DETROIT — A beating victim previously placed in a medically induced coma is conscious but remains in a confused state, sometimes crying out that he is sorry as if he is warding off his attackers, his daughter said Friday.
Steve Utash, 54, whom a mob beat severely April 2 on Detroit's east side after a traffic accident, faces an uncertain recovery period, according to a neurosurgeon who specializes in traumatic brain injuries.
Dr. Lawrence Horn, medical director of the Detroit Medical Center's Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan Neuroscience unit, is not involved in Utash's treatment but said the recovery period for a traumatic brain injury patient can range from a few months to several years.
The severity of the damage can be minor or life-changing, he said.
Mandi Emerick, one of Utash's daughters, said her father was taken off a ventilator Thursday evening at St. John Hospital and Medical Center, shortly before a prayer service for Utash at a Detroit church. Hundreds of people from the city and suburbs attended the service.
"When I went up there, they had just taken it (the ventilator) out," she said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. "He made eye contact with me and was able to identify who I was. He said my name and he said, 'Mandi, Mandi, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'"
"He's not really there. He's awake, but he's not really there. Sometimes when I talk to him he knows who I am and sometimes he doesn't," Emerick said. "The doctors said not to get discouraged because he's really drugged and coming out of sedation."
Emerick wrote in an online posting that her father "is in and out of it with his memories."
"Sometimes he can look at me and remember who I am and other times he can't," she said. "Today, when I asked him how old he is, he said, 'I'm 2 years old,' but he did know his name."
Emerick said her dad is having flashbacks to the April 2 attack when a mob attacked him after he stopped to help a 10-year-old boy who stepped into traffic and was hit by Utash's pickup.
She said he keeps saying, "I don't want to die. I'm sorry," and, "Please get them off me."
He doesn't seem to know what happened to him or why he was in the hospital, "but again, it is way to early to tell," she wrote, adding that he is on pain medications that are causing him to be delirious.
"These are baby steps. He is able to wiggle is toes on command and answer yes or no questions. It's too soon to tell if he's going to have any memory loss or long-term damage. The frontal lobe is what was affected the most, and that is where his memories and personality are," she wrote. "This is a long road ahead, but the end of the road will be worth it."
Doctors consider it a good sign that her father is able to breathe on his own and follow commands, Emerick said.
"They can't give me a for sure answer on what's going to happen," she said. "They don't know if it's the drugs or something else. It's a pretty big deal and it's hard not to be discouraged when you're looking at your dad and he's looking like he doesn't know me. He knew who I was at first and a couple hours went by and I asked again if he knew me and he didn't say anything. It's really hard."
If his heart rate continues to stay at a normal rate, she said, he won't be placed back into a coma.
"As long as he stays calm, they have no reason to sedate him where he would need the machine," she said. "So far, he's been pretty good. He's only had a few lashouts."
Horn, who also is chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Wayne State School of Medicine, said it's typical to see patients who might not have any recollection of the traumatic event that transpired or a few days prior to the event.
"It's called post-traumatic amnesia," Horn said, adding that patients are typically agitated. "The agitation is just a phase, but for some people it can develop chronically."
He said the first three months of recovery for someone who sustains a brain injury are critical.
"In the beginning period of time, it's more of a life or death situation," Horn said. "Once you get into the phase where the person is going to be alive, unless they have a really severe profile, it's hard to use a crystal ball in what type of impact it will have on the rest of their life."
Horn said frontal lobe injuries can affect the part of the brain that deals with language, behavior, cognitive and motor functions.
Officials have said up to a dozen people attacked the Clinton Township, Mich., resident with their fists and feet. So far, five people have been charged:
• Latrez Cummings, 19, was arraigned Friday in Detroit's 36th District Court on charges of assault with intent to murder and assault with intent to do bodily harm, and his bond was set at $500,000.
• James D. Davis, 24; Wonzey Saffold, 30, and Bruce Wimbush Jr., 17,previously were arraigned on the same charges and received the same bond. All remain in Wayne County jail and will return to court April 21.
• A 16-year-old boy was charged as a juvenile with ethnic intimidation and is not being identified. He also was charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm and is scheduled to be arraigned Saturday.
Utash works as a tree trimmer and does not have health insurance. An online fundraiser has generated more than $160,000 in donations. The family also said it is in the process of establishing a trust fund.
Emerick said her family continues to be overwhelmed and shocked with the outpouring of support.
It's weird having all those people in our corner," she said. "I would never have expected any of this. I expected people to be upset. This is way bigger than what I thought and it's good to know there are thousands across the U.S. saying, 'We just want to let you know we're thinking of you.'"
Contributing: Eric D. Lawrence, Detroit Free Press