SAN ANTONIO – A near-drowning victim at 17 months old lived on to defy the odds, becoming a 20-year-old pioneer in anoxic brain injury research in San Antonio.
The first few months of Conrad Tullis’s life were the only months he spent outside constant care and in a wheelchair, but it certainly was not the most remarkable time in his short 20-year life.
When he died of a respiratory infection on Saturday, the young man had been the center point of groundbreaking brain mapping research and brain therapy, and even played a starring role in the Texas Legislature’s final approval of legalizing medical marijuana for brain seizure and other illnesses.
All this came after a near drowning at his grandparents’ swimming pool, which doctors had warned had deprived his brain of oxygen for too long, creating what is called Anoxic Brain Injury.
“They wanted me to institutionalize Conrad, other people are told to withdraw care, which means don’t feed them. And I took him to San Antonio,” said his mother, Liz Tullis, who has been by his side through it all.
Her stubborn plan proved to be a godsend to other children suffering from Anoxic Brain Injury when they founded a non-profit to promote the research called Conrad Smiles.
The name is a nod to the doctors who promised Liz Tullis that her son would never walk, talk, or even smile. “But then he smiled, you know, and I was like, there’s another ‘never’ that they told me will never happen,” said Tullis.
Through the years, Conrad would go to Alamo Heights schools for the entire 12 grades, a district practiced the sort of inclusion rarely seen. Conrad participated in school activities, graduated in 2020, and was in transitional school when he died.
He was in a new phase of therapy with a doctor in Belgium, undergoing something called “transcranial direct stimulation,” which Tullis describes as a reverse EEG that sends in impulses into the brain instead of measuring impulses going out. Conrad was already showing signs of making more sounds when the respiratory virus struck this month.
“He went away peacefully, and I think he just decided that his work, his particular work in the world was done, but his legacy is not, said his mother. Among his many research projects where new information was learned about brain injury, there is one that she is particularly proud of. “Conrad also promoted inclusion. He was in a regular school from kindergarten until graduation, and he had a ton of friends. To them, Conrad was just in a wheelchair, sort of like, you know, we have brown hair.” His friends, and particularly his brother, took time to simply sit and read or walk with him, creating bonds and memories that inspired some of them to consider their role in future research.
Some of the childhood classmates and their parents agreed to participated in some of the research projects currently underway. Mapping the growth, activity and function of Conrad’s brain alongside one student in particular has been underway for nearly two decades. Projects began at San Antonio’s Mind Science Foundation and most recently with Dr. Peter Fox at the Research Imaging Institute at UT Health.
Today, what was learned in the imaging continues to open new frontiers into brain injury. It’s why perhaps Conrad’s most important legacy will be that of hope, showing other families whose children are “locked in” a wheelchair body with a brain that continues to grow and change, that their lives can be rich and promising.
As for that ever-present wheelchair, it’s become a sort of art project for his brother Garrett who never left Conrad’s side. It’s already been demolished and is being reimagined as art that will likely be sold to raise money for Conrad Smiles. His mother adds that there is another way to interpret the name of the non-profit--the many of Conrad’s “Miles” and how far he has gone.
For more information on Conrad’s Smiles, CLICK HERE.
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