Brain injury opens creative life for Prospect Heights author
At 20 years old, Peter Kargenian was in college studying computer science, a field grounded in logic and mathematics.
But in the instant of a vehicle wreck that left him in a coma suffering from traumatic brain injury, the skills that made the Prospect Heights resident a promising tech whiz were forever changed.
That Peter Kargenian was gone. But a new, creative Peter came to life. One who, a quarter century after suffering those life-altering injuries, used his new skills to become a published author.
"Pete died that day," Kargenian, now 46, says. "I can't even guess what life might have been like had it not happened, but I know this book wouldn't exist."
Kargenian's first novel, "5 and the End of Magic,"was published this month by Tate Publishing and Enterprises. The fantasy novel, aimed at young readers in 6th grade and up, tells the story of five musicians and a friend on a quest to discover a time when magic and myths were real. Kargenian describes it as a combination of "The Blues Brothers" and the "Harry Potter" novels.
It's a long way from where Kargenian was 26 years ago, lying comatose in a hospital bed with an uncertain future.
It was a Wednesday morning in 1989 when Kargenian, then a junior at Valparaiso University in Indiana, was riding in the cargo area of a pickup truck. The vehicle jolted off the side of the road, throwing Kargenian out of the truck. He landed headfirst onto the sidewalk.
"Any parent who gets a call at 1 in the morning to say their child has been in an accident knows that it's a horrible feeling," Kargenian's mother, Gloria, said.
Peter spent hours in brain surgery, nine days in a coma, one month in the hospital and six months in rehab.
When he awoke from the coma, his once prolific math skills were back at an elementary school level. He even had trouble naming familiar objects.
He also lost much of his sense of smell and vision in his left eye is permanently blurred.
"When you turn 21, there's supposed to be a different kind of thing going on in your life, and dealing with a head injury is not one of them," he said.
While he struggled to regain his math skills, Kargenian began finding a more creative side of himself, and starting thinking more visually. He couldn't add eight plus three, but could go to his piano keyboard and play Beethoven's "Fur Elise."
"He really has beat the odds though with a remarkable recovery," Gloria Kargenian said. "He's worked very hard at overcoming some of the same handicaps he's been left with."
Peter Kargenian now believes his sudden creativity was the result of how his brain injury occurred. He believes the left side of his brain -- where some psychologists believe logical and mathematical thinking forms -- suffered the brunt of his injury, while the right side, more associated with creativity, avoided serious harm.
"It's a life changer," he said. "You're starting over from square one."
Kargenian eventually went back to college, earning his degree in computer science three years after the accident. But during a dry spell of unemployment in 2000 he found himself paying more attention to his newfound creative skills. While watching movies, he found himself stopping to question plot lines and dream of different scenarios.
He decided to start writing a fantasy book, and his efforts culminated with a contract he signed in 2013 with Tate Publishing. His book, published June 16, is now available at Amazon.com.
"We simply have the most admiration for him," his mother said. "He's been working on this for quite a long time. He'd come to us and ask what we thought of chapters and I always thought there were so many parts of it that were ingenious."
Kargenian doesn't claim to be an exceptional writer, noting that the last time he took an English class was decades ago as a student at Wheeling High School. And he knows most books only sell about 500 copies.
But as he did with his brain injury, Kargenian hopes to beat the odds and that one day his book will turn into a script for the big screen.
"I hope people that read it have the same imagination and vision of the book as I see it," he said.