The Gift: How Someone With 95 Percent Brain Damage Taught Me More About Life Than Anyone Else

Charles James Geheren

2005-2018

In just a few days, it will be a year since the hardest day of my life. Losing my brother was absolutely one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through. Charles James Geheren died on his 13th birthday. It was very early in the morning. My mom was asleep in his hospital bed in our living room. My father was asleep on the couch. The hospice nurse was in the other room. I was holding his hand, talking to him and pressing the Morphine drip as needed to make sure he was comfortable in his last moments.

The house was eerily quiet. There weren’t any of his machines beeping. It’s something we all lived with for nearly 13 years. Charlie had a series of very severe medical issues. It’s a miracle he lived as long as he did. His twin brother died shortly birth according to medical records.

Charlie’s story is one of perseverance, strength and incredible love. I’ll start from the beginning.

Charlie’s footprints from his medical records. He was just listed in the records as Twin Boy B.

Charlie was born as Martavien Day at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County on April 12, 2005. The Illinois Department of Child and Family Services said in a report that he was born extremely premature at 26 weeks. Records show he was 1lb 12 oz. at birth. Later in life, we would nickname him “lunchmeat” to explain to my other brothers how little he was at birth.

He was abandoned by his mother at the hospital. DCFS records said “his biological parents have a history of substance abuse, homelessness and domestic violence.”

Records also showed six months earlier the state received a call saying Charlie’s birth mother was using drugs while caring for one of his siblings.

“It was indicated by other reporters that the minor (Charlie’s biological sibling) was not being properly cared for and that the family was homeless,” the reports said.

The parents were indicted for:

  • Substantial risk of physical injury/environment injurious to health and welfare
  • Inadequate clothing
  • Burns
  • Medical neglect

Needless to say, it was awful conditions. The state took custody of his sibling in January. Our family actually had the chance to meet that child and he is a beautiful, thriving and healthy young boy with an incredible adopted family.

His parents had a long history of substance abuse. The state records show his birth mother’s drug of choice was believed to be heroin. Immediately when we was born, Charlie was in heroin withdrawal. The American Academy of Pediatrics research outlines a number of symptoms linked to neonatal drug withdrawal. It’s awful.

He was placed in foster care, then a medical group home, then to the hospital for surgery, then back to the medical group home until October 26, 2005. That’s when my parents, Mia and Bill, went to pickup who would become my third brother and the light of my life.

My parents don’t take enough credit for what they did by taking him into our household and what they would do for him over the next 12 and half years. They are both saints.

We discovered a lot when he came into my family. The drugs and premature birth did a number on him. Charlie was born with 95 percent brain damage. With that came quadriplegic spastic cerebral palsy (he couldn’t sit up or voluntarily move his arms). He was also diagnosed with cortical blindness, reflux esophagitis, a collapsing esophagus (which led to a trache being put in so he could breathe), a benign tumor, chronic lung disease, failure to thrive, microcephaly (what has been made famous with Zika), sleep apnea, a severe milk allergy and he had a hole in his larynx.

His medical records say his behaviors were conduce with a 4-month-old.

Most of this stemmed from the brain damage. Actually upon researching his medical history, I learned there’s actually a diagnosis for all this: Perinatal Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy.

Perinatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) occurs in one to three per 1000 live full-term births. Of affected newborns, 15%–20% of affected newborns will die in the postnatal period… The outcomes of HIE are devastating and permanent, making it a major burden for the patient, the family, and society. — Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology

Needless to say it was a miracle he survived.

Now, you must be thinking to yourself, how could he make such an impact on your life with so many challenges? Here’s how:

I wrote these down these three things when exploring my grief in the last year.

  • Never stop smiling
  • Always show unconditional love
  • Stay strong

This is his legacy. He couldn’t verbalize these three rules to me, but they stayed with me.

A few hours after he died, I told our local newspaper this:

“Charlie was faced with the biggest obstacles in life you could imagine, and he always had a smile on his face and fought until the end of his life.”

It’s so true.

Never stop smiling

Charlie did this constantly.

He would laugh and smile whenever there were loud noises, ESPECIALLY when my brothers (or myself) were being yelled at by my parents to go clean our rooms). That I think was his favorite. He would just belly laugh in the corner of the room. He was always so happy. See left photo.

