May 16, 2014— -- 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.
His mother, Susan Regan, who is vice president of the insurance company Lovitt-Touche, and a devout Roman Catholic, called his astounding recovery, “a modern-day … Christmas miracle.”
“I have friends who are atheists who have called me and said, 'I am going back to church,’” said the now 61-year-old.
Schmid's doctor, renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Spetzler, said that while others had “reasonable” reasons to think Schmid was brain dead, he had a "hunch" the young man would make it. Spetzler has performed more than 6,000 brain surgeries and trained the doctor who operated on Congresswoman Gaby Giffords after she was shot in 2011.
During surgery, Spetzler clipped the balloon-like aneurysm in the blood vessel -- "as if I were patching a tire," a procedure that eventually worked.
For days Schmid didn't seem to be responding, but what puzzled his doctor was that he did not see fatal injuries on the MRI scan. So he decided to keep Schmid on life support longer.
"There was plenty wrong -- he had a hemorrhage, an aneurysm and a stroke from the part of the aneurysm," Spetzler said in 2011. "But he didn't have a blood clot in the most vital part of his brain, which we know he can't recover from. And he didn't have a massive stroke that would predict no chance of a useful existence."
So while the family was given a realistic picture of Schmid's poor chances for survival, Spetzler ordered one more MRI to see if the critical areas of the brain had turned dark, indicating brain death.
"If not, we would hang on and keep him on support," he said. "But I didn't want to give the family false hope."
Schmid's mother said no one "specifically" asked if her son would be a donor, but kept praying that her son would come around.
The MRI came back with encouraging news during the day and by evening Schmid "inexplicably" followed the doctors' commands, holding up two fingers.
His mother said today that the rigorous rehabilitation has been a "Godsend."
"Sam is as he is today as a result of their driving him to succeed. He gets better every day," she said. "I do think of it as a miracle. He was so close to death and came back. I do believe God has a huge part in this."
But the psychological challenges in his recovery were as great as the physical ones, said neuropsychologist Husk, who worked with Schmid on his coping skills.
“Those who are young have more endurance for the aggressive therapy than the older patients,” she said. “But, on the other hand, he is just starting to enter adulthood and had difficulty with the acceptance part. He wasn’t going to go right back to college, or graduate with his class or be with his friends. That was the tough part.”
“You are talking about years of recovery and for someone in their 20s that’s an eternity,” said Husk. “But I have to give kudos to him for sticking with it and being so determined. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s not to put a cap on these patients' recovery, because they will surprise you.”