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Chelsea Fathauer doesn’t appear much different than her IU School of Medicine peers—but she feels older. She brushed with death as a child. Then her husband suffered a traumatic brain injury. Their commitment to each other and their dreams never waivered.

HEALING LOVE: IU medical student shares journey supporting spouse after traumatic brain injury

Chelsea and Cameron Fathauer, dressed in cap and gown for his law school graduation, holding their four small children

IU medical student Chelsea Fathauer and her husband, Cameron, hold their four children at Cameron's graduation from IU Maurer School of Law.

Chelsea Fathauer brushed with death at an early age. After surviving a near-fatal case of strep-induced septic shock at age 6, she knew she wanted to become a doctor.

Another brush with death would put her plans on hold. This time it wasn’t her in the hospital bed but her fiancé, Cameron Fathauer. He was unresponsive, in a coma at IU Health Methodist Hospital after being struck by a car while skateboarding near his family home in Columbus, Indiana — just one month after their engagement.

Today Chelsea is a medical student at the Indiana University School of Medicine while Cameron is a graduate of the IU Maurer School of Law and a lawyer with Schad Law in New Albany, Indiana, specializing in personal injury cases and estate planning.

A 3D model of his skull — with a substantial chunk completely missing on the right side — sits in his law office as a reminder of what he’s overcome and an inspiration for his personal injury clients to never give up.

“People don’t realize how much they can do,” he said. “We settle for less than we’re capable of.”

Cameron in a coma in the hospital with Chelsea by his side holding his handThe Fathauers are living proof. They have never accepted limitations on what they can accomplish together. Today the couple has four children in preschool, including 3-year-old triplets, as Chelsea heads into her third year of medical school.

“I’m so blessed because Cameron was so determined to make this happen for me,” she said. “He’s really the only person I look up to. He is the most inspiring thing I have in my life, and I get to see him every day.”

Chelsea credits much of Cameron’s astounding recovery to his unbridled ambition to tackle law school despite severe brain injuries which affected his higher-level thinking and processing — he struggled with basic addition when he declared his lofty goal.

Cameron attributes his fast-track recovery to the healing power of unshakeable love: “I always say I got better because of Chelsea Fathauer.”


Marrying a stranger

The day Cameron “woke up” from his coma — one month after that horrific day that left his skull fragments on the windshield of a Lexus and two months after the exhilarating day he proposed to his high school sweetheart — Cameron publicly reaffirmed his love for his fiancé. But Chelsea knew. She could see it in his eyes.

Chelsea and Cameron kissing on their wedding day, surrounded by their attendants“He looked at me and I knew, he has no idea who I am.”

The naysayers were many. Cameron and Chelsea had already been told they were “too young” to get married. Now, with a long road to recovery ahead, surely it didn’t make sense to keep a wedding date just six months away.

“For me, it was no different — I loved him — and our commitment hadn’t changed,” Chelsea said. “I told my dad I will push him in a wheelchair the rest of his life if I have to.”

Despite having no memories of their courtship, Cameron felt the same about his commitment to Chelsea. They needed to get through this together.

He graduated from wearing a gait belt just in time to walk down the aisle unassisted on their wedding day, March 26, 2016.

“We were really still strangers,” Chelsea said. “We didn’t fall in love again until after we were married.”


Riding the ‘roller coaster’ of traumatic brain injury 

Cameron maintains a blog chronicling his journey, where he describes himself as a “Kentuckiana lawyer with four children, a glorious wife, and a really big God.”

His road to recovery has often seemed like a continuous roller coaster. While the speed of his physical recovery amazed his medical team, his mental and emotional recovery has been bumpier. Doctors initially told his family his injuries — a severe diffuse axonal brain injury down to his brain stem — might leave him with the mental capacity of a 9-year-old.

A 3D model of Cameron's skull, showing a substantial chunk completely missing, sits in his law office.The part of the brain affected, explained Chelsea, impacts higher-level thinking and processing and emotional regulation, making him more prone to compulsive and impulsive behaviors.

Cameron has not hidden his struggles with darkness. The last time he was gripped with an unexplainable desire to end his life was January 30, 2023. Rather than taking up an instrument of self-harm, he started writing, hoping his raw “Melancholy” blog might help someone else to heal.

While much of Cameron’s personality remains the same as before the accident, he’s gained a depth of character and increased empathy, Chelsea observed.