When I got the call that Charlie wasn’t going to make it, I hopped the first flight home from Sioux Falls, SD to Chicago. A quick 15 minute drive to the hospital, and I was in his PICU room at Lutheran General Hospital. He heard my voice and smiled. That will stay with me forever.

Always show unconditional love

No one listened to me more than Charlie. Sure, he couldn’t verbally respond, but he was my bud. He would listen to me vent as a kid, be a shoulder to cry on when I was sad and even was the first person I told was gay. I figured it would be pretty easy to tell him first. He embodied what unconditional love is and his smile told it all.

Stay strong

Up until the very end, he was stronger than anyone. With as much damage to his brain, it was actually challenging for him to die. Huh? I know, it’s a confusing statement. When he was pulled off the ventilator, it was expected he would die pretty quickly. That’s not what happened. It took all afternoon, evening and into the next day. The hospice physician said it was likely because his damaged brain stem had been fighting all his life to survive and it wasn’t going to give up quickly. She told me that if it were her or I in this situation, we wouldn’t have held on that long.

Charlie was up against the most challenging circumstances possible for a human being. He couldn’t breathe well, he couldn’t see, talk, hold his head up, eat or walk. But he was strong. He never gave up. He rarely showed he was in pain. He just lived life.

The day after Charlie died, my family went to his school. A lovely girl in his small classroom with special needs wouldn’t stop raving about how handsome Charlie was.

She also told me, “never forget he will always be your brother.”

At his memorial service, the funeral home was packed with former nurses, teachers, doctors, therapists, neighbors, family, friends and even his classmates. It was beautiful.

I learned that day how impactful this little boy was on so many people. I thought it was just my family who he touched, but I discovered pretty quickly that I was wrong. Strength defined that kid and it impacted others.

So, on April 11, 2018 at 11:59 p.m., we decided to celebrate that strength and gather in the kitchen to prepare a makeshift celebration for his birthday. It wasn’t just any birthday, it was the entrance to his teenage years.

We sang happy birthday.

My exhausted mother who was up for at least 48 hours, maybe more fell asleep in bed with him.

I talked to him. I didn’t really know what to say, except: “I love you” and “it will be OK.” Over and over again for hours. Until all of a sudden I realized one key fact, I said “Charlie, now you will get to see your twin brother. Isn’t it interesting how you entered this world with him and you’ll leave it with your other brother next to you?” and then he took his last breathe… holding my hand and he was gone.

The loss of my Charlie Bear has been very hard on me.

I felt guilt. I missed a lot of his last few years being away at college and the beginning of my career, but I got to be home when he needed his big brother the most — at the very end.

I also felt an intense amount of grief. I found some good books, went to counseling, decorated his grave for Christmas, lit a candle at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for him, leaned on my family and friends and just cried… a lot.

However, as this first year wraps up and I continue to move forward I take great pleasure in knowing he had an incredible life with an amazing family and team of caregivers. I couldn’t be more thankful for my parents in all this. If they didn’t foster and adopt this little boy, I don’t know where he’d be and I really don’t know who I would be. Charles James Geheren shaped me. He gave me empathy and that reason to smile everyday.

I will never, ever forget him, and I hope you don’t either.

I miss you, Charlie bear.

Love,

Your big brother, Michael.

Late Night Thoughts on Sen. John McCain’s Diagnosis

From July 20

The first political and major journalism experience I had, that I can recall, was asking Sen. John McCain a question at a press conference ahead of the 2008 election for Scholastic News. This moment has been forever seared into my memory. He was nice and answered my question like he would for any other journalist sitting in the room (from national outlets and market #3) despite me being in middle school.

Today’s news made me really sad. I’ve been trying to figure why. And I think that moment just really sparked something in me. I know he’ll never know that, but it made such an impact in my love for covering politics.

He is an American hero and has worked hard for his country. What an awful diagnosis for a person who has suffered so much. My thoughts are with him and his family.

I have to say, it’s so refreshing to see America come together to support him. I think my favorite message was from his former political opponent (fmr. President Barack Obama): “Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”

#3 with #45

Air Force One in Watertown, SD (Michael Geheren/The Volante)

As we inaugurate #45, I’ve been looking back at the amazing opportunities I’ve had to cover now three Presidents of the United States and the impact President Barack Obama had on my interest in political journalism.

