ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - At 5:30 a.m., five days a week, an alarm sounds in Natalie Pritchard's home in Gwinnett County on the outskirts of Atlanta. It's time to wake up her son, Robert, and get on the road by 6 a.m. to battle traffic for two hours as they head toward the Shepherd Center - their symbol of hope.
It's here, at one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the nation to specialize in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury or brain injury, that the former UCF defensive end has worked endlessly since August to regain the life he had before suffering from uncontrollable seizures and a rare, massive stroke.
"Earlier in the process I had to depend on other people to do a lot of things for me. But I'm recovering better, so I'm well on my way to getting back to myself and being completely independent again," Robert wrote in an email. "Still a long road ahead of me but I'm confident that everything will come back in due time. I'm lucky and thankful to be where I am now."
Pritchard graduated from UCF in May and was set to attend graduate school in the fall to pursue a master's in criminal justice. In early July, he was rushed to Atlanta's Emory University Hospital Midtown when he started suffering from uncontrollable seizures.
After thorough testing, it was determined he had a stroke, a bleed and swelling in his brain. Doctors decided to remove half of his skull to make room for his brain, which was in jeopardy of dying off because of a decrease in blood flow due to the increase in swelling.
"When he was critical, the doctor told me to expect for him to be disabled. At one point, he was the No. 1 priority in the ICU. I remember telling the doctor that my son was not going to be brain damaged - that God was in control and He was going to work it out," Natalie said. "When he woke up and could remember and start asking questions, and he saw his coaches and his teammates come by and they were talking about stuff that he did in rec league - that was like `OK, we're going to get through this.'"
Getting through the ordeal has been no easy feat.
When Robert first awoke from sedation, he had no use of his left arm, hand or leg. He was wheelchair bound and has had to wear a protective helmet full-time until doctors can attempt to reattach the half of his missing skull in January.
"At first it was a major task getting my shoes on, tying my shoes, or just even putting a shirt on by myself," Robert wrote. "The doctors said that the arm is usually the last thing to come back, but luckily for me, it was actually the first to come back. I had to accomplish small goals first before I could start getting to bigger ones -- such as just sitting up in bed, then getting out of bed with help, getting around in the wheelchair, now I'm on the walker full-time. Now I'm working on the goal to progress to the cane."
Robert's big goal is to walk again without the need of support and eventually return to driving and running again. The light at the end of the tunnel is to return to school, and doctors are optimistic that Robert will be able to attend UCF by summertime.
Along with his occupational, speech, physical and recreational therapists, Robert found unexpected support in the form of Oviedo residents Deanna Coopersmith and her brother-in-law, Craig.
Coopersmith's husband Scott died at the age of 32 of complications of a massive ischemic stroke of the brain stem on July 15, 2009. Following his death, Coopersmith and her brother-in-law decided to honor Scott's memory by creating the Scott Coopersmith Stroke Awareness Foundation.
Over the past three years, the foundation has partnered with the Florida Hospital to raise money for its critical care unit and raise awareness about strokes. Their big fundraiser is a gala every summer around the anniversary of Scott's passing.
Coopersmith wanted to take a different approach for the coming year by adopting a family or cause. When she came home from work one day and saw an article in the Orlando Sentinel detailing Pritchard's story, she knew she found her family.
(Here is a link to UCFAthletics.com's article from Sept. 19 Faith & Hope)
"The pictures that were there - it was looking at my late husband all over again. It touched me 100 percent," Coopersmith said. "Here is this 22-year-old kid who was getting ready to go to grad school and he's trying to learn to walk again and function again. If you look at my late husband, a 32-year-old father who had his whole life ahead of him -- it hits you in a blink of an eye. There's often no warning. The fact that Robert survived, he's going to do amazing things. I feel like he is really going to make a difference in the community for stroke awareness."
UCF also is striving to make a difference as well, and will be wearing "RP" stickers on their helmets starting during this Saturday's Homecoming game vs. SMU at 7 p.m.
Like anyone who goes through a near-death experience, Robert has come to value just how fleeting life is.
"You have to be positive and have faith in order to get certain things that are hard to get. And you can't take anything for granted, things that you do naturally every day without even thinking about it," Robert wrote. "Your life can change at any time in an instant. You can say that I value life and the people in it just that much more."