By Jan Tarasovic (Photo by Hugh Rawlins)

Rosemary Rawlins was unpacking groceries on an ordinary Saturday morning in 2002 when the call came—the call we all pray we’ll never get, the one from the hospital emergency room where a loved one lies injured. Rosemary’s husband Hugh had been struck by a car while cycling and rushed to MCV. “Get here right away,” a strange voice commanded. 

On that April day the lives of Rosemary and her family veered into a long, unmapped journey. Hugh had suffered a massive brain injury that put him into a week-long coma and required several surgeries, weeks of hospitalization, and over a year of intense rehabilitation. No one could predict how fully his brain would recover. The outlook was grim.

As Rosemary and her 13-year-old twins sat by Hugh’s side day after day, a nurse suggested Rosemary keep a journal of the experience—and writing became her therapy. She documented every aspect of Hugh’s treatment and rehabilitation, transcribed every note and email from the friends and family who sustained them, and explored her own crippling grief and fear.

That journal is now a book, Learning by Accident, a gripping and moving account of how one family survived what Rosemary calls a tsunami of pain, fear, and exhaustion. “I credit my Osher writing group with helping me develop my story into a finished book,” Rosemary says. “I had the story, but I didn’t have the writing tools. I gained those in weekly meetings with the group.”

Unlike so many stories of brain injury, Learning by Accident has a happy ending: Hugh recovered completely, eventually returning to professional work as well as cycling and surfing. Rosemary, who had managed her own résumé-writing business, earned a B.A.S. in HR Management at Richmond while Hugh was recovering. Her book has been adopted for use by the staff of HealthSouth, which recently recognized Hugh and Rosemary with the “No Barriers” award. “Mrs. Rawlins has done the medical profession, especially those who treat head injury, a great service by her warm and detailed description of her and her husband’s journey,” writes Dr. John Ward, Hugh’s neurosurgeon, and President of MCV Physicians. 

You can purchase Learning by Accident online with one click for ebook, Amazon (and Kindle), or Barnes & at Rosemary’s website:

Excerpt from Learning by Accident

Dr. Ward says that there is now data to suggest that the brain continues to recover indefinitely, and that this whole area of study is still new, so really, we might find there is subtle lifelong improvement. “It’s hard to measure or determine if the patient’s brain is healing or if compensatory strategies are working. But what does it matter?” he states, palms up. “So long as the patient can get back to living, the result is what counts.” Results. This doctor speaks Hugh’s language. I see a spark of hope.

While we are visiting Dr. Ward, the cousins are at home baking a three-tiered anniversary cake for their grandparents. My cell phone rings and it’s Mary. “Mom, the cake has collapsed,” she says. I can hear her sister and two cousins laughing in the background. “We need more pink frosting to patch it up. Can you pick some up on your way home? It’s a surprise for Nan and Pop.” The afternoon flies by with walks, drinks, and a sit down dinner.

“Check out the leaning tower of wedding cake,” Anna whispers to me later. We all sing “Happy Anniversary to You” for Mom and Pop. While I watch the cake cutting ceremony, Dr. Ward’s philosophy comes to mind: Who cares if it’s slightly lopsided as long as it’s delicious?

Excerpt © 2011 Rosemary Rawlins