Donald Trump (Sioux City, IA)

President-Elect Donald Trump in Sioux City, IA (Michael Geheren/The Volante)

USD junior questions Donald Trump on immigration plan

Bill Clinton (Sioux Falls, SD)

Former President Bill Clinton in Sioux Falls, SD (Michael Geheren)

Barack Obama (Watertown, SD)

Soon to be Former President Barack Obama visits Watertown, SD (Michael Geheren/The Volante)

Presidential politics is my favorite. It’s quite amazing to watch our country work at the highest level.

My “journalism career” began during Obama’s first election in 2008.

Visiting Sen. Barack Obama’s office

From being there when he announced then-Senator Joe Biden as his running mate in Springfield outside the old Illinois Capitol building, to stopping by his Senate office the day after he was elected President, and watching him step foot in South Dakota as he visited his 50th state as POTUS.

USD junior questions Donald Trump on immigration plan

I also had the privilege to cover a speech by First Lady Michelle Obama on the campaign trail, his opponent John McCain in a visit to Illinois and at the RNC, and visit the Obama White House as a Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholar.

I feel so fortunate for these experiences at such a young age. Obama was the president of my youth, which sparked my passion of political journalism. Which is interesting since the Columbia Journalism Review called the Obama era as the worst-ever between the President and the Press.

USD junior questions Donald Trump on immigration plan

So, now we turn to 45.

It’ll be an interesting, exciting and headline filled 4–8 years.

There are many questions as to what’s to come, especially for journalists. For me, I’ll be tuned to the peaceful transition of power and excited for what’s ahead.

Donald Trump in Sioux City, IA (Michael Geheren/The Volante)

My internship at Chicago’s Very Own


My internship started with tweet at the WGN Back to School Kids Fair in 2014. I used to go the fair every year as a child, not for the free backpacks or to meet the mascots. I went to follow the producers and talent around. I was so fascinated about how live television worked.

So, in 2014 I went to the fair with my little brother. The day before the event, I tweeted a “Throwback Thursday” to one of the anchors of the top-rated WGN Morning News. She asked if I could take an updated picture. So in the 30 seconds she came outside to speak with me, I mentioned I was studying journalism, working at WGN was my dream, etc. And she said I should come by the studio for a show at some point.

I pestered her (well, I’m sure annoyed) for months and in January I finally was able to visit the studio right before I went back to school in South Dakota.

Then it was a few months of phone tag and emails with the internship coordinator, two interviews and in the spring I got the offer.

My Experience

I remember my first day being deathly afraid and also very excited. I was at WGN, those famous call letters World’s Greatest Newspaper. It was a dream come true.

Here are some of the highlights of my experience:

Blackhawks Mania

The Blackhawks coverage was just good timing for me. Two people were on vacation and the Chicago Blackhawks were in the Stanley Cup final and eventually won the cup.

I was put in charge of the WGN Morning News sub-brand social media accounts and helped a ton on the WGN News accounts while our department was understaffed.

The fact that I was trusted to post to 180,000+ people on the Morning News accounts was such an honor, but also terrifying. The WGN Morning News “voice” isn’t like anywhere else. It’s snarky and funny, but also serious. To achieve that balance is difficult. I met some awesome people at Channel 9 who helped me write in that voice and I learned to push the limits just a bit.

WGN Radio


While two separate broadcasters, WGN Radio and Television still fall under the Tribune Media company. Unfortunately WGN Radio historically hasn’t been strong in my demographic, and honestly I didn’t listen to it much before I started at WGN-TV. That changed when I started at ‘GN and I am now will be a life-long listener.

My first week, I happened to be driving to the store and heard a show called WGN Girls Night Out with Hannah Stanley. Unfortunately I only heard the end, but the last segment just drew me in. It’s called Moment of Gratitude. The host, producers and whoever is in the studio shares something they are grateful for. I had just finished my first week at TV and I was so grateful that my boss was not only teaching me a lot, but also let me DO THINGS. Which is something I’ve been told is rare in DMA #3. I called in and shared my moment of gratitude.

