Drew's life after paralysis

Every small gain celebrated, but 'it's a fragile place to be'
2006-12-24T00:00:00Z 2012-05-12T21:03:48Z Drew's life after paralysisBy Patrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 24, 2006 12:00 am  • 

The Donnellans had their annual Christmas party one week ago.

They served the same jerk chicken with rice and peas, made by a friend of Fran's from Jamaica. Friends surged through the doors starting at 2 p.m.

Parents chatted and kids played in the backyard of their Midtown home. Drew sat in his wheelchair in the middle of the room, talking more than ever. Wickett, his dog, sat on his lap.

Drew Donnellan, 16, suffered a spinal cord injury May 12 when he over-rotated during a flip at gymnastics practice. The boy from Jamaica — adopted as an infant by Fran when she was in the Peace Corps — was diagnosed with quadriplegia and spent more than three months at Craig Hospital, a spinal cord center in Denver.

Drew came home Aug. 30, and returned to Salpointe Catholic High School two weeks later.

Drew's arms are much stronger and slightly more dexterous now, but he is still confined to a power wheelchair.

At the end of his first semester, the junior is on pace to graduate on time with his class. When he first moved home, it took his mother three hours to get him dressed. Now, Drew can get ready in an hour and a half.

Things are getting back to the way they once were in the house on Edison Street, but they will never be the same.

Friends used to stay at the party late into the night. This year, though, the party ended at 6.

"It's just not appropriate right now," Fran said.

This is the new normal.

•••

Drew is balancing.

His physical therapist, Shelley Regan, puts her hands behind his shoulders, just in case. Drew sits on the end of the mat, his chair 10 feet away.

The therapist tells Drew to turn his head left and right, and he does. The key to balancing is for Drew to keep his shoulders square, preventing him from lurching forward or falling back.

The clock ticks on the wall at Aquatic Neurological Rehab Center on East Grant Road. Three minutes. Four minutes. Five.

Drew makes it all the way to seven, a record for him. He is tired afterward.

Drew can move his wrist up and down and has had twinges of nerve activity in his fingers and abdomen.

"At first, I thought I wasn't gonna move at all," Drew said. "Like the wrist, I was pretty surprised at that.

"I can do things that, to me, is normal now. Someone who hasn't seen me in a while will be 'Whoaaa!' I'm like, 'What did I do?' "

The Donnellans try not to get their hopes up. Drew is working hard; he has yet to miss school or a therapy appointment. He undergoes acupuncture, cranial/sacral therapy — which focuses on his head and his tailbone — and has even sat in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

"I'm still stuck between hopefulness that he'll gain more movement and acceptance that he might not," Fran said. "It's a real fragile place to be.

"I think we're both in the same place. Let's just enjoy the moment and not take for granted that, 'My finger moved today and it'll move tomorrow.' "

•••

For the first time since she was 16, Fran doesn't leave the house to go to work. She's starting to cook more now, which she finds weird.

Since returning to Tucson, the 54-year-old resigned her position as executive director of Atria Campana del Rio retirement community. The company asked her to answer customer complaints from home, which she does while keeping an eye on Drew. Her insurance remains intact and is Drew's primary insurer. His secondary insurer is Arizona Long Term Care System, a state-run fund for disabled people needing ongoing services at a nursing-facility level of care.

Drew's expenses are paid for, in part, by the $101,000 raised for him in the community. An October dinner raised about half that amount. Fran spends about $600 per week on Drew's care. When Drew starts attending oxygen therapy more frequently in January, it will total about $1,000 per week.

Drew has only been to oxygen therapy five times, but Fran noticed that his appetite grew afterward. The Donnellans are open to anything that might help Drew.

Fran is just starting to invest the money.

"I want to make sure he has what he needs to go to college," she said. "And he's gonna live a long time."

Fran spends most of her day at their house, which was made handicapped-accessible by friends while the Donnellans were in Denver. Fran was overwhelmed the second she walked in the door. It was their house, she said, only better.

"Her eyes were like a kid's at Disneyland," Drew said.

•••

When Drew has a question in history class, he nudges his best friend, Alex Muniz, who raises his hand.

When he has one in literature, he elbows Forest Melton, a home care worker who dresses him in the morning and takes notes during school.

Leading up to this past week's final exams, Drew had B's in both classes. He's learning how to learn a different way now; Forest reads tests aloud to Drew and takes dictation. Drew writes papers on Dragon Naturally Speaking, a computer program where he talks into a microphone and the computer types. It's strange, because he can't think out loud; he has to compose the sentence in his head before speaking.

"I just kinda sit there and stare out into space," Drew said. "I'm listening, but … when you're in school, you're participating by writing notes."

Last week, Forest couldn't make it to school with Drew. He went by himself.

"It was weird; I had to ask people to open doors for me," Drew said. "But they seemed perfectly normal."

Drew is more vocal now.

"He said to me, 'I'm working on that, because all I can do is talk,' " Fran said.

Next semester Drew will take three Salpointe classes and three correspondence courses. Fran is considering sending him to USC's film camp next summer — he was supposed to go to Pepperdine last summer, before the accident.

He's learning how to do things he used to do. A friend, Kevin Seery, taught him how to play computer games again. He is mastering "Company of Heroes," a World War II strategy game. He read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," turning the pages by himself.

Fran has loaned her van out to Drew's friends to go to the movies or just hang out. Drew is working on feeding himself. Right now, "it's tedious," he said. But learning how to feed himself is more important, socially, than anything else.

"He chases the food around his plate," Fran said. "It's painful to watch."

Alex has seen progress every time he says goodbye to Drew. Alex gives Drew a fist pound.

Drew can swing his arm up to Alex's now.

"He couldn't do that before," he said.

•••

Progress plays tricks on the mind. It leads to expectations, which can cause disappointment.

Drew is trying to balance the two in his head. The warmth and love shown to him since his return still astounds him. On his first day of school, the 1,200 or so students at Salpointe lined the driveway leading into the school, holding signs and chanting his name. When he got out of the car, Drew spun his chair and the place went nuts.

The fundraising dinner brought together family members he and Fran had never met before. Drew's former gymnastics coach, Yoichi Tomita, gives the family proceeds from one weekend per month of open gym. Drew's godfather in New Hampshire will do Ironman Arizona this year to raise money for him.

Drew loves going to the dog park and seeing his friends. When he first moved home, he ate so much Mexican food that he actually grew sick of it.

But when the people go away, Drew's mind wanders. Friends will come over and get in their car and leave, and Drew can't go with them. He can't lie on the couch on rainy days and watch TV, or feel the dogs climb on him.

"He has some moments; they don't last more than an hour or two," Fran said. "Very intense sadness. You can see it in his face.

"But he's better than most 16-year-olds."

Almost every day, he takes his chair into the backyard by himself.

"I'll just be staring at a hummingbird in a tree and space out," he said. "Just back to all the memories at Craig. Memories of before the accident. One time I thought about the last thing I said to everybody before the accident. I was angry before the accident, mad at my mom before I got out of the car to go to the gym. We had just finished nationals, so our season was done. They still wanted us to come (to practice) that week. I didn't want to go."

"Some days it's a bummer. Other days I feel drained. 'Nobody talks to me. I'm tired.'

"And other days I'm good."

He's balancing.

"I appreciate things more," he said. "Every day I sit outside and just take it in."

● Contact reporter Patrick Finley at 573-4145 or pfinley@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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