A terrifying slide on black ice in a Michigan winter left Chris Cochran, then 17, with a severe traumatic brain injury. After about 10 days in a coma — and five surgeries during that time — he spent five months in in-patient rehab. On Memorial Day 1997, he came home with full left-side hemiplegia and began intensive outpatient therapy. Now 34, Chris still has challenges with walking and speaking, but he has recovered to a remarkable degree, including taking online business and e-commerce classes with the University of Phoenix. His stubborn determination, his parents’ fierce, unflagging dedication, and a variety of ongoing innovative therapies over the years brought him to this point.
Yet one important part of Chris’s life has been missing since that winter day 17 years ago — driving.
From a young age, Chris was passionate about driving. His mother, Monica Cochran, remembers how he was itching to get behind the wheel by age 12. When his parents later said they had no plans to buy him a car, he started saving for one. With his license in hand on his 16th birthday, Chris bought a Honda CRX with a manual transmission — which he had not learned to drive. No problem. He mastered a stick in only one day of practicing with his dad, Terry.
The accident put the brakes on his driving and the independence it offers. But Chris was determined to regain this ability. His parents supported him in this goal as they have with many others. They began searching for ways he could attain it.
In 2005, Chris had a driver rehabilitation evaluation at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. The evaluator reported that some of Chris’ problems were drifting out of his lane; poor awareness of traffic signs, speed control, and response to verbal directions; and cognitive issues such as impulsivity, insight, and judgment. While Chris thought he had done well, “the evaluator said it was the scariest check ride she had ever done,” recalls Terry.
After that, he began visualizing driving and began paying close attention when riding with his parents and others.
In late summer 2013, Chris went to the University of Virginia for 18 sessions on a driving simulator. “Initially, even when there was no traffic, he had difficulty not crashing into things,” says Terry. “But later, when driving with traffic, he settled in very well. We knew he could control a vehicle but we didn’t know what he would do in a real environment.”
Finding the right teacher
Terry did not want to take Chris into a high school parking lot to practice driving. They wanted a “safe environment.” So in late 2013, he began contacting driving schools around the country, hoping to find one that would work with Chris. “They either said they didn’t do that kind of thing, or they didn’t call back,” he says.
Then Terry hit the jackpot when he contacted Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, California. Willow Springs put him in touch with Rick Seaman, one of the country’s top stunt drivers, who runs a driving school at the raceway. With 40 years’ experience teaching Hollywood stunt drivers, security professionals, and “500 problematic teen drivers” how to safely handle a car, Rick was well-prepared to work with Chris and said yes to this experiment. But he wanted to do more.
Rick sustained a TBI serving in Vietnam. He has had “a few dozen minor concussions” from his stunt work. He is also a board member of the National Veterans Foundation (www.nvf.org), which, among many other activities, counsels and assists veterans with TBI and PTSD. He shared his idea with his friend Shad Meshad, NVF’s president and founder, who is a therapist and who also sustained a TBI in Vietnam.
They knew that many veterans with TBI today are unable to drive, but with assistance and the proper encouragement and training in a safe, controlled environment, perhaps they could get behind the wheel again. Relearning this skill could “help them surpass brain injury,” says Shad. So they envisioned the driving clinic with Chris as the seed that could grow into a program for them.
Shad eagerly agreed. “I’ve seen so many miracles in my life with vets,” he says, “and I know how Rick teaches. It’s doable.” He agreed to attend the clinic in his capacity as a mental health professional, in case he was needed.
The project expanded further, with a decision to produce a documentary of the three-day driving clinic. Telling Chris’s story on film would offer hope to others and publicize the potential veterans’ project in order to spread the word and raise funds. Producer Julie Michaels, also a stunt woman and actress, has done a lot of volunteer work with veterans with TBI. She was eager to tell Chris’ story, her only early hesitation being if she could “do it justice,” something she aims for with every project she does. Believing a documentary of “this groundbreaking project” could be beneficial for many others, she accepted the invitation and gathered a film crew to begin creating A Miracle in the Making. The Cochrans liked the idea because, says Chris, “it would be helping others” to learn to drive again.
Rick called in a team of his stunt drivers to participate. Photographer Denise Duff came to shoot photos. Everyone involved donated their time.
Back in the driver’s seat
This past December, the team came together at Willow Springs, located in the brown, high desert hills of Southern California. A bright sun did nothing to warm up the frigid temperatures, but the cold did not deter anyone. The raceway has several tracks, and the clinic was held at the one called The Streets, with a broad tarmac and several miles of track with straightaways and loops that wind over flats and rolling hills.
