Picking up the Pieces

After Brent Hook was shot, his kids became the driving force in his recovery

On a Tuesday morning, a little before 7:30 and seconds after he walked in the front door of his Kalamazoo business, Tough Coat Custom Powder Coating, Brent Hook was shot five times, including twice in the head, by the estranged husband of a woman he had begun dating.

The shooting, on Feb. 26, 2019, launched Hook into the hardest fight of his life — one he is still waging — to come back from near-death and recover from a traumatic brain injury that affects his ability to walk, speak and do other everyday activities. At the same time, it propelled his children, Chaz and Tori, then 20 and 23, respectively, into the driver’s seat of their father’s medical treatment and recovery, as they began to navigate a confusing and often frustrating world of medical insurance, rehabilitation and therapies while also becoming the managers of his business and his life.

Around the Kalamazoo Speedway and other local racing circles, Brent Hook, now 56, is well known. A longtime racing fixture, he had a reputation for being a voracious competitor and quite often a winner at tracks across the Midwest. A Saginaw resident who came to Kalamazoo to play football at Western Michigan University, Hook was a tough go-getter who taught himself to race and build and work on cars. Around the track he had acquired the nickname “Hoopty” for his penchant to creatively build and repair cars, or anything else for that matter.

At the time of the shooting, Hook and his now ex-wife and the mother of his children were in the midst of a divorce that had been in the works for nearly six months. That first day at the hospital, Tori and her mother arrived first. Chaz, who was attending the University of Michigan–Dearborn, arrived a couple hours later. Hook had been shot in his abdomen (which resulted in the removal of his spleen), right hand and left bicep and twice through the left side of his brain. There are still bullet fragments in his skull.

“They were kind of waiting for me to get there before the doctors told us about how my dad was, ” says Chaz. “The first thing they said was, ‘Where do you want the organs to go?'”

“They told us they were going to do surgery in an attempt to stop the bleeding and if it didn’t work, we were going to have to say our goodbyes,” says Tori. “At that point I wasn’t crying because I really didn’t feel like my dad was going to die, because it’s my dad. Like, my dad doesn’t get hurt, he’s invincible.”

The surgery was successful, and by the end of the first day Hook was alive and stable but in a coma. On the second day, as their father lay in the ICU at Bronson Methodist Hospital, Tori and Chaz realized it was “go time,” she says.

“I kind of started to panic,” recalls Tori. “I remember saying, ‘OK, Chaz, here’s what’s going to happen. You are going to have to listen to the doctors and remember what they’re saying and tell them if it’s not right, and I’m going to have to handle the shop and the bills and things like that.'”

Things were complicated, however. Their parents’ divorce wasn’t final, and because of that, Hook’s now ex-wife still had the authority to make decisions for him, a situation neither Chaz nor Tori was comfortable with.

“Why should our soon-to-be-divorced parents be in control of each other’s lives when that is not what either want because they’re going through a divorce?” Chaz says, recalling the opinion of himself and his sister. Neither of them knew what the next step would look like in this matter. Tori consulted with her father’s divorce attorney, who suggested they attempt to gain legal guardianship of their father, a move their mother resisted.

“We met with my mom and said, ‘We need you to sign these papers because you guys are going through a divorce and you shouldn’t be in charge of his life anymore,'” Chaz says. “My mom said, ‘No.’ My sister was crying and leaning forward with her head down, and all of a sudden she just sat back and looked at me and I was like, I got it. I’ll be the hammer.”

Chaz convinced his mother to make Tori her father’s legal guardian and conservator, and then, with the swipe of a pen, the 23-year-old became the medical advocate, caregiver and decision maker for their father. But from the beginning, Tori and Chaz worked together to make decisions for their father that were difficult, from whether or not to amputate his right thumb to who could see him and when.

After the shooting, Hook’s wide circle of friends reached out, many of them showing up at the hospital and filling a waiting room.