Then, a few weeks later I ran into Hannah at the WGN Radio Walk of Fame induction ceremony. Lucky for me I got off work at 11 a.m. and I had wanted to see the ceremony, so I drove into the Loop and watched near Tribune Tower. I chatted with Hannah a bit and witnessed radio legends get recognized for their achievements at the station.

Hannah Stanley, host of WGN Girls Night Out andFlavorHD. She’s also the nicest person..EVER.

A few weeks later I messaged Hannah on Facebook. I asked if I could sit-in on one of her shows. She said yes and then asked if I would produce a segment.

Not only did she let me produce a segment, but once I got there I was also able to co-host with her for three hours.

It was a blissful moment for me to sit in the Allstate Showcase Studio on Michigan Avenue, talk on those airwaves and to meet someone who CARED and was willing to show me the ropes.

If you want to listen to Hannah’s show, tune to 720-AM or go to WGNradio.com Saturdays 7–9 p.m.

The Work

I got to produce a ton of content for the WGNtv.com and social media. Not much is featured on my author page, but I was able to write a few of my own original stories when I wasn’t adapting broadcast stories for web or working on social media.

Here are some of the stories I did -> http://wgntv.com/author/michael-geheren/

I also got to do a demo read at the anchor desk:

Field Segments

Being in the newsroom most days and working in web didn’t get me out in the field much. But, when I did go out it was both fascinating and exciting.

Around Town with Habitat for Humanity

I got to develop some construction skills, help a good cause and do social media from the field.

Crime coverage with Nancy Loo

I wanted to make sure I went out with a reporter at least once during my experience. My boss said she would try to get me paired up with one, but I really wanted to go with Nancy Loo. Way before I started, I always admired her social media skills and interaction as a reporter. While many reporters are trying right now (some in just the last few weeks of my internship) to fully grasp social media, Nancy has been ahead the game for years. I wanted to see why…and how she managed both social media and reporting in the field.

I wish I could have spent more time with Nancy and her crew, but I learned a tremendous amount in just a few hours.

Back to School Kids Fair 2015

Full circle for me, I got to work at the 2015 Back to School Kids Fair. One of the anchors decided to do a quick segment about my previous experience at the fair, so that was fun:

It was a great day and brought back so many memories.

The People


More important than all the fun and games was — the people. I cannot begin to explain how amazing these WGN’ers are. They all seem to really want the best in me. The web team was great. You’re supposed to learn a ton at an internship…right? I feel like I gained more knowledge about digital journalism and social media in three months than my entire educational career.

Another thing that surprised me was the genuine people in this market. I didn’t think the talent would talk to me or even really acknowledge the intern. However, I quickly learned that wasn’t the case. These professionals are the best of the best, but they understand there is another generation of journalists learning.

There are so many people that made an impact on me, I cannot count.

Besides the professionals skills I gained, what I also learned in this experience is that I am doing exactly what I want to in life.

Looking ahead to what’s next, but I am so grateful for this experience.

Thank you, Mr. Schieffer

Bob Schieffer and Michael Geheren at the 2012 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference at the Newseum in Washington D.C. (Dave Eggen/FREEDOM FORUM)

This post was originally published in the Huffington Post. You can read the original post at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-geheren/thank-you-mr-schieffer_b_7464254.html

I was washing my hands in the bathroom at the Newseum in Washington D.C. when I met CBS News’ Bob Schieffer. I was so awkward and nervous. A broadcasting legend was next to me (an aspiring journalist) washing his hands and I had the opportunity to talk with him.

Do I talk to him? Or just pretend he isn’t even there? I don’t recall a bathroom etiquette lesson for this situation.

But, before I could even get out a word, Schieffer started talking to me.

Honestly, I wish I could remember the full conversation, but it’s one of those moments that was just a complete blur. After our talk, he spoke to myself and the other 49 students at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.

Then, he completely shocked me by performing in his band, “Honky Tonk Confidential.” Who knew Mr. Schieffer was an musician too?

https://audioboom.com/boos/886532-honky-tonk-confidential

AUDIO: One of the other students at the conference recorded some audio of Schieffer performing with “Honky Tonk Confidential.”

It was that experience in 2012 that gave me even more respect for a journalist I have respected for many years.

This Sunday, Schieffer will sign off as the moderator of Face the Nation.

