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Published: Monday, 5/11/2009

Bluffton University bus crash survivor back on career path

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

IDA, Mich. - The day after a bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team flipped over an overpass and fell onto a highway, Tim Berta was in an Atlanta hospital barely clinging to life.

That was also the day - March 3, 2007 - that an acceptance letter from Lourdes College School of Nursing arrived at his family's home in Monroe County.

Mr. Berta, at the time a Bluffton senior and a student assistant coach, was eight weeks shy of graduation. Nursing school was to be the next step toward his goal of becoming a nurse anesthetist. The letter was to be his ticket.

But priorities quickly changed in the aftermath of a crash that claimed seven lives and left Mr. Berta the most seriously injured of the survivors.

Life itself became the goal for Mr. Berta, who suffered serious brain injuries and would not regain consciousness for weeks. Later he would struggle through countless hours of therapy to regain the ability to talk and move around on his own.

Nursing school, if it were ever to happen, would have to wait.

Now, more than two years after the crash, Mr. Berta, 24, is a newly minted Bluffton graduate and is ready to take up that acceptance offer. He says the crash strengthened his resolve to become a nurse.

"I will know from firsthand experience how the patients are feeling when I visit them or take care or give them medication," Mr. Berta, who has fully regained speaking and walking ability, said last week at his home. "I've always had a tremendous fascination with the human body. Ironically, especially the brain."

He emphasized another point: "If not for this wreck, I'd be in nursing school right now."

The bus, en route to Sarasota, Fla., for the start of baseball season, crashed shortly after 5:30 a.m. on March 2.

Bluffton players David Betts, of Bryan, Tyler Williams and Scott Harmon, both of Lima, Ohio, and Cody Holp, of Arcanum, Ohio, near Dayton, were pronounced dead at the scene.

Bus driver Jerry Niemeyer and his wife, Jean, both of Columbus Grove, Ohio, also died in the crash.

Zachary Arend, of Oakwood, Ohio, died a week later of injuries from the accident.

A subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation blamed a combination of inadequate signs and driver error for the accident.

The crash injured areas of Mr. Berta's brain that control muscle movement and speech.

He also suffered multiple broken ribs, a broken collarbone and shoulder blade, and a ruptured spleen.

He had serious speech difficulty and memory problems in the first postcrash months and couldn't use the left side of his body. Thanks to steady therapy, he is now walking and moving around well and hasn't needed to use a wheelchair for almost a year.

Mr. Berta's physical therapist at the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio, is Lynne Chapman. She said he continues to make some of the most dramatic rehabilitation progress she has seen.

"He was a star before and he is a star now in rehabilitation," she said, noting that an early postcrash medical examination predicted he would never walk again. "Any of the reports would have indicated that Tim should not be doing all the things he is now doing."

He now speaks quite clearly although slowly and deliberately as he searches for the right words. He is also up for joking around and showing off a bit of his rehab progress.

During a visit to his home, a news photographer asked Mr. Berta, who was dressed in jeans and a Bluffton alumni T-shirt, where he wanted to pose for the photo.

"Pose? How's this?" he quipped, proceeding to flex his right bicep and flash a wide grin.

Only in the past year did Mr. Berta regain the full ability to swallow. Finally he can eat or drink anything he wishes - no more thickened milk in place of water.

"Nothing ever tasted better than just plain water when you haven't had it for over a year," he said.

Ms. Chapman, a clinical assistant professor in UT's department of occupational therapy, credited Mr. Berta's remarkable rehab progress to his relentless determination and the strong support he gets at home from his family.

"He did not realize his limitations, nor did he accept them," his therapist said.

His superb fitness before the crash helped as well. He was a catcher on the baseball team his first two years of college and played four years of Bluffton football as a wide receiver.

The current plan is for Mr. Berta to ease himself into nursing school either this fall or next year by perhaps auditing a class.

He would initially aim to become a certified nursing assistant and would present Lourdes with a list of accommodations that he may need such as extra time on tests.

"With this injury, I have to take things a little bit slower," Mr. Berta said. "But I will do everything I can to the best of my ability no matter what."

Last fall Mr. Berta began working online to finish the final four college classes he needed to graduate. He recalled how it was frustrating to discover that he needed to reread course materials several times to understand, whereas before the accident thoughts flowed more smoothly.

Yet he achieved his graduation goal on May 3 and received a standing ovation as he walked across a stage in his cap and gown.

"It's nothing short of a miracle - it really is," his father, Rob Berta, said, noting the severity of his son's injuries.

Tim Berta's other near-term goals are to regain the ability to jog and to no longer be considered at risk of a critical fall. For the time being, he continues to receive help from a home health aide.

Since last year, Mr. Berta has made occasional appearances at area school groups, and he continues to do so this spring. A mainstay of his motivational speech is explaining to students what it takes to be on his team.

"I tell them that I'm extending them an invitation to join my team, and to join my team there are only two positions: to have courage and to be encouraging. And I just guarantee them playing time because every single day is a game day."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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