“When I first got there and they were walking us down to see him for the first time, I remember getting out of the elevator and looking left because we were following a nurse and she turned right immediately, just beelined right,” recalls Chaz. “But I looked left and into the waiting area and there were so many people there I couldn’t see through it. I thought, ‘If something were to happen, we’ll be all right because there’s that lot of people that care about my dad.'”

Despite this outpouring of support, once Tori had legal authority as her father’s guardian, she and Chaz decided that only they could visit him while he was in the ICU, she says. “When we walked in to see my dad, I said, ‘Oh, this is the wrong room,’ because it didn’t even look like him to me. He was so swollen, and there were just all these tubes,” she says. “I know that my dad’s image to him is really important — it’s not just physical, but it’s just like how he represents himself to the racing community and his customers and things like that.

“I know people were mad and saying I was the one keeping my dad away from everybody, but I don’t even want to see my dad like this, and until he can make that decision for himself, nobody else needs to see him like this. I’ll take the heat for that any day, because no one knows what it was like in there.”

Hook was in a coma for two weeks, during which one or the other of his children was with him 24 hours a day. That 24/7 companionship continued even after Hook awoke from his coma.

“We decided that one of us would always be there with him,” Tori says. “He wasn’t ever going to be alone. Someone who can’t make decisions for themselves or even speak left alone? Absolutely not. I could only think about how scary this was for my dad.”

Tori, who is a market partner with Monat, a multi-level marketing skin and hair-care company, worked remotely for both that job and her photography business from a chair in her father’s room. Chaz was on hand to talk with the doctors (“He became very fluent in medical terms. He knew exactly what was going on,” Tori says) and “took the night shift,” spending each night in his father’s hospital room.

“They had a monitor for the pressure on his brain,” Chaz says, “and my sister and I noticed that every time I was in the room, the pressure was lower. So that’s why I never left, because I knew that if he can get through this phase, he’ll make it. I wanted to keep his brain pressure lowered.”

The first time Chaz did leave — to have new tires put on his car and get an oil change because of the increased travel back and forth — his father woke from the coma. “One of my biggest regrets is I wasn’t there when he woke up,” Chaz admits.

“The most helpless feeling in the world was watching him wake up and panic,” Tori says. “I had to be calm and make him feel safe, even if I didn’t feel that way myself.”

Around-the-clock attention

The around-the-clock attention to their father continued after Hook emerged from his coma. He was moved from the ICU in Kalamazoo to a long-term acute-care facility in Grand Rapids to wean him off his breathing tube before rehabilitation therapies could begin.

“I essentially dropped out of college,” Chaz says. “I emailed every professor and told them my situation, but only one told me she’d help me. And just so those other teachers know, I passed that class with an A.”

Meanwhile, Tori was busy dealing with a lot of details, from helping to make medical decisions for her father and dealing with health insurance and medical bills to establishing a journal of every medicine or therapy her father was given. In addition, Tori had to step in and run her father’s business, Tough Coat, while keeping her own business ventures from foundering.

“I had to step up and do things that made me feel uncomfortable,” Tori says. “When I became Ms. Tough Coat, I had to jump through so many hurdles just to be able to sign things or pay bills, because it was all in his (her father’s) name. It would be kind of comical. My dad did some of his work on trades, and so one of the first things I did was change the company’s voicemail to say, ‘There are no more trades.’ My dad would also let stuff with people sort of slide or not follow up as much. They’d say, ‘Oh, we’ll pay you next week.’ And I’m like, ‘You’ll pay me right now.’ There were a lot of times Tori Hook Photo LLC paid Tough Coat bills.”

