Sept. 5, 2012 started out as another agonizing day for Buranda Martinez -- the day of her wedding anniversary.
She was at her husband Johnny's bedside at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center, as she had been every day since his traumatic motorcycle accident about one month earlier. Her life had become a routine of hospital visits and heartbreak, and doctors were preparing her to accept a grim future. Johnny was conscious but he couldn't talk or acknowledge others, and they warned her he might be mentally disabled for the rest of his life.
Buranda said she was devastated. They had known each other since they were kids, been married for 17 years, and were on the path toward a brighter future. Johnny had recently bought his own cabinet-making shop and was enjoying being his own boss at a job he loved. Buranda was finishing up her college degree and their son, Eli, was in the middle of high school.
But just as physicians were warning Buranda to prepare for the worst, something incredible happened.
Johnny put his hands on the back of the bed and growled his first words in a month: "I want to get the f--- out of here!"
Buranda said those were the sweetest words she had ever heard. It was the first sign in weeks that maybe her husband would recover and they could reclaim their old life.
"It was amazing; I was so happy," she said. " I started to think everything was going to be OK."
But it was only the beginning. The last years haven't been easy for the Martinez family as they dealt with a slow, painful process of recovering. Following the brutal accident and weeks in a coma, Johnny has struggled to reclaim his life since suffering from amnesia.
Now three years later, the family has returned to normalcy, but it is hardly the same place where they were before. Johnny said he doesn't believe he's quite the same person he was before the crash. Before the tragedy, he acted more like a "teenager" on a quest for all the thrills and excitement the world had to offer. Now, he has a much calmer temperament and a new outlook.
"I think different; I act different," Johnny said. "And there's still so much I can't remember."
A changed man
Nothing teaches a person how to appreciate life like having a close scrape with death.
For Johnny, that experience came as he was riding his motorcycle on Highway 680 late in the evening on the way home from an East Bay car show. A muscular then-38-year-old, Johnny loved physical activities: snowboarding, dirt-biking or just working hard at his job building custom-made cabinets. He had a bit of a reputation as a macho surly type, always telling you how it is with no sugarcoating.
"He's the kind of guy who gets more done by 10 in the morning than the rest of us get done all day," according to Judy Petersen, a longtime family friend.
That life ended in an instant when one of his riding buddies made a hasty lane change and clipped his handlebars. He lost control of his bike and was thrown for a hard landing onto the highway.
Traveling a few minutes behind her husband in another vehicle, Buranda came upon the terrifying scene. Running to her husband lying on the ground, she saw he was breathing heavily, but he seemed completely dazed and unresponsive. He was bleeding profusely from his head and ears.
"In that moment, I thought I'm going to be a widow. My son isn't going to have a father," Buranda recalled.
Johnny underwent emergency surgery. Doctors put him in an induced coma to reduce brain swelling. When he came out of the coma two weeks later, he was like a shell of a human being. At first he thrashed about incoherently, but he later settled into staring blankly straight ahead. He wasn't speaking; he didn't respond when others spoke and his eyes wouldn't follow basic hand motions.
"One of his doctors said he probably wasn't going to walk, talk or understand language ever again," Buranda said. "I ran out of the hospital room and broke down crying."
What he was going through at time now seems like a blurry dream, Johnny said. The hospital seemed like a prison, and he remembered people from his life as well as celebrities wandering the hallways. "How am I going to get out of here?" kept repeating in his mind, he said.
His family was elated when Johnny broke his silence and spoke up for the first time. But it became clear his memory was shot. Johnny couldn't recall who he was or what he did for a living. Buranda, their son Eli, his father -- everyone seemed like a stranger.
Rekindling his memories became another painful experience.
His vocabulary had taken a hit. He recognized objects, but their names escaped him. He would stare at items blankly, like "a deer looking in the headlights," one of their friends recalled. The finer points of eating eluded him -- he mistook dipping sauce for a beverage; he couldn't recall how to use a fork and knife.
"He had to relearn everything from walking to dressing himself to eating," Buranda said. "Everything had to be reintroduced."
His memory did slowly come back, but only in fragments. In the first days, Johnny didn't recognize his wife, but he began to regard her as an "alright" lady. It was hard for Eli to have his father not recognize him, and he went into a bout of depression, his mother said.
Buranda brought in favorite songs, photo albums, home videos, crossword puzzles -- anything that might spark Johnny's memory. Other friends brought in pieces of different kinds of wood to remind him about his cabinet shop.
Slowly, those strangers who kept coming to visit him every day at the hospital seemed like family again. About two months after the crash, Johnny was allowed to leave the hospital and go back to his family's home in Santa Clara. Entering the front door was a revelation.
"Oh my God! I remember this!" he said when he entered the door. True to his workhorse habits, his first order of business was to trim the yard's hedges.
Johnny had lost nearly 25 pounds in the hospital and he was severely weakened from his injuries. His head was still swollen, and he had to wear a helmet at all times. Buranda moved their bed downstairs so he didn't have to climb the staircase. He was easily fatigued and had to heavily rely on his wife. It started to feel like she had a second child to care for, Buranda said.
Within days, Johnny was getting anxious to go back to his workshop, even though he had completely forgotten his trade.
Buranda eventually relented and brought him to his old work garage. He had a broad grin on his face when he went inside, and the memories came streaming back. The smell of sawdust, the feel of his old tools, his sight of his unfinished projects -- it all felt familiar. His former boss and other contractors had built him a wooden ramp to help him access the shop while in his wheelchair. Johnny stepped right over it, and never used it once, Buranda said. Johnny announced he wanted to go back to work.
He had to relearn woodworking from the beginning. He started with basic sanding and slowly worked his way up. He experienced many of the same mistakes he had made 20 years earlier in his junior high woodshop class. It was frustrating, but the other tradesmen nearby were a huge help, he said, answering any questions he had.
It was nerve-wracking when he got his first job since his accident -- a kitchen remodel in Los Altos. Johnny recalled going back 10 times to the house to measure the dimensions, just to make sure he was doing it right. From there, the old work habits slowly came back.
At his Mountain View shop, San Antonio Cabinets, last week, Johnny's sister in law gathered everyone in the office to play a short slide-show. The photos chronicled the family's hardest time, showing Johnny in his intensive-care bed before gradually transitioning to recovery.
By the end, Johnny had tears streaming down from his eyes. He'll never ride a motorcycle again, he said. His injuries also prevented him from resuming his favorite adventure sports. Sometimes when he thinks about it all, he's was overwhelmed by sadness, he said.
His memory was about "96 percent" back, he said. But friends and family say Johnny is a changed man. Other contractors have commented to him that he's seems much more relaxed, especially in dealing with setbacks. Before the accident, they told him, he could be a real hothead, getting argumentative about minor details. Now he doesn't sweat the small stuff and he's more appreciative of life, Buranda said. He's changed for the better, she said.
"I still miss the old Johnny, and I know our son misses him," she said. "But the new Johnny is also pretty cool."