Finding her voice: Fontbonne grad gives commencement speech after traumatic brain injury

CLAYTON — They said she would never talk again, but Lauren Murphy will deliver the commencement address Monday for her alma mater, Fontbonne University.

Murphy, 31, was hit by a car while jogging in Los Angeles on a business trip six years ago. To save her life, surgeons had to remove parts of her brain that were dangerously swollen, including the left temporal lobe.

“That’s where language lives,” said Amanda Eaton, an assistant professor of communication disorders at Fontbonne and one of Murphy’s therapists. “Not only should she not be able to talk, but to be able to communicate so effectively and to be so social and so independent … is just phenomenal.”

Murphy, of O’Fallon, Mo., has always been driven. She put herself through Fontbonne with several restaurant and retail jobs. Then she earned a master’s degree in one year from Lindenwood University. Soon after, Murphy and her best friend moved to New York City without jobs or a place to live, wearing T-shirts that said “High Heels, High Hopes.” Murphy’s goal was a six-figure salary by age 25.

She was well on her way, working as a marketing executive when she traveled to Los Angeles in April 2013. On her regular morning jog, Murphy was wearing earbuds and did not hear oncoming traffic.

For several hours, doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center could not find her identification. One surgeon later told Colleen Murphy that her daughter’s injuries were so severe and seemingly hopeless that they considered letting her die. But her youth and physical fitness motivated the doctors to try.

When David and Colleen Murphy arrived from St. Louis, doctors gave them the dire prognosis. If Lauren lived, she would be unlikely to walk, talk or understand speech. She would always need a feeding tube.

Colleen Murphy refused to believe them, and instead viewed Lauren’s condition as an opportunity “to raise her all over again.”

After six years of surgeries, months at out-of-state rehabilitation facilities and untold hours of therapy, mother and daughter will stand on stage together at Chaifetz Arena to deliver Fontbonne’s commencement address. The duo has already given several motivational speeches at schools and clubs, told in conversational format. They wrote a 15-minute speech for the graduation ceremony and have been practicing at least three times daily, filming and watching it back to improve their delivery.

In it, they’ll talk about their five keys to success: show up, find your cheerleader, always be kind, work hard and never give up.

“For me (the speech) is validation,” Colleen Murphy said. “I always believed that she would be OK. It’s a matter of time, and she’ll be doing this on her own.”

As a result of her injuries, Lauren has global aphasia, the most severe form of language impairment caused by brain damage. She takes 19 medications daily in an effort to control seizures and treat her cognitive deficits, including memory loss. Every day, she looks at a sign taped to her mirror that reads “I will get my words back.”

Lauren can still stumble over words or struggle to follow a conversation, but she has become a leader in her group sessions at Fontbonne’s Eardley Family Clinic for Speech, Language and Hearing. After intensive training, she has also returned to running, completing more than two dozen 5K races since the accident.

The Murphy family, including Lauren’s brother and five sisters, point to their devotion to each other, their strong Catholic faith and the family motto “Murphys don’t quit” to help explain her progress. Keeping a (sometimes dark) sense of humor helps a lot, they say. They tease Lauren that the brain surgeries made her nicer, and credit her vanity as key to her recovery. Her mother dutifully applied makeup and painted Lauren’s nails even in the hospital bed.

“But if I had known she wouldn’t remember the first two years, I wouldn’t have shaved her legs every day,” Colleen Murphy jokes.

Eaton of Fontbonne said she has never worked with anyone who has come so far after such a severe brain injury.

“That’s why her story is so compelling,” Eaton said. “Everything that she’s able to do now is a result of a rewiring of her brain. Her progress isn’t slowing down or plateauing. It changes what we think about the brain and what it’s capable of.”

Eaton nominated Murphy for the commencement address and believes she has a future in public speaking with her talent, charm and perfect comedic timing.

When asked what she wants her audience to take away from the graduation speech, Lauren Murphy says, “Life is tough and keep going strong.”