'I'VE ACCOMPLISHED SO MUCH' AFTER PARALYZING ACCIDENT

Hope outlasts all regret as Drew graduates UA

2012-05-13T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:37:37Z Hope outlasts all regret as Drew graduates UAPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 13, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Deep inside, Drew Donnellan felt the anniversary coming. He always does this time of year.

Six years ago Saturday, Drew - then a 16-year-old Salpointe Catholic High School student - over-rotated on a gymnastics flip, landing on his head, causing quadriplegia.

In college, he met other people with wheelchairs who threw parties on the anniversary of their accidents. He found that odd.

But Saturday, friends and family flooded his mom Fran's midtown home for a different party - to celebrate his graduation from the University of Arizona, with a media arts degree.

"In the back of my mind, I'm like, 'OK, since I'm graduating from college on the same date of my accident, maybe I'm going to graduate from a chair and start walking again,'" the 22-year-old said. "That'd be awesome.

"That's maybe what's in the back of my mind although I, probably, I'm not going to jinx it. We'll leave it at that."

Hope has outlasted any regrets the 22-year-old had about the injury.

"I first had my accident, the pain of wanting to walk again and going back to the life I had before, it was horrible," he said. "But now I don't necessarily want to go back because I'd have to live life over again, and I wouldn't have met the people I've met.

"I just want to get better."

• • •

Graduations are for parents as much as for students.

So, of course, Saturday's party was Fran's idea. As a Peace Corps volunteer, Fran adopted Drew from Jamaica as an infant. She brought him back to Tucson and raised him as her only, beautiful child.

Six years ago, after being rushed to University Medical Center, Drew was told his spinal cord injury meant he would never walk again.

Thursday, after earning mostly A's and B's in college, writing papers and checking emails with a talk-and-type system, and taking proctored tests, he participated in the UA College of Fine Arts commencement.

"It's just remarkable," Fran said.

Drew spent his four years at the UA in Room 148 of Posada San Pedro dorm, only a few miles from his mom.

He thrived on his independence. Even though he needed personal care 30 hours per week to help him at the beginning and end of the day, Drew interviewed and hired aides on his own.

Mature and laid-back, Drew didn't experience a raging college social life but had half a Bud Light on his 21st birthday - St. Patrick's Day - and the rest of it the next morning.

Drew joked his mom wants him to loosen up, but "I like self-control."

Fran - one of her son's best friends, and vice-versa - checked in with reminders about bills or class registration and went with him to the dog park once a week. It was important for her to let Drew develop into an adult.

"It's very interesting to watch ideas and independent thinking, and watch it grow," she said. "It's beautiful."

Drew learned how to adapt his body since the accident - he works out once a week at a local gym - but has shown only slight physical improvement since the first year of his accident.

He wrestles with spasms, which make it impossible to drive with his hands and make him nervous in public. Sometimes his hips thrust forward repeatedly. Chest spasms move his arms, and a full-body spasm contorts him for a split second.

"They have different moods, personalities," he said.

Two years ago, he had a spasm while playing a computer game, pinning his arms under his dorm desk, making it impossible to operate his motorized wheelchair.

He couldn't call anyone, which later inspired him to attach a Bluetooth ear device to his iPhone. His shouts were drowned out by music outside.

He was trapped for 3 1/2 hours before an attendant arrived.

It frightened Fran when he told her the story, but she laughed at his punch line: While he waited, Drew simply took a nap on his keyboard.

• • •

Drew and his friend Graham Thompson are writing a screenplay for a psychological thriller.

Their main character leaves the priesthood and begins to take confessions at a farmers market.

Drew knows the feeling.

Because his body has trouble regulating its temperature, Drew spent hours a day outside, driving his wheelchair around campus, to Old Main and the student union, where he eats lunch.

He attracts students, he said, who want to sit and talk about "stuff you wouldn't tell a stranger."

He obliges.

Whenever he's taken personality tests or gone to tarot card readings or read his horoscope, he's found himself described as a healer. There's an "aura of comfort" around him.

"I think we all have this draw (to Drew)," Thompson, who will finish his degree next year, said. "You pick up on that magnetism."

The past two years, the friends have met weekly to work on the screenplay, with Drew using his experiences to shape the story.

"Maybe this is what I was put on this Earth for," Drew said. "To have people talk, and (to) listen."

• • •

With a pen in his right hand, Drew wrote his full name - Andrew O'Shane James Donnellan, inspired by Fran's Irish dad, James - over and over again a few weeks ago.

He signed papers to purchase a midtown house.

Friday, he moved there from the dorm, where food was just across the quad and everything he needed was within the range of his wheelchair.

"Getting out of the bubble of college," he said.

Drew needs an attendant or friend to drive him around town.

Ariel Good, the UA nursing student responsible for getting him ready - including putting on his cap and gown Thursday - will work at the new house this summer.

"I'm so excited for him," she said. "He's so resilient. He's so aware of what he can do without being hindered at all."

Drew is up for summer internships, including one on campus. He's already interned for Cox Media, and, using a trackball mouse, wants to edit films, television and commercials.

"There's a lot of drive behind him, in a completely selfless kind of way," his friend Thompson said.

Fran called her son "as happy as any 22-year-old facing the job market could be." If he lands a full-time job and makes too much money, he could lose his Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System insurance funding, which pays for his attendants.

"But everybody in this situation finds a way to make it work," she said. "We'll do it."

After the past six years, is there any doubt?

"I don't think it could have gone better," Drew said. "I've accomplished so much."

On StarNet: Family footage shows Drew Donnellan competing at the 2006 USA Gymnastics Men's Junior Olympic National Championships: azstarnet.com/video

"In the back of my mind, I'm like, 'OK, since I'm graduating from college on the same date of my accident, maybe I'm going to graduate from a chair and start walking again.' That'd be awesome."

UA media arts graduate Drew Donnellan, 22

More on Drew's story

Read the award-winning series on Drew Donnellan at azstarnet.com

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

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