By Ryan Clark
Five years ago, Barbara Harland watched Brad Fritz roll into her classroom, and she had just one thought.
What have I done?
Fritz was supposed to be a captivating speaker, someone who could inspire and enthrall with his story of courage and strength. But he was not as advertised—or so Harland thought. She had only communicated with him via email, asking if he’d like to come to Xavier to talk to one of her classes.
She didn’t know that Fritz can’t speak.
Fritz, a 32-year-old from northern Kentucky, uses a wheelchair and speaks through a machine that reads the words he types into it. It all looked clumsy, not at all what Harland expected.
But using a PowerPoint and a laser pointer, Fritz told his story. The effect was immediate.
“Only afterward was I able to appreciate Fritz’s story,” says Harland, who has taught in the School of Nursing since 2005. “His story of recovery, of faith and of what a difference his nurses made make it so appropriate for this class.”
That would be the class called “Death and Dying: A Universal Experience,” an elective course offered in the School of Nursing. Within the school, there’s a saying that goes something like this: "Nurses should help patients through each transition of their lives, from birth to adulthood to death."
“No matter where you work as a nurse, you will deal with people who will die,” Harland says. “It’s a way of life.”
The course is just another way the School of Nursing prepares future nurses for the full breadth of their work. At Xavier, they learn about grief and loss. They learn about preparation and how to communicate with grieving families.
Fritz taps into all these subjects when he gives his presentation.
He didn't want to be alive
Students say Fritz speaks volumes—but he does it without saying a word.
It’s because of the accident, which makes it difficult for him to speak at all. He uses a typing machine that talks for him, called a Lightwriter, which means his every word—or joke, or swear—comes out in a computer-sounding voice. Slowly, he types, a letter at a time, and his words are read aloud by the machine.
At first people in the audience don’t know how to react. They’re a bit uncomfortable, even though Fritz is smiling. It could be the wheelchair, or his bent posture and shaky hand gestures. It makes sense—almost dying can leave behind that kind of evidence.
But then Fritz starts typing/talking. “Ask me anything you want,” the computer voice says, slowly, as he keys in the words.
And usually, one by one, the audience gets more comfortable. They ask him about the accident, if he remembers being thrown from the car and hitting the tree. They ask him if later, when he’d realized his entire life had changed, he'd wanted to die. And Fritz always wins them over with his personality.
He tells them about graduating from high school, then from Thomas More College. He baits the audience on this one.
“What was your major?” a student asks.
Fritz smiles, typing his answer.
“Pimping,” he says.
The classroom waits a beat. You can see them thinking: Did he just say that?
The next moment, they erupt in laughter. It’s one of the biggest laughs he gets. He’s won them now, and they’ll listen to everything he says.
Seventeen years ago, Fritz was an all-star high-school athlete. As a sophomore at Covington Catholic, he established himself as a standout football player. He had a pretty girlfriend. The world was his end zone.
Then, one night after a particularly painful loss, he decided to go out drinking and driving with two friends.
Like that, everything changed.
When Fritz woke up, he was in a hospital. He’d been in a coma for three months.
The police report said the three teenagers were driving in a cemetery, going about 55 miles per hour around a curve, when they clipped a headstone, spun around twice and hit a tree. Fritz, who was wearing his seatbelt, was still thrown from the car. He hit the tree, and when paramedics arrived he had a collapsed lung, a broken jaw, and a head that had swollen to the size of a basketball.
Doctors said he wouldn’t survive. But after three months, he awoke from his coma. He couldn’t stand up. He couldn’t speak. Technically, he had suffered severe brain damage. He could still feel everything, but he could barely use his arms, legs or hands.
He was 15 years old. To him, life was over.
“I was so angry and confused that I didn’t even want to be alive,” Fritz says in his presentation. His nurses, along with his family, would convince him that life could go on.
Making a bigger difference
It's speakers like Fritz who help the class learn how nurses make a difference to their patients.
“Nurses made my life in the hospital feel like it wasn’t so bad,” he says. “They made me feel like I was family, not just some patient that they had to attend to as part of their job. What they did for me and for my family was truly amazing. They treated every small achievement and accomplishment like it was the biggest thing in the world and they made me always want to keep improving.”
For the past five years, Fritz has traveled to Xavier to speak to the nursing classes. It’s part of his job as a motivational speaker. Every day he is off to a new location, talking to high school students about making good decisions or visiting elementary schoolers to show them how to interact with someone with a disability.
But the nurses at Xavier ask different questions, Fritz says. They take something completely different away from the presentation.
“They want to know the nuts and bolts of what I went through and things to better know how to do their job,” he says. “Hopefully what I tell them sticks with them for their entire careers and helps them to do their jobs and to know that they are making a bigger difference than they’ll ever know.”
After years of rehabilitation—and a religious rebirth—Fritz was able to use his story to help others. “I stopped blaming God for the accident,” he says, “and started thanking Him for saving me.”
Classes like these have a profound effect on the Xavier students.
“I really enjoyed it,” says senior nursing major Emma Lastowski. “Not only was it a way to get a very personal look into a tragedy, but it showed the resilience of the human spirit. Brad was clearly a strong individual, but he also told us about how he struggled with his own mortality, injuries and relationship with God. I thought it was very empowering to hear how angry he was, how he felt like giving up, and how he changed his perspective of life.”
Emma also works in the Department of Occupational Therapy.
“From somewhat of an OT perspective, it was empowering to see how assistive technology helped Brad communicate and get around,” she says. “He was more independent than he ever could have been without the technology. A loss of freedom can be very harmful to mental health. Through the work of OTs and the assistive technology, Brad has been given his freedom back.”
Preparation for the 'Real World'
Nursing alumni agree that classes like these help prepare them for the real world.
“Taking the class on Death and Dying provided me with insight that has proved to be beneficial in my practice as a registered nurse,” says TJ Young, who works in the Surgical Intensive Care unit in Huntington, W.Va., and graduated from Xavier in 2015.
“Having worked in the ICU since graduation, I've been involved in my fair share of code blues, rapid responses and devastating traumas. The outcomes are not always what we hope for, but having the skills and perspective I gained from the Death and Dying class makes it much easier to discuss end of life decisions and issues with my patients and their families.”
As they say in the school, it's about each transition: Birth. Adulthood. Death.
“I learned that taking care of the family is just as important as taking care of the patient,” TJ says. “While it may be just another day at work for me, it could be the day for the family members of a patient on life support.”
Throughout the semester, students learn from various speakers who provide insight on topics and situations.
“This showed me what has proven to be most beneficial in my practice: That there is no universal script to use when it comes to end of life or life-altering decisions,” TJ says. “There is, however, an obligation to provide comfort, care and nonjudgmental support to not only the patient, but the family as well.”
Barbara Harland says these lessons fit into the broader aspect of a Xavier nursing education—the Holistic approach, which explains that a patient is more than a diagnosis. “We’re focused on the patient’s overall health and wellness,” she says. “The patient is the focus.”
Fritz says if he can give back in some way, like helping nurses learn their craft, he’s fulfilled. He said he remembered a time when he was going through rehabilitation after his accident. He’d been discharged to continue his therapy, and when he was finally able to stand on his own, he went back to the hospital to show his former nurses.
“I stood for them and they all started bawling and said that things like that make their job completely worth it,” he says. “That was one of the times that pushed me to keep on improving and to know that I’d never give up. They did that for me—and one day, these Xavier nurses will do that for someone else.”