His grace in that show and ability to interview politicians is like no other. He has brought his folksy ability to TV that just resonates with viewers. He doesn’t come off as one of Washington’s elite. Schieffer appears as a regular American, just looking for answers to improve this country.

I hope I can someday be half the journalist Schieffer is. He will be greatly missed from television.

I know I am one of the few in my generation who still tuned in on Sunday mornings for Schieffer’s program. But, I think any j-student should go watch some of thearchives of his interviews.

“I suppose every generation thinks that the kids younger than them aren’t as good as they were and screwed it up in some way,” Schieffer said in an Associated Press interview. “I try not to sound like an old goat, but the fact is there will always be a need for reporters, whether they are doing it on television or a website or for a newspaper that is not on paper anymore.”

In my experiences, not all journalists are like this. I have met far too many who often shrug off myself and other j-students. Not Schieffer. He told stories at the conference about his early days in Dallas covering the Kennedy assassination and gave us advice from his many years of experiences.

The memory of having that short conversation, just like any other normal conversation, with Schieffer will remain one of the best moments of my life.

Mr. Schieffer, you will be missed on the airwaves each Sunday morning. It’s been an honor to be a viewer and to have met you. I hope this isn’t goodbye. Selfishly, I hope you spend part of your retirement still contributing to CBS News by asking those tough questions and providing your beloved commentary from time to time. Best of luck.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-geheren/thank-you-mr-schieffer_b_7464254.html

Build your network for an internship or job in 140 characters

The original post can be found at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-geheren/build-your-network-for-an_b_7445478.html

I got my internship this summer because of a #TBT tweet. Well, it’s a little bit of a longer story, but Twitter eventually landed me this summer’s internship.

It all started with a simple “Throwback Thursday,” tweet with an anchor at the TV station. That lead to a conversation on Twitter, then an in-person conversation, an interview and finally an offer.

Twitter Bird Sketch by: Shawn Campbell (CREATIVE COMMONS)

I find Twitter has provided me with many opportunities of building my professional connections.

  • Personal — these people use it to communicate with friends, talk about their weekend plans, sometimes retweet links and post photos.
  • Fangirls/boys — these people are obsessed with getting noticed by some celebrity or internet star. Nothing wrong with this, it’s just a different type of connections.
  • Professional — for these people, it’s about building their personal brand. tweets mostly include links, shameless self-promotion and engagement.

I find myself in the third category. For me, Twitter is my public face. I try to post about the brands I represent, links to my work, links to work by the people I admire and stories about the industry I am in. Being professional on Twitter is also about interacting and building connections.

I put together a list of some of the people I believe use Twitter best professionally (many, but not all are in journalism).

So this summer — on a day off from classes, an internship or a summer job — I recommend spending a day at Starbucks and building your social networks to fit in this third category.

There is certainly nothing wrong with using Twitter for other purposes, but I find it can be extremely helpful in building your connections to have a strong, professional Twitter account.

Obviously, the first step — make sure you are tweeting professionally. That doesn’t mean you can’t interact with friends. It just means, if it is something you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see, it probably shouldn’t end up in a tweet.

Post meaningful content. I love finding stories and sharing them with my followers. It’s hard (and I struggle with this), but add some color to the tweets. There should be a voice to the tweets, not just the headline. Also, don’t steal. It’s super easy to attribute tweets and by tagging someone, it could get you noticed.

Check your profile picture. Don’t use a selfie, ask a friend to take your iPhone and shoot a nice picture outside or in good lighting. It doesn’t have to be a professional headshot.

I also think it’s good to spend a few minutes on your bio. It’s short, but you want it to be a good representation of YOU. Remember when Hillary Clinton joined Twitter? That bio was one of the most talked about 160 characters (yes, you get a little more space in the bio than a tweet).

Then start using that search bar. Find brands you want to intern or work at. Follow the company, search for their HR departments or recruitment teams. Notice who the department follows or look some of their Twitter lists. This can be a good place to find employees or recruiters you could gain a connection with.

Follow and interact with these new connections. Retweet their content or introduce yourself in 140 characters.

I am not saying I have this down to a science, but I have seen people use Twitter to get jobs. Nothing will replace face-to-face networking, but using digital tools like Twitter can open up a whole new world in networking.

I love finding people who use Twitter in unique and effective ways. Share some of your favorite followers or your profile by tweeting me!