During this time, the woman Brent Hook was dating when he was shot, Dena Zwart, began to play a role in caring for him, giving the siblings a bit of a respite. After the shooting, Dena spent nights sleeping on a chair in the hospital waiting room, even though she couldn’t visit Brent. As he became more “present,” Tori says, she asked him if he remembered what had happened to him and he nodded, tears in his eyes. “This was already all very confusing to my dad, and I did my best to protect him from the shooting until I felt he was ready to understand. He surprised me by remembering. The doctors from the ICU told me he probably wouldn’t remember.

“And I said, ‘You know, Dena has been waiting patiently to see you,’ and he started crying. I think he was concerned about what me and Chaz would think about him continuing to see Dena after what had happened. And I said, ‘If you want to see her, you can see her.’ And he said, ‘Not yet,’ because he was nervous about his talking and how he looked. So I said, ‘Let’s call her.’ We called her, and I remember he could barely get it out, but he said, ‘I love you.’ When they got to see each other, it was like ‘That’s that’ and she never left.”

The Hook and the Zwart families had known each other for decades, through racing. Dena has two daughters, and Tori and Dena’s oldest daughter, Maggie, are close friends. Despite the heartbreaking circumstances, Tori and Maggie have done their best to keep their bond and continue to grow their relationship.

“Maggie was my first best friend,” Tori says. “At the end of the day, we are the oldest siblings, and we set the pace for our younger siblings. We want both of our parents just to be happy. If that means they’re happy together, then we’re happy for them.
Being in love, I don’t think anyone deserves to be shot over it.”

Long road of recovery

With Brent Hook’s survival no longer in doubt, his recovery became not only his full-time mission, but his kids’ as well. He was unable to walk or use his right side, and the brain injury left him with confusion and aphasia (the loss of ability to understand or express speech). As he healed, Tori and Chaz looked at the next phase of his recovery, which was to go to an in-patient rehabilitation center. They set their sights on a renowned facility in Grand Rapids, but when their father was assessed by one of the facility’s doctors, the doctor deemed him not suitable for that facility, says Tori.

“He exhausted all his powers to prove to them he was ready, and it came down to a single question like ‘Show me your left hand,’ and my dad showed them his right. It was a very crushing thing for my dad to hear, and me too,” Tori says.

They then approached Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids, which had a smaller in-patient rehab facility on one of their floors. “I remember this pregnant doctor came through the door smiling at my dad and was really nice. He was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and said, ‘I will do whatever you ask.’ And she said, ‘We’ll take you.’ We looked at each other and cried because that was the next step of his being better. Looking back now, I firmly believe she knew she was going to accept him, no matter how he responded to her questions. It was the biggest weight lifted off my shoulders. She gave my dad so much hope.”

Slowly, methodically, Brent made progress. His days were spent in painful therapies as he relearned how to do the most basic of activities — write, stand, speak, get dressed. Tori’s days were spent on behind-the-scenes work, talking to medical administrators and the insurance company, fighting to get her father the care he needed. Chaz, who was working at an auto parts store in Dearborn, transferred to a store in Kalamazoo and continued to support his father, driving to Grand Rapids to visit him and being there when they needed to talk to doctors and therapists.

Brent had health insurance and fundraisers to help offset the costs of his medical bills that insurance didn’t cover. A GoFundMe campaign was started by a family friend shortly after the shooting, and local businesses put out fundraising jars. In March 2019, Brent’s friends Ryan Waring and Lucas Krick and others held a spaghetti dinner and raffle to raise money. It made about $25,000. Shortly after the shooting, friend Buddy Head raised about $1,000 by making and selling stickers with Brent’s nickname, “Hoopty,” and racing car number 17 on them, giving the proceeds to Tori and Chaz.

“I remember meeting Buddy in the hall of the hospital and as he handed the money to me, he held on and locked eyes with me and said, ‘This isn’t for your dad, it’s for you and Chaz — food, gas, whatever.’ It meant so much because he cared for my dad, he cared for us. We felt this a lot throughout.”

