A young man’s miraculous survival and his podcast about living with traumatic brain injury

Andy Oquendo at Florida International University. (Photo courtesy of Andy Oquendo)

Andy Oquendo is a 27-year-old senior journalism student at Florida International University who loves to tell jokes and give people compliments. He is also a survivor of traumatic brain injury (TBI), and a source of encouragement for other survivors.

In November 2010, Andy Oquendo was driving with his younger brother and a friend when he lost control of his Scion tC and collided with a tree. The accident took the life of his little brother and left him in a coma for two months.

Now almost ten years later, he’s begun a podcast dedicated to people suffering from TBI. “I’ve been there before. I know exactly what the people with a brand new TBI are going through,” he said.

In the podcast, he said he wants to provide survivors of TBI, which he calls “a new roommate,” with information, advice and relief. On it, he discusses topics such as the benefits of recreational therapy. In a recent episode he talked to caregivers about their experiences.

“If I knew even half of the things that I know now back when I was starting off with my TBI adventure, it would have helped me immeasurably,” he said.

When he was in a coma following his crash, doctors sat down his mother and recommended that she take him off life support. But she decided to hold onto hope after seeking the advice of a psychic medium. The medium allegedly gave her a message from the spirit of his little brother, telling her that he would survive and recover.

Ten months before his accident, his father had died from lung cancer. Three years before that, his sister was killed in the same exact situation — crashing into a tree — while driving home at night from work.

Nilsa Oquendo had suffered unbearable tragedy and lost most of her family. But she refused to let go of her last surviving son. And he woke up from his coma after 38 days and began to recover.

“Andy is my antidepressant pill,” she said. “With him, there are no bad times.”

Andy Oquendo said that in the hospital he would often have “episodes” in which he would see his little brother. He described one instance in which he saw his brother sleeping on the floor as he had breakfast with his mother. When he looked away, then back again, his brother was gone.

“I asked my mom, ‘Mom, where’s Joey?’ And she said, ‘Joey died.’ And I feel for her, because I can only imagine how hard that must have been for her to break the news to me like that,” he said.

His injuries had left him bound to a wheelchair, but through physical therapy, he regained his ability to walk. He used to play guitar and saxophone before his accident, but now has limited mobility in his left hand. “I always say I can’t open it yet,” he said, but he’s hopeful that he will regain full movement.

Every Thursday, he accompanies his mother, 56-year-old Nilsa Oquendo, to Romero Chiropractic Health Center where she works as a massage therapist. There, he receives acupuncture treatment for his TBI.

“We aren’t afraid to go there,” Nilsa Oquendo said in Spanish, assuring that they are taking all necessary precautionary measures. Only one patient is allowed in at a time, everything is disinfected consistently and everyone must wear masks and gloves. “This treatment has been helping him even more than the medication, so we wanted to continue it while we still can.”

“I’ve been so busy with school work, I haven’t really noticed my own boredom,” Andy Oquendo said about being quarantined during the pandemic.

He says his philosophy in life is “A mal tiempo, buena cara,” which translates directly into “to bad weather, show a good face.” The Spanish idiom about staying positive during bad times.

“I just want people to have a certain type of attitude… be interested in leaving the world a better place than how you found it,” Andy Oquendo said. “A better world. That’s what I’m after.”

Nilsa Oquendo said she is not worried about the pandemic. “It will always pass. Life is a cycle, everything starts and ends. This will end too.”

She said she is more worried for what comes next for humanity. Despite this, she still believes everything will be for the better in the end.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Nilsa Oquendo’s name as Milsa Oquendo. We regret this error. 

Beatriz is a broadcast media major at Florida International University and is the managing editor for South Florida Media Network. She aspires to become a documentarian.