“Before, he was going fast, living large,” she said. “Now he has a huge heart for people. His struggle with depression helps him relate to others in their suffering.”

Although he started seminary classes before the accident with the intent to become a pastor, Cameron said his faith means more to him now. His ministry has been redirected from the church to the law office, inspired by the compassionate legal counsel he received from his injury lawyer, Matt Schad, who eagerly offered Cameron a job upon law school graduation.

Cameron and Chelsea Fathauer at Cameron's law school graduation“This is where I think the lawyer truly earns the title of ‘counselor’— in listening to, bearing with, and supporting others through personal struggle,” Cameron said on his blog.

A few years ago, he started a monthly support group in Columbus for survivors and their caregivers called Voice of TBI (traumatic brain injury). The former seminary student now has a fresh perspective on “picking up your cross,” a biblical reference to carrying the cross of Christ and following his example. Emotional healing, Cameron said, starts with acceptance of suffering.

“It's not acceptance to be complacent, but to face what's come into your life,” he explained. “The next step is picking up the cross, which is dealing, moving and improving. The last part —'following me (Jesus)’ — is journeying and healing.”

Chelsea’s advice for partners and caregivers of someone living with brain injury also runs along the theme of acceptance: “I want to be able to fix everything, but I cannot.”

At first, she thought she was “doing something wrong” if Cameron was feeling depressed or expressing suicidal thoughts.

“You have to see it for what it is, truly a brain problem,” she said. “The hardest part is knowing he’s going through something I can’t fully understand.”

Cameron now understands he is not defined by his brain injury.

“I’m more than a brain,” he said. “I started to see differently. What if you could live your life with subjective joy and peace, always holding this hope and purpose, regardless of circumstances?”


Fulfilling the call to medicine

As someone still in her 20s, Chelsea doesn’t appear much different than her medical school peers — but she feels much older.

Chelsea Fathauer in her IU School of Medicine white coat“That’s the most challenging part, feeling different,” she said. “I am the only mom in my class. My preceptors might assume I’m in my early 20s with no kids, but I have to call the nanny because my kid’s home with an ear infection.”

Because the family lives near Cameron’s law office in southern Indiana, Chelsea has a nearly two-hour commute to the IU School of Medicine campus in Indianapolis. She uses the time to listen to lectures.

“Chelsea is proof of how a nontraditional student has the ability to not only be successful in medical school but also add value from the life experience she brings,” said her lead adviser, Kelly Matthews, MSEd. “She is a resilient, passionate and dedicated professional who makes sacrifices every day while devoting her time and efforts to being the best physician she can be.”

As she enters year three of her medical education, Chelsea will transition to clinical rotations in various medical specialties. Before coming to IU, she was a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She earned her nursing degree from the University of Louisville while Cameron was studying for the law school admission test. Chelsea didn’t know then if she would ever fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a doctor.

When Cameron said he wanted to be a lawyer, Chelsea never doubted he could do it — although she told him, “This is going to be really hard.” After gaining admission to the IU Maurer School of Law, Cameron told his “brilliant” wife, “It’s time you let me take care of you.”

He intended to support her calling as well as she had supported his.

Family portrait of Chelsea and Cameron Fathauer with their four children in the fall“The beauty of our marriage relationship is how she’s been committed to me, and I to her,” Cameron said. “It’s not about us making a million dollars as lawyers or doctors, but it’s the supportive relationship that carries us through our life.”

Perhaps that’s the perspective gained when both people in the marriage are “walking miracles.”

When Chelsea was at Riley Hospital for Children with septic shock at age 6, her parents were told she wasn’t likely to make it.

“I had a miraculous recovery,” said Chelsea. She’s also a “Riley kid” with a long history of treatment for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Now Chelsea is on the other side of the treatment room door, learning from physicians in pediatrics and many other specialties. She knows she will be back at IU Health Methodist Hospital, too, where she once agonized as Cameron lay unconscious for nearly a month.

“The IU Health faculty physicians who took care of him the night of his accident and afterward were amazing, as was everyone at Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana,” she said. “IU Health has some of the best doctors in the country, so I’m very happy to be training here.”

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Laura Gates

Laura is senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications and loves to tell the stories of outstanding students, faculty and staff at IU School of Medicine. A native Hoosier, she has over 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.