For Chaz and Tori, the full-time care of their dad came with unexpected personal costs. In addition to Chaz leaving school, Tori found herself approaching her biggest season for photography — with 29 summer weddings scheduled — wondering if she were going to be able to do both. And both siblings, who had been in long-term romantic relationships, saw those relationships end.

“It’s a lot of support to ask of someone whom you are in a relationship with. It’s just not fair for anyone,” says Tori. “They can have a hard time understanding that your full-time life is focused on your dad.”

But the siblings say that they discovered sides of themselves they didn’t know existed and that the relationship between them strengthened.

“We had the classic sibling ‘I’m going to hug you but slap you on the back really hard when I do’ kind of relationship,” says Chaz. “After this all happened, I have never been closer with her. We talk a lot more now than we ever had. And we’re way more like best friends than probably siblings.”

Each has their own strengths when it comes to helping their father. Tori is “the mama bird,” says Chaz, while he, once again, often finds himself being “the hammer.” He describes a moment during Brent’s rehabilitation in Grand Rapids when he and his father “got into it” and his father tried to hit him.

“He was mad, sitting in his wheelchair, trying to swing at me. And I stood there and said, ‘Oh, you want to hit me right now?’ He says ‘F— you.’ He couldn’t talk, but he could spit swear words out because those came out easier for him,” Chaz says with a laugh.

“He’s trying to move his chair but can’t, and I said, ‘I’m leaving,’ and grabbed my keys and walked out. I waited for 30 minutes and then went back and opened his door. He was right where I left him. I asked, ‘Are you still upset?’ He just looked at me and then looked down. I said, ‘All right, so here’s the deal. I’m your son. The only one you got, sadly. And nobody else is here. If you want me to help you — probably for the rest of your life — figure it out right now. Because you’re not going to treat me like that. I’m here for you. I’m not here for me.’

“I told him, ‘You did a lot for me my whole life. I’m returning the favor. It’s my turn. Accept it. Or don’t.’ And then he started crying, with his head still down, and motioned for a hug, and I gave him a hug.”

Tori admits that Chaz, who was also heavily involved with racing growing up, was closer to her father before the shooting and still holds the most sway with him, which Chaz is not ashamed to use to their benefit.

“When my dad didn’t want to do something or he was complaining about something or he was throwing a fit, Tori would say to him, ‘Don’t make me call Chaz.’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it,'” says Chaz, laughing.

After nearly a year and half of Tori running both her own and her father’s business, Tough Coat was sold to new owners in July. It was a decision her father ultimately made, says Tori. “I didn’t do anything without my dad knowing. He could think for himself, just a little slower. He didn’t want to do the business forever and had been getting offers before the shooting. I just made sure this business my dad built was going into the right hands.”

Tori also became the main communicator to others about Brent’s recovery. She posted his status and updates on a Facebook page, talking about his progress through often-emotional videos, including showing her dad in his therapies and celebrating when he reached milestones, such as standing for the first time. “I almost had to post about it, so many people were wondering how my dad was doing. So many people helped us, in so many ways, I had to return the favor,” she says.

Back at home

In August 2019, six months after the shooting, Brent came home. Tori had moved into his house in Alamo Township to help provide full-time care. Brent was now attending physical therapy in Kalamazoo five days a week, and Tori and Dena took turns driving him there. “I really don’t know how we’d have done it without Dena. There’s good people in this world, and then there’s Dena, who is the most selfless person I know,” Tori says.

Shortly after he came home, Brent told Chaz to go back to college. “I was like, ‘Why do you want me to leave? You need help,'” Chaz recalls. “And my dad says, ‘No, I’m good.’ And I knew he was.”

Tori continued to live at her father’s house, getting extra help from Dena, who also moved in. Tori was able to resume a full schedule of photography shoots, but when the Covid-19 pandemic began, she decided it was time to move out.

“When Covid happened, I was scared that I potentially could give it to my dad, so I moved out, and that was kind of hard at first,” she says. “I didn’t have to be with him every day, and I really missed him when I wasn’t. I still miss him. My life revolved around him, so without him, what was my life?”

