HUNTERSVILLE – Marty Foil wanted his little brother, Philip, to be buried in an Iron Man costume.
“He could grow a beard, I never could,” Foil said last week just a few days after his 49-year-old brother died. “Once, they shaved him so he had a beard just like Tony Stark, and Phil dressed up like Iron Man on Halloween. He really pulled it off.”
Foil smiled as he remembered that image of his brother. And during an hour-long talk in the office at the Hinds' Feet Farm facility for traumatic brain injury victims – where pictures of Philip Foil are prominently displayed – the smile returned often as Foil recalled other memorable times in his baby brother's life.
Some memories were from Philip's first 16 years, when be excelled in school and was active in theater and church activities. But most were from days during the last 33 years – in the aftermath of a December 1984 car accident that left Philip with devastating injuries and put the Foil family on a path to re-define what daily life – and quality of life – could be for adults with traumatic brain injuries.
“His legacy?” Foil, executive director of Hinds' Feet Farm, repeated for emphasis when asked what his brother leaves behind. “We treat more people coping with traumatic brain injury than any other facility in the state. Phil's legacy is this place. It wouldn't be here without him. It wouldn't be what it is without him.”
In the days leading up to Philip's July 7 funeral, Foil's unusual suggestion for burial attire was overruled by other members of the family – “They don't all share my sense of humor,” he said. But with or without the costume, Foil's perception of his little brother was unchanged.
“He really was a hero, in so many ways” he said.
Tragedy and faith
The Foil family journey from despair following Philip's accident to decades of dedicated leadership in the effort to promote programs and facilities for traumatic brain injury (TBI) victims is a local legend.
After the accident, parents Carolyn “Puddin” Van Every Foil and Martin Foil Jr. (Marty Foil is Martin Foil III) wanted the best care and surroundings possible for their son. They became active in a movement to increase awareness of TBI issues and promote more and better specialized facilities. In the early 1990s – years before property that would become Hinds' Feet Farm was purchased – Puddin Foil worked to establish The Checkered Ball fundraiser to support brain injury research and treatments. The 27th annual event was held earlier this year.
The Foils also, in trying to find the perfect place for Philip, saw the shortcomings of existing care facilities. Some were too cold and sterile, more like institutions than homes. And others didn't provide the type of activities and person-to-person interaction they wanted for their son – and the type of opportunities they believed should be provided for every person impacted by a TBI. Puddin Foil began envisioning her ideal scenario, which would become Hinds' Feet Farm (that story, in her own words, is shared at www.hindsfeetfarm.org under “History: A Mother's Story.” It is a memorial tribute to Puddin Foil, who died in 2010).
In 2000, acreage along Black Farms Road was acquired, and Hinds' Feet Farm began. Marty Foil, a 1985 Davidson College graduate, left his career in the computer consulting and software business to oversee the facility's operations.
A day program offering team and individual learning activities and group outings was initiated for adults with traumatic brain injuries, like Philip, and it attracted participants from a wide area. A separate day program was created in Asheville. And a few years ago, a six-bedroom family care home for adults with TBI opened at Hinds' Feet Farm. It is called Puddin's Place.
Today, 65 adults with traumatic injuries are served by Hinds' Feet Farm's 43-person staff. Hinds’ Feet Farm has become a model for other TBI facilities. The “Unmasking Brain Injury” project, a Hinds’ Feet Farm day program art project that encouraged members to create masks illustrating important aspects of their lives before and after their injuries, has been trademarked and is now practiced at facilities in 26 other states. And Martin Foil and Marty Foil have been asked numerous times to appear before the U.S. Congress to talk about brain injury issues.
And it’s all happened with little fanfare with the focus remaining on each day’s activities. Administrative Assistant Cat Fulbright lives near the 30-plus acre facility, but before she started working there, she didn’t know about the programs or the purpose of Hinds’ Feet Farm.
“When you see what happens here every day, it’s amazing,” Fulbright said. “I’ve had lots of careers, and jobs I’ve enjoyed. But being a part of this, seeing the commitment and witnessing what it means to the members and their families. I don’t know the best way to express it, but it just feeds your soul.”
A missing piece
Talking about his brother and the evolution of Hinds' Feet Farm, Marty Foil couldn't separate the two.
“It's going to be a different place,” he said. “I don't know how it will feel without Philip here.”
Programs were shut down last week to recognize the Fourth of July, and Marty Foil was concerned about how other Hinds' Feet Farm members would react.
“Philip was bigger than life for our members,” he said. “Everybody knows we exist because of him.”
Talking about Philip's celebrity status among Hinds' Feet Farm members and staff brought a grin back to Foil's face. And even when he shared details of the final days, Foil displayed a soft smile of acceptance knowing his brother battled long enough.
Philip always coped with seizures.
“That's one of the issues with traumatic brain injuries,” Foil said.
But in recent weeks, signs of increased weakness led to a trip to the hospital.
“We learned he had been having subclinical seizures, ones that can't really be detected except during an exam,” Foil said.
There were also signs of pneumonia and a dim prognosis from Philip's doctor.
“Philip never complained. He never showed signs of pain in all these years,” Foil said. “And he was moaning. I knew he was hurting.”
Foil said family members reached a difficult decision, keeping in mind one of the main reasons Puddin Foil had pushed so hard to create Hinds' Feet Farm.
“Our whole mission here is about quality of life,” Foil said. “We made a very difficult decision, but it was the right thing to do.”
He said the family talked to hospice representatives on the morning of July 2. That night, at 9:25, Philip died.
“He was ready to go,” Foil said. “But he's left a lasting legacy here, and he's left a mark across the country. He was a superhero.”