Campus & Community

Freshman battles brain injury to attend DU

Cole Moriarty drove 40 hours last August in his 2007 Chevy Trailblazer from his home in western Massachusetts to start his freshman year at the University of Denver. But his real journey to get to DU took about four years.

When Moriarty was a sophomore in high school, he was riding his dirt bike in the woods on his family’s property. He recalls making a big jump. The next thing he remembers is walking back to his house and explaining to his mother that it felt like his spine was pushing into the back of his brain.

Doctors found nothing wrong — MRIs and CAT scans were both clear.

“They misdiagnosed me twice. They told me I was fine. But I knew that wasn’t right. I couldn’t walk right and I was dizzy,” Moriarty says.

He was drained of energy, too. Sometimes he couldn’t make it downstairs to his basement bedroom.

“My mom would find me sleeping on the floor at the top of the stairs,” he says.

Eventually, doctors told Moriarty he suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Exactly what happened on that day in the woods is anyone’s guess. To this day, Moriarty doesn’t remember any of it. One doctor thought the motorcycle may have landed with all its weight directly on Moriarty’s head. His helmet was no match.

Regardless of the unknowns, one thing is for certain: Moriarty’s life came to an abrupt halt and then went backward. He had to relearn how to walk, run, talk, study — even relearn how to learn. It ended up costing him a full year of high school. And when he was in school, some classmates would take advantage of him.

“Some people would come up and say, ‘Hey you owe me $10.’ And I’d give it to them. I didn’t know, I didn’t remember,” Moriarty says. “I guess one good thing from this was I learned who my real friends were.”

Another symptom: He couldn’t eat and listen to conversation at the same time.

“We sit down for dinner and there’d be conversation, but I couldn’t follow what was being said unless I stopped eating,” he says. “Everybody else would be finished eating and I’d be sitting there with my dinner cold in front of me.”

Eventually the family learned to enjoy eating in silence.

Most of his days were a blur of cognitive, physical and speech therapy and attending a memory clinic.

“At one point, it did cross my mind that college might not be possible,” Moriarty admits.

Tina Petricca, his mother, had that same feeling. “I thought we’d have to lower the bar,” she says.

But it turns out attending college became an overriding goal that drove his recovery.

“Getting to college was a vision that’s been in my head for a long time,” Moriarty says. “I knew I was going to college and I was going to apply for college. I was going to do everything I could do to make that happen.”

Slowly, sometimes painfully so, he began to recover. At first it didn’t look good at all.

Doctors told him and his family that most patients see about an 80 percent recovery during the first year. Moriarty’s first year recovery, however, hovered at about 20 percent. Into the second year, though, the recovery began to take hold.

“The recovery was little, tiny steps,” Petricca says. “There’s a lot of maturity there for a kid that age. He faced adversity with a positive spirit and overcame doubts.”

Last spring he graduated from high school with high honors. And at DU he’s studying mechanical engineering.

“There have been times of extreme frustration, but he never doubted his path,” Petricca says. “There are a lot of ways this could have played out, but he always knew what he wanted to do and the path he wanted to take. Having that goal of college helped. He belongs right there with the rest of the kids at DU.”

But his journey isn’t over. His brain isn’t fully healed. And his ability to process information still isn’t where it was before the accident.

“It still takes me a while to process things. I can do well in school. It just takes a little extra time, especially in subjects I’m not strong in,” he says.

Nevertheless, doctors have cleared him to go back to hobbies, including riding dirt bikes. But they warned him if he suffers another head injury, he has a 50 percent chance of dying.

“I know I have to be careful and I will,” he says.

Moriarty isn’t cranking the dirt bike, but says he is looking forward to road and mountain biking, skiing (smaller, slower slopes) and hiking.

Looking back it all now, Moriarty sees it a bit more clearly.

“It’s been a really long road. And yes, I suppose it’s easy to get down in a situation like that, but I never really got depressed,” he says. “You can choose what you think about I just chose not to dwell on the negative.”

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