After a traumatic brain injury, UBC student heads to Stanford to help others

Click to play video: 'UBC graduate heading to Stanford after battling back from traumatic brain injury'
UBC graduate heading to Stanford after battling back from traumatic brain injury
WATCH: A UBC graduate who nearly lost his life in a significant crash two years ago - is going to Stanford University to embark on PhD studies. Yi Yi Du suffers from a traumatic brain injury after being in a coma for two months, but he defied all odds and is now helping others like himself. Jennifer Palma reports. – Jun 1, 2023

UBC student Yi Yi Du never thought he would graduate from university.

The 24-year-old fell into a two-month-long coma after being struck by a car in the fall of 2021 and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury.

But now, the ambitious young man has fought back and in the fall, he will start a Ph.D. program at Stanford University, where he is hoping to develop technologies that can support people who suffer traumatic brain injuries.

“I graduated with mechanical engineering, with a specialization in biomechanics and medical devices, special design,” Du said of his UBC diploma.

At Stanford, he wants to apply what he learned about automatic control and use it to design medical devices such as traumatic brain injury prevention devices or rehabilitative devices.

“I’m going to the direct to the Ph.D. program, so I won’t be getting a master’s,” Du said.

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While he is excited about Stanford and what lies ahead, Du had a long road of rehabilitation to get here.

“Before the accident, I was a very dedicated individual,” he said.

“On one side of things, on the academic side, I focused on my schoolwork, achieving A-pluses in all my courses, and also continuing to participate in undergraduate research and also doing my co-op.

“But also my other side focused on outside of school where I was very passionate in three things. The first is road biking. One of my really close friends from high school introduced me to road cycling and we went on really long rides.”

Du said he also loved hiking and even wanted to train with North Shore Rescue at one point. He said he also enjoyed sea kayaking and was a lifeguard with the City of Coquitlam.

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“I really like the outdoors,” he said.

But after being hit by a car while on his longboard and not wearing a helmet, Du gradually began to come out of his coma after two months.

I don’t remember the early days because my memory is not so good after the accident,” he said. “But from what I and my mom’s account, I woke up not just immediately, like what you would expect. It was very gradual waking, gradual consciousness.”

In his case, Du’s doctors told him he likely will have some permanent disabilities, including issues with balance and double vision. He said his cognitive abilities will be the slowest to recover and he also gets tired very easily.

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He said after his accident and returning to studying, UBC has been very considerate and understanding of his condition. He received accommodations on exams and assignment deadlines as he processes information slower than others.

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But now he is looking forward to the next stage of his life and what he can achieve.

“I think because of my injury, I like to focus on something that’s not physically intensive for work because I don’t think I would excel at physically demanding work or active work that requires my active daily life,” he said.

“At the same time, I want to continue my research in biomechanics and medical devices because before my injury, I (knew) the importance of medical devices and the research going to them. I knew that it was very important for this society. But now, after the injury, I have a personal understanding of the impact of research.”

Specifically, he said he would like to develop a crutch or a cane to help people walk with more stability.

The future in sunny California looks bright for Du as he heads off this fall with a new outlook on life.

“You cannot choose what happens to you,” he said. “You can choose what you respond. I think that is the takeaway from this. And I think another takeaway is to make sure to surround yourself with a good support network.”

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