Lenny Burke, Whose Experience Revolutionized Traumatic Brain Injury Treatment, Dies At 56

Jun 22, 2018

Lenny Burke, a man beloved in Rutland for his courage and determination in the face of adversity, has died.

Burke died on Friday. He was 56 years old and had been battling cancer.

In 1979, Burke was a senior at Mount St. Joseph’s Academy. A gifted student and athlete, he had already been accepted at both Middlebury College and the University of Vermont to study pre-med the following year.

But a near-fatal fall on the basketball court left 17-year-old Burke in a coma for 45 days. When he finally awoke, Burke and his mother Emmie became a team, fighting for better awareness and treatment for people with traumatic brain injury, something few understood at the time.

Rutland native Ron Savage was a special education teacher when he met Burke.

"We knew how to save lives,” says Savage. “We did have a little bit of rehabilitation here and there, but no one was doing care afterwards," explained Savage. "A year afterwards, two years afterwards … What do you do 30 years afterwards?"

Back then, he says people didn’t know.

The research he did to help Burke relearn how to walk, talk and think turned Savage's career in a whole new direction. Today, he is one of the nation’s leading experts on traumatic brain injury, something he credits to Burke.

Traveling across Vermont

In the 1980s, Savage and the Burkes teamed up to create a statewide organization called the "Head Injury Stroke Independence Project."

Lenny and his mother Emmie Burke. During the 1980s and early '90s, the two traveled all over Vermont reaching out to other families who were coping with traumatic brain injury.
Credit Burke Family

Journalist and author Yvonne Daley wrote about it in her book about Lenny Burke, The Bend in the Road.

"Within no time whatsoever, here's Emmie and Lenny getting in the car and they're driving all over Vermont to meet with parents and people who have had brain injuries, and they're helping them," said Daley.

Daley wrote that in the first four years, the support group Savage and the Burkes started helped more than 500 families.

In 1987, Emmie bought an old farmhouse and barn in Wallingford and turned it into a residential treatment center for people with brain injuries.

Today, Lenny Burke’s Farm, as it’s known, includes six facilities. Similar care centers across the country have copied their approach.

Writing the book on TBI

Ron Savage wrote the first textbook on how to help kids with TBI do better in school.

Savage says he, Burke and former Vermont Sen. Robert Stafford helped push Congress to include traumatic brain injuries with special education funding.

"From my viewpoint," said Savage, "Lenny was ground zero in terms of the world of traumatic brain injury. From Lenny grew so much awareness on long-term treatment and the increased focus on veterans with TBI and football players with TBI"  

Over the last 30 years, the Lenny Burke’s Farm has worked with hundreds of people coping with brain injuries, something Burke himself marveled at in a 2015 interview with VPR.

"It's amazing to me when I hear we have all these places,” said Burke. “I know we do; and I can even remember now that we do."

"But it almost boggles my mind to realize how many places, how many people we're helping and how many places we're doing it," Burke said. "And it's wonderful,” he added smiling.

“This is why God has me here,” he said nodding. “This is why I survived my injury."

His legacy in Rutland

Long-time family friend Cyndie Clark says just about everyone in Rutland knew Lenny as a gifted high school athlete back in the late '70s.

But after his head injury and more recently fighting cancer, she says it was his determination, positive attitude and love for others that was truly remarkable and captivated so many.

“His openness and his willingness to take people just as they were and certainly his ability to give great hugs to everybody he met,” said Clark with a smile.

“All of this positive love really became part of his personality, and people reacted to that,” she said. “You always got the reception, ‘Wow you’re here, let me give you a big hug!’

“I’ll miss that,” she said softly.

Ron Savage says he has two wonderful grown sons whom he adores.

"The three most significant people in my life," he said, "have been my two sons and Lenny Burke. I don't know of anyone who has had a more profound impact on my career or the world of traumatic brain injury than Lenny."

Added Savage, "I'm just going to miss him so much, I can't imagine what my life would be like if he hadn't come into it."

Lenny Burke is survived by his mother Emmie Burke, his sister Kathleen and his brothers Kevin and Michael. 

Correction 6/23/2018 7:20 a.m. An earlier version of this story misstated Lenny Burke's age as 57.