten was asked if he would come and share "his story" and give hope and encouragement to these young boys.  But...He was told that he couldn't talk about his religion or mention Jesus Christ.  He could talk about a higher being, but he could not talk about Christ.
We feel the Lords hand in everything we do, as we were thrilled when they (the facility) allowed us to show a short video of Britten's recovery.  The video included Britten on his mission, individuals he had baptized (with a picture of Jesus Christ in the background), missionary companions, while church music played in the background.
The spirit that was felt that afternoon was sweet and moved many to tears as Britt gave hope and encouragement to all that was there.
The Boys were drawn to Britt, an individual they didn't know, but they felt a connection with him because of the challenges and trials he was overcoming himself.  His message of "shake it off, take a step up and don't give up" was encouraging to them.
Britt explained, "Life is going to shovel dirt on us...all kinds of dirt.  The trick to getting out of the deep hole is to "shake it off, and take a step up".  Each one of our troubles and challenges are stepping stones.  We can get out of the deepest hole...just by not stopping....never giving up.  Shake it off and take a step up.  Attitude is everything!
Afterwards many boys came up to Britten, and they were thrilled as Britten gave them all high-fives, handshakes and hugs.  Soon more boys were lining up the aisle with pen and paper in hand to get Britten's autograph.   Britten, myself, teachers and administrators all smiled at the sight we witnessed.  Britten had touched these boys in a way that they felt like there was hope for them and they were loved.
As we left the facility that day, Britten looked at me and said, " I know now what Heavenly Father wants me to do with my life.  He wants me to give people hope and encouragement and let them know, if I can do it, so can you!"   A feeling of accomplishment and joy filled both our souls.

Therapist's who know about aphasia and the difficultly of one speaking in public, are inspired at how well Britten speaks.  We are all amazed at his fluency, his sincerity, his sense of humor, and how well he can carry his train of thought.  It truly is a blessing!
What others don't realize is, that he has to practice for hours and hours to memorize what he is saying.  He has to prepare himself and practice, practice, practice.  BUT...It is so rewarding for him.

Two weeks after speaking at the lock down facility, Britt received a big envelope in the mail containing letters from many of these boys. Britt was thrilled as he opened them and read each one individually.
"You have inspired me to expand my beliefs and learn to appreciate the gift of living, as well as what the Father has done for us.  I want to thank you for showing me that it is okay to trust, as well as being a forgiving person.  You have taught me to see the light at the end of the tunnel and have faith in others."
Britten, "I learned a lot from your story including how to forgive.  When I return home, I plan to be baptized into the LDS church.  Your story just reconfirmed my faith."
Thank You!

Britten has accepted his "new life" and has found happiness in it.  He finds happiness everyday as he lives his life the best he can, and share's that same happiness with all those around him.
Pres. Uchdorf said, "Happiness is the destination, but it is also the path".
Britten shares this quote at fireside's and testifies that he knows this statement is true. He has been able to find happiness despite all the challenges he has had.

When we arrived in Brazil on March 20, 2012, we were told that Britten wouldn't survive, there was nothing they could do for him.  But through divine intervention, acknowledged by doctors and most of those involved, we witnessed a miracle!
For Steven and I, it was as if the Lord said, "Elder Schenk, take up they bed and walk...thou hast unfinished work to do."
We are grateful that Britten has been able to carry on the work that he so loves, and lift those around him as he shares his story of  hard work, determination, positive attitude, hope, faith and miracles.
We feel it has been our privilege as a family, and also our responsibility, to share Britten's story and testify of the miracles. 
We know that He lives!  He loves all of us!  He hears and answers all our prayers, in His own time and way!  We are so grateful to Him for His Infinite Mercy and Miracles in Britten's behalf.
Steven & Karla