Children's Healthcare Teaches Teens How to Drive. Again.

Jan 30, 2013

There are a few distinctive birthdays. Eighteen means adulthood. Twenty-one often comes with one’s first (legal) beer.  But chances are we’ll remember our “Sweet 16” above both.

For Centennial High School senior Catherine Stephens, that date meant independence. 

But a medical condition she didn’t know she had soon put the brakes on that freedom.  At least temporarily.

“I started to have a really bad headache,” recounts Stephens, who was at a dance class last fall when she says something scary happened.     

“And it was bad enough that I went ahead and sat down and stopped doing the dance.  And by the end of the class, I really wasn’t feeling well.  So I went ahead and called my mom so I didn’t drive home.”

Catherine’s mom watched as the teen’s condition worsened. 

After a few hours, Catherine was in the emergency room. 

“I don’t really remember anything for the next two weeks or so,” she says.  

Catherine had a rare brain condition called AVM.  In Catherine’s case, it ruptured, leaking blood into the brain. 

Before patients can get back behind the wheel, they must prove their responses are at safe levels. Here, Catherine presses lights as they illuminate while being timed.
Credit Jim Burress / WABE News

After emergency surgery, Catherine came to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to relearn basic functions. 

“One day I walked in to her on an occupational rehab session, and she was on sort of a teeter-totter doing math problems,” says Camille Stephens, Catherine’s mother.  

Catherine quickly regained most of her abilities. Which is how she ended up back at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, maneuvering a well broken-in white Buick. 

“Make another left turn here, and I want you to find one car to park beside,” instructs occupational therapist Rebecca Day-Lewis.

Rebecca Day-Lewis (right) helped Catherine Stephens get behind the wheel after the teenager's brain surgery.
Credit Jim Burress / WABE News

Children's Healthcare is one of only a handful of facilities in the US to offer teen driver rehab.

Day-Lewis says the car can accommodate all kinds of special needs.

“We also have hand controls for the car that people who can’t use their legs to do the gas and the brake, they can use their hand to control the gas and the brake pedal.”

Catherine easily passes the test.  Not everyone is so fortunate.  And that’s tough, says Day-Lewis.

“I remember my first patient I had to tell that news too.  And I felt really bad about it, because I knew he was looking forward to driving.  But I also knew that he had two kids already.  It made me feel better to know that I was keeping his family safe.”

For Catherine, driving has given her back her independence.  She’s back at school, driving, and dancing like she was before. 

“I know this is cliché, but I would just say never to give up.  There is some level where I guess you just can’t get there.  But I think it’s always worth a try.  And if you try your best, you’re going to have your best chance at getting back.”