Two years ago, Sam Schmid's close encounter with death was called a "Christmas miracle." As he lay in a coma after sustaining massive brain injuries in a car crash, doctors were discussing organ donation with his parents and ready to take him off life support.
Schmid astounded those at his hospital bedside who thought he was brain dead, raising two fingers to signal he still had life left in him. But at the time, no one knew if the Tucson, Ariz., college student would ever return to his studies -- or even walk or talk again.
Today at 23, he is a force on the basketball court, enrolled in college classes and is hoping to be a veterinary technician. Schmid credits his surgeon and the Center for Transitional Neuro Rehabilitation at Barrow Neurological Institute, where he was recently discharged.
"I am surprised at the end result," Schmid told ABC News. "I was willing to comply with all the help at Barrow and my recovery is based on the hard work I did."
Neuropsychologist Kristi Husk led a team of speech, occupational and physical therapists who have worked a near 40-hour week with Schmid over the last two years. The holistic program offers outpatient therapy to brain-injured patients and is one of the few in the nation designed to help them ease back into school or the workplace.
When Schmid arrived he was on a walker with a gatekeeper; he had difficulties with basic speech and even swallowing food safely.
“I would describe it as a fragile state physically and emotionally,” Husk told ABC News. But the “boot camp”-like intensity of rehabilitation inspired Schmid, who was quickly placed in a vocational transition, volunteering at a gym for the disabled and working at the hospital mail room and library, relearning work habits and socialization skills.
“His recovery is really extraordinary,” she said. “We are very proud of him.”
“We see a lot of patients here and Sam was at the most severe end of the spectrum,” said Husk, who has been in the field for a decade. “He was found dead at the scene (of the accident) and was on life support. We have seen patients recover here and seen some small miracles, but Sam’s is by far the most phenomenal recovery in my experience.”
Schmid was a junior and business major at the University of Arizona when he was critically wounded in an Oct. 19, 2011 five-car accident in Tucson.
He was returning from coaching basketball at his former Catholic school when a van swerved into his lane. The Jeep in which he was riding went airborne, hit a light pole and landed on its side. Schmid's left hand and both of his femurs broke and required surgery. But he had suffered massive head injuries that are nearly always fatal.
The 21-year-old's brain injuries were so severe that the local hospital could not treat him. He was airlifted to Barrow at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Phoenix, where specialists performed surgery for a life-threatening aneurysm.
As hospital officials began palliative care and broached the subject of organ donation with his family, Schmid began to respond, holding up two fingers on command.
When ABC News interviewed Schmid in December of that year, he was in a wheelchair and his speech was slow. Doctors said he would recover, but no one expected it so quickly and so fully.