Wallingford, Vermont - December 2, 2011
To say that Emma Burke is an affectionate woman might be an understatement.
"You got a hug for me?" she asked.
She treats everybody at Emma's Place like they are family, but one person is.
"Hi, Len," she said.
"Hi, Mom," Lenny Burke answered.
Emma Burke is the founder and director of Lenny Burke Farms, a residential facility in Wallingford for people with head trauma. Lenny is the reason this place exists.
"He almost died," Emma said. "He did. He was near death, but I never thought he was going to die."
It was almost 33 years ago when Lenny, then 17 and arguably the best basketball player in the state, was going up for a layup when a player on the opposing team pushed him from behind. He hit the wall and then the floor-- head first.
"That Lenny changed forever at that moment," Emma said.
Lenny was rushed to the hospital. He went into a coma, some of the doctors thought he would die. Then, after 46 days of physical up and downs, he regained consciousness.
Today, Lenny is visiting the school where it all happened, Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Rutland.
Reporter Joe Carroll: How are you feeling?
Lenny Burke: I feel great, Joe. I feel better every day.
He hasn't always been so upbeat about his injury. After he woke up, reality set in.
"When I was out at Rancho Los Amigos in California, I wanted to die... I was down that far down," Lenny recalled.
Reporter Joe Carroll: I was a sophomore at MSJ at the time, a pretty average student. To this day I don't remember much from my Spanish class, but I do remember something from that year and it's this; life is fragile and even star athletes can almost die.
"I wasn't going up for two points, I going up to put us ahead, hopefully for good," Lenny recalled.
In the audience that night-- his mother, Emma. She saw it all.
"My head hit the floor and it was dark time," Lenny said.
Emma's life was drastically altered, but she didn't have time for pity. The then-36-year-old mother of four now had one child that needed special care. She plotted the future. She wanted to start a treatment facility where Lenny could call home. She needed a license and a college degree. At the age of 42 she did just that with a 4.0 average.
The Lenny Burke Farm started with just Lenny. Now, it has about 22 survivors in multiple facilities in Rutland County.
"I used to tell my kids when I was 70 I was going to retire," Emma said. "And now that I'm turning 70, I'm saying at least at 75... and when I reach 75, I may keep going."
A life neither of them asked for, but what a wonderful life they have.
"She's been the propeller on my airplane," Lenny said.
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