Looking forward

It’ll be three years this month since Brent Hook was shot. He and Dena married on Feb. 20, 2021. Chaz is back in school in Dearborn, hoping to graduate in May. Tori is back at work full time, shooting weddings and portraits. Brent can use his right arm now, and his speech and memory have greatly improved. He continues to do therapy as much as possible, including his own daily regimen at home.

Brent, Chaz and Tori share the same goal: having Brent walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding, whenever that is. It makes Brent cry when he talks about it. “I’m working for it, but it’s not fast enough for me,” he admits.

Compounding the problem are limitations imposed by his health insurance on how much therapy it will cover. Brent no longer has physical therapy five days a week, which he and his family believe is necessary to reach his goals.

“It’s always been a struggle with insurance, trying to get approved,” Tori says. “These people have never met my dad or know what he’s capable of. And even the doctors are telling the insurance company that if he doesn’t have more therapy, it could be detrimental to his life. If you only work out for four days in a row and then have to wait two weeks to get approval from the insurance company for more therapy, you’re back to where you started. It’s very deteriorating for him because he has to have something to look forward to. Therapy is his life. It’s his job. That’s all he has.

“There’s all these different types of therapies that work on your brain that we haven’t been able to try yet because of the costs. I want my dad to be able to walk and do everything he’s doing now, but by himself. And he can do most things by himself. I would like him just to be able to get up out of bed or not need assistance doing more intimate things. “

Tori talks of having “two dads.” Brent looks pretty much the same as he did before the shooting, but it has altered his personality, which isn’t all bad, she says.

“My dad is so funny now, and he was not that funny before,” Tori says. “He thought he was funny before, but this is more of ‘no-filter funny.’ The things that you think in your head, he says them out loud. I think that makes him a lot happier, and he and Dena are always laughing together.”

“Nothing but comedy now,” Brent agrees, with a shy smile.

But still, Tori misses the dad she knew as a child and young adult. “I have had two dads. My old dad died on Feb. 26th, 2019, and I miss him, but I have a new version and am learning to love him the same,” she says.

Meanwhile, her father is staunchly committed to his own recovery. Undoubtedly frustrated by the health-care bureaucracy, he is still trying to “hoopty” things to facilitate his own improvement. Each day he gets up, does the physical therapy exercises he can do at home and reads aloud from a book on his iPad to help improve his speech.

Brent built his house himself in 1996. He says he wants to replace the carpet with flooring that’s easier to roll a wheelchair on and that would allow him to install parallel bars, which have been donated to him, to use to help him walk again. He’s emotional when he talks about it — it is hard for the man who described himself as “unstoppable and full of life” to not be able to do these things for himself.

And even when his children point out to him just how far he’s come, showing him videos of his progress over the last three years, he just shakes his head.

“I’m a tough cookie, but I get down sometimes,” he admits. “I am a hard worker. I just have to try to do better to get better.”

And while Brent may see his continued recovery as his job and responsibility, both Chaz and Tori know that bringing him this far has been a labor of love for the many people who care about their family.

“At the end of the day, I could never thank everyone for everything,” Tori says. “Nothing went unnoticed, from meals to providing medical equipment to raising money to picking up the slack in areas my dad would normally do for my brother as well as the prayers and for just listening to us. I want to thank the optimistic health-care workers who took care of my dad, and my brother and I too. They gave us the most priceless gift — hope.

“And we’re not done yet.“

Marie Lee

Marie is the editor of Encore Magazine and vice president of Encore Publications, Inc. She’s been at the helm of Encore since October 2011. Marie’s background covers the gamut; she’s a former newspaper reporter and editor, a public relations and marketing communications professional, and book editor and collaborator. As Encore’s editor, she is dedicated to bringing the best things about the greater Kalamazoo community to the magazine’s readers.

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