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"It gives you a spark to keep going"

Ten years after his death, a research fund in Zach Sowers' name helps his family — and Hopkins scientists — move forward
Posted April 12, 2018
  • Zach Sowers' mother, Kim Good, right, meets with Oby Okoye, a registered nurse in the Hopkins Neurosciences Critical Care Unit, during the family's annual visit in March 2018.

  • (l-r) Good, her daughter, Taylor Harris, and Jose Suarez, director of neurosciences critical care, review some of the work supported by the Zach Sowers Brain Trauma Research Fund.

  • Cho Sung-Min, an NCCU fellow whose work is supported by the Sowers Fund, greets Harris during the family's tour of the unit.

  • Harris, second from left, was inspired to become a nurse during her brother's care in the NCCU. "Seeing how hard they worked, their drive, how brilliant and compassionate they are — I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’"

For much of the past decade, Anna Sowers, MBA (Bus '09), Kim Good, and Taylor Harris have gathered once a year at Johns Hopkins Hospital to mark one of the hardest moments of their lives. In March 2008, Zach Sowers — Anna's husband, Kim's son, and Taylor's brother — died, having spent months in a coma after a mugging outside his home in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood.

The women's annual visits to the Neurosciences Critical Care Unit (NCCU) began as a way to thank the nurses and doctors who cared for Zach; Good would bake and bring cookies to the units both in East Baltimore and at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Zach Sowers, on his wedding day.

"It keeps Zach's name alive," Good says. "When we go see and meet everyone each March, it gives you a spark to keep going."

In recent years, they've also met with young researchers whose work is supported by the Zach Sowers Brain Trauma Research Fund. The fund — which began as a way to help the family pay for Zach's medical bills — has grown into a valuable resource for physician-scientists in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine.

To support the Sowers Fund, follow this link and select "Zach Sowers Brain Trauma Research Fund" from the drop-down menu

"Even though he passed away from his condition, Zach's memory lives," says J. Ricardo Carhuapoma, an associate professor of neurology who served as the interim director of neurosciences critical care from 2014 to 2017. "This research is going to modify practice, and it's going to improve the care of patients like him in a very tangible way."

The Sowers Brain Trauma Research Fund has supported three studies thus far. One uses continuous electroencephalography (EEG) monitoring in the NCCU to understand the effects of sleep disruption on patient outcomes and design more sleep-conducive environments. Another examines how Klotho, a protein whose mutation can cause rapid aging, plays a role in serious medical conditions seen in intensive care units, like sepsis. The third studies the links between the gut microbiome — bacteria which have been associated with several different disease states — and functional outcomes after ischemic stroke.

"It's growing harder for anyone to have access to federal funding, especially as junior faculty," says Jose Suarez, a professor of neurology and the current director of neurosciences critical care at Hopkins. "The Sowers Fund allows us to have an internal grant opportunity, assign funds to at least two fellows at a time, and give them a kickstart on their research and maybe bigger funding in the future."

"This research is going to modify practice, and it's going to improve the care of patients like him in a very tangible way.”
J. Ricardo Carhuapoma, associate professor of neurology

Sowers, Good, and Harris have raised money for the fund — which currently totals more than $88,000 from more than 400 donors — through a variety of annual events. The first were a series of "“Neighbors Night Out" gatherings in restaurants near the Sowers' home in Canton and Fells Point. Later, friends and family assembled for Baltimore Orioles games. Last year, Good hosted a bingo night that brought in about $6,700. The events have played a role in helping the family mourn and heal.

"Anytime we put together a fundraiser, all of our friends from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia make an effort to attend," says Sowers, who worked at Hopkins with Zach at the time of his death but has since moved to New York City. "It's like so much time has passed, because we've grieved and we've moved on. But it's also like no time has passed, in terms of support. Not a day has passed that Zach's memory isn't alive. People are still supporting us and what we went through."

Some of the most supportive have been the NCCU nurses who cared not only for Zach but his family. A daily inhabitant of the unit for many months, Good says the nurses came to feel like they, too, were part of the family. Several have remained in contact with the family on Facebook. That's how many learned the news that Harris — who was just 16 at the time of Zach’s death — would be following in their footsteps as a Hopkins nurse.

"During those six months of going to the NCCU, seeing how hard they worked, their drive, how brilliant and compassionate they are — I said, 'That's what I want to do.' And it's literally never changed since then," Harris says.

All three women still find it difficult to speak about Zach and those trying months waiting in the Hopkins NCCU. But the annual visit to meet with the researchers they’re supporting, and Harris' work to serve patients and families, gives them hope that Zach's legacy is only beginning to be built.

"If this fund can help one person, or two, or three — through research, maybe, someone would have a better prognosis in Zach's situation than he did — it will be worth it," Harris says.

To learn more about the Zach Sowers Brain Trauma Research Fund or to make a gift, please contact Deanna Figiel, senior associate director of development.