Rick chose the red car from his small fleet of sturdy, purpose-built stunt cars for Chris. The film crew installed several Go-Pro cameras in and on it to capture the action inside, and they followed the action with larger cameras as well.
From the start, Chris showed little hesitation in the mechanics of operating a car, despite the 17-year gap. Rick began the lessons with very easy, short maneuvers like driving straight ahead for 100 feet and then stopping at a marked location. Then they practiced turning right and left as directed by orange cones, followed by a more aggressive takeoff and acceleration and harder braking. The next test was a slalom course with alternating, rapid right and left turns.
Given his inexperience, Chris did well with maneuvering the car the first day. Yet Rick was concerned about Chris’s uncertainty when returning to the start mark, his confusion and inability to remember routines, and paying attention to his stop triggers. But he noticed that Chris grew more attentive after the basic drills were over and they moved on to the gymkhana course, which is more challenging and demanding — and fun.
At the end of the first day, Rick instructed Chris to drive back to the pit area and stop. As they approached the wall, Chris appeared to be very tired and he did not sufficiently engage the brake. Moving about five miles an hour, the red car rolled into the wall with a crunch. No great damage resulted. Even though he was disappointed in himself for that mistake, Chris was happy. Rick knew much more work was needed but was satisfied with the first day’s progress.
Over the next two days, Rick continually increased the complexity of Chris’s driving tasks. They included stopping quickly on wet pavement and following a long road course as cars manned by other stunt drivers pulled out in front of Chris’s red car or passed it. In another challenge, the driver of a car following Chris held various colored flags out the window, and Chris had to use his rear-view mirror and announce the color while continuing safely around the course. Chris easily passed this test. He also did a flag drill, in which a stunt man standing at the end of a straightway held out a flag either to the left or right at the last moment; Chris had to speed toward him then immediately make the correct turn. He performed this test with only one mistake.
Some of the time Chris still experienced some confusion and impatience, particularly with the less exciting tests. He was driving with more confidence, yet Rick was disturbed because Chris still seemed unable to “return to number one” (the starting point) on several drills. Rick stressed the importance of being able to remember a route because Chris would be tested and graded during his rehab driving test. That got his attention, and he improved.
Although he had told no one, Chris wanted to make up for hitting the wall at the end of the first day, and he found a surprising way to do it. The next day, Rick instructed him to stop on the tarmac about twenty feet from a wall. Terry was standing in front of the wall, in the path of the car. Rick’s voice rose as the car continued rolling forward, saying, “Let’s stop now. Let’s not hit the wall. Let’s not hit Dad!”
Wide-eyed, Terry fled. Just as Rick was about to hit the car’s kill switch, Chris grinned and stopped smoothly, a mere three feet from the wall, “like a stunt driver who’d been doing it with precision all day long,” says Rick.
Chris had purposefully redeemed his mistake on the first day. “He was going to ignore my alarm and show me and Dad that he could do it without crashing,” says Rick. “That was huge!”
On the road to driving again
Towards the end of the third day, Rick figured that Chris would like to end his driving clinic on an exciting note. He had four of his drivers line up their cars and peel out to perform synchronized 180-degree spins, powering and fishtailing out of the spins in perfect formation.
“You want to do that?” he asked.
Chris’s answer was a huge smile and a “Yes!”
With a few minutes of instruction, Chris was performing 180s “just like the Hollywood pros,” says Rick, with everyone cheering him from the sidelines. When he easily pulled back to the starting point and got out of the car, Terry hugged him, proud of his son.
Chris had made a lot of progress over the three days on the raceway. To honor his accomplishment, Rick presented him with a cap emblazoned with “Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures.” Chris beamed, and the crew cheered again.
Rick’s final evaluation is that both he and Chris were winners. “I hope that this will steer Chris toward full rehab and recovery for driving again. That will be up to him. In either case, what I feel very good about right now is that we were all able to give Chris the chance to revisit his freedom. The freedom of the road.”
When Chris arrived home in Michigan, Monica asked him what he liked best about the clinic. “’Duh! Driving,’” was his response.
“He has to have a doctor sign off on an evaluation and then take the written test,” she says. “He’s taken it before and will pass it. The big piece is that he has to accept the responsibility along the way.”
Chris says he’s ready for that. Once winter is over and the Michigan snow has disappeared for the year, he will start practicing again with a certified rehab driving instructor, with the intent of regaining his license.
And what does he say about his accomplishment and the exciting possibility of driving again? “It would bring me so much joy to drive again. Insurmountable joy.”