In April 2012, Nikolai Yakovenko was playing in an alumni rugby match at Columbia University when a 220-pound teammate accidentally smashed into his temple.
Yakovenko was knocked unconscious for over three minutes. “I had three seizures,” Yakovenko, now 33, told The Post. “My arm jerked up and was stuck in a Hitler salute.”
He was rushed to the hospital and put into a medically induced coma. A day later Yakovenko was unable to move the right side of his upper body, but within a week he signed himself out and went home.
Believing he could heal himself better than any doctor could, Yakovenko embarked on a do-it-yourself brain recovery plan with help from his girlfriend at the time, who lived with him in Brooklyn. Yakovenko, who works in artificial intelligence, designed a program that centered on “engaging the brain, exercising and getting proper rest.”
He knew to focus on working his right shoulder, which had lost its connection to the brain, and he eschewed physical therapists. “It seemed like a waste, paying $150 an hour to press a towel against the wall,” said Yakovenko, who lacked health insurance but had plenty of cash.
Regaining communication between brain and body turned into a trial-and-error process: “I spent the first year exercising with resistance bands — to engage my shoulder — and hitting a ping-pong ball. At the start, it was a challenge to hold a glass of water. I practiced picking up coins from the floor, but that got boring.”
Later, he “tried training on a balancing ball and lifting weights, but that proved too exhausting. Instead I ran and biked and worked out with weights attached to cables. I [started] pulling rather than lifting, which caused disorientation because of the many movements.”
Through it all, Yakovenko was plagued with migraines. After attending a brain-injury support group in late 2016, he discovered the benefit of wearing eyeglasses. “It relieves pressure on your eyes and frees up the brain to think clearly,” he said.
I kept my brain active by writing code, reading and playing poker.”
As his brain healed and circuits reconnected, Yakovenko put himself on a faster track. “I started lifting weights six months ago and pretty much am back to where I had been before the accident,” he said. “I am dead-lifting 330 and will get to 400 by the end of the year. I can do 10 or 12 pull-ups. A year ago it was zero, and I would probably have hurt my shoulder. I still have sensory overload issues . . . but I am pushing myself hard.”
Surprisingly, neurologists aren’t entirely critical of Yakovenko’s self-treatment. “I am a believer in the brain repairing itself,” said Dr. Laura Boylan, a New York-based neurologist. “His age helped, as did the fact that he already exercised. Athletes tend to know their bodies.”