Drew now UA freshman

2 1/2 years after injury, he lives on campus, a media arts major
2008-12-27T00:00:00Z 2012-05-12T21:00:00Z Drew now UA freshmanBy Patrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 27, 2008 12:00 am  • 

Fran Donnellan might be the first mom in history to enjoy being brushed off by her son.

One month into Drew Donnellan's first semester on the UA campus, he grew tired of his mother's stopping by his dormitory daily to do laundry or drop off breakfast. So he told her, very kindly, to back off.

"I was proud," she said. "And he was nice about it. He even let me come in the other day."

Donnellan, a Salpointe Catholic High School graduate, just finished his first semester on the UA campus.

A gymnast for much of his life, Drew was paralyzed 2 1/2 years ago when he landed on his neck while attempting a flip.

After the injury May 12, 2006, he underwent three months of treatment, including physical therapy, counseling and training on how to live with his disability, at Craig Hospital, a spinal cord center near Denver.

He returned home Aug. 30, 2006, and two weeks later was back in class at Salpointe.

Like any college student, Drew became embarrassed by his mom's presence in the dorm. Once a week, Fran drops off paychecks for Drew to give his home health-care workers. But she's not allowed to go inside; Drew meets her at the car.

That's a good thing, both he and his mom maintain.

"It's just your typical 'I don't want to be seen with my mom' sort of thing," he said. "It was a little weird, but I talk to her every day on the phone.

"It's just been one step closer to being independent."

Drew, 18, receives about $15,000 a year in scholarship money from "Swim With Mike," a charity that awards money to injured and physically challenged athletes.

The media arts major — who wants to be a cinematographer or editor — thinks he finished the semester with two A's and three B's. He didn't miss a single class.

"It's cool," he said. "I like it because it feels like you're actually starting your life.

"All the stuff in high school is the stuff you need to get to another step."

He pushes the joystick of his motorized wheelchair around campus. Drew gets through doors by whacking the blue handicap button with his elbow, and gets into his dorm room by brushing past a sensor with a key card.

He changes the channels of his television with a velcro-studded remote control.

Drew lives by himself on the first floor — the "Colbert Nation" wing — of Posada San Pedro. He has his own bathroom, where he showers in a waterproof chair. He keeps his portable lift there, too — the mechanized arm that lifts him into bed.

He needs help getting ready in the mornings and assistance with homework at night. Forest Melton, his home-care worker for the past two years, takes the morning shift.

The UA graduate attended class with Drew at first, but Drew doesn't think that will continue next semester. Drew's memory is getting better, and he uses note-takers — students in his class — provided by the UA.

Paid pre-med students typically go to Drew's room at night to help with homework and get him ready for bed. Often, they'll order pizza.

Drew can feed himself most things — except for New York-style pizza. It's too floppy, he says.

Drew sleeps alone at night with his Bluetooth hands-free phone attachment on his ear, and even books his own doctor's appointments.

He uses a respirator when he sleeps to treat sleep apnea, a result of the accident. One night, the power went out and the respirator stopped working.

He called his mom, calmly, for help. Every night, Fran makes sure her cell phone is charged and sets it by the bed, just in case.

Drew was having trouble breathing. She made it to the dorm in minutes.

When he first started school, Fran said she couldn't help but worry about her son — what if he got stuck in an elevator somewhere? What if there's a fire in the dorm?

She worries still, but not as much.

"He has such a great advantage over a person five years ago," said Fran, who has returned to work full time at a retirement community. "Without that Bluetooth, he would not have been able to live alone. It's wonderful."

Drew jokes that he has become "that guy" in the dorm — the one that keeps to himself. He and Fran have discussed the charms of small talk, and Drew is getting more outgoing every day. Once a week, he attends a gathering of Methodist students on campus.

"It's my social thing," he said.

He works out five times a week, at either a private gym on the Northwest Side or the UA's Disability Resource Center.

Drew wants to get stronger so he can drive a car rigged with special controls, which would be a major accomplishment for someone with a bruised spinal cord below the second cervical vertebra.

He has tried once, but was told he needed to be stronger and have more endurance. Learning how to drive could change his life.

Seeing other students in wheelchairs is comforting, Drew said. It makes him feel part of a community.

"I'm not just singled out anymore," he said.

Drew wants to play quadriplegic rugby next semester to try to get stronger, to make his feeling of independence even greater.

Until then, his life is well on its way, past the injury his mom now calls a speed bump.

"U of A has been a really good match for him," Fran said. "It makes it more normal. I think there are times now, more than ever, that Drew forgets he is paralyzed. That's not his main focus during the day.

"He has more moments of just being Drew than a paralyzed guy."

How to help

The Andrew Donnellan Recovery Fund pays for personal care, assistants, medical supplies, equipment and some medications for the 18-year-old Salpointe Catholic High School graduate.

Donations can be sent to Wells Fargo Bank, account number 2552379782.

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

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