'The new me'

Facing a life of paralysis, a Tucson gymnast begins to accept the changes to his body, while his spirit remains the same
2006-08-22T00:00:00Z 2012-05-12T21:02:48Z 'The new me'Patrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 22, 2006 12:00 am  • 

The room with the drum kit will be Drew Donnellan's bedroom, at least for now. Volunteers have been renovating the old brick-and-plaster house on Edison Street in Midtown for two months. They removed a cabinet that was just beyond the front door. In his wheelchair, Drew can't fit through there.

The volunteers gutted the bathroom in the front of the 40-year-old house, removing the washer and dryer. They have begun building a drop-in shower that Drew can roll his chair into. The toilet will sit in a 5-foot perimeter to accommodate his wheelchair. The sink will be low enough for Drew to use, the cast-iron plumbing replaced.

Next week, Drew comes home for the first time since May 12, when he landed on his head while practicing a flip at gymnastics practice. He was rushed to University Medical Center and then flown to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., where he spent three months learning how to live as a quadriplegic.

The 16-year-old will move into his new bedroom, the corner of the house where he and The Lemons — a rock band of Salpointe Catholic High School students — used to practice once a week.

Frank Sayne, a general contractor and gymnastics dad, has followed one order from Fran, Drew's mother: His old bedroom has to stay the same.

Drew hates change. He wants to get home and get used to his new room. It might be bigger, he says, "but my old room is cozier."

Keeping his old room the same gives him a goal — to sleep in his own bed one day.

But it also serves as a reminder of his old life.

"A memento of who I used to be," he says.

Alex Muniz and Drew had plans.

Best friends since first grade, they were going to be the best man at each other's wedding.

Alex was at a party the night of the accident. He tried to call Fran and Drew, but no one answered. He went outside and sobbed.

Drew and Alex attended Jefferson Park Elementary and Booth-Fickett Magnet School before going to Salpointe. As kids, they crafted commercials and horror movies, sang the Temptations' "My Girl" in class and made plans for when they were grown up.

The wedding plan hasn't changed, but Alex's vision of it has. His mental picture of Drew walking down the aisle has been altered forever.

"Just to think that he might not be able to walk down the aisle, it's really upsetting," Alex says through tears. "That's one of the things that just hurts me the most."

Like Alex, James Aiken and Richard Hernandez went to UMC every day after the accident. The members of The Lemons — who met at a lunch table about a year ago — were supposed to play their first gig two days after the accident, at Drew's church.

The two were stunned. James and Richard used to joke about their muscle-bound friend. They said if they were ever threatened in a dark alley, Drew would beat the thugs up and they'd give him verbal support.

The first time James walked into UMC, he had no idea what to say. His parents couldn't explain it. No one could.

A month after Drew left, James and Richard wrote a song called "For Drew." Richard played the drums.

"We felt like it meant something," Richard says.

The members of The Lemons talk to Drew on the phone, tell him how the band's sounding. Alex visited Craig Hospital, bringing a bean burrito and a side of rice on the airplane to give to his friend. They took walks and giggled at the same jokes they've been telling since they were kids.

He was the same old Drew.

"I know he'll always be there, even if he's not there, physically," Alex says. "His heart's still there.

"Being there for him as a friend is the biggest thing we can do for him."

Beyond the emotional support, Drew's friends and family have come together to raise money.

Fran's insurance covers most of her son's expenses, but not all. She is not suing Gymnastics World. "It was an accident," she says.

Since May 12, gymnasts, high school friends and St. Francis in the Foothills parishioners have held fund-raisers. There were concerts, ice-cream socials, bowling nights, carwashes, gymnastics displays and magic tricks. The largest fund-raiser will take place in October.

•••

There are times when Drew separates himself into two categories — before and after the accident.

He sees himself changing.

The once-quiet teen has become outgoing — Drew has to direct his care now, tell people what to do. He knows that when he returns, he'll have to explain to others what happened to him, how his chair works. At Craig, they teach that it's his responsibility to put others at ease with his injury.

Drew finds himself becoming more sympathetic to others. Before, if he saw someone with a disability on the street, he'd assume he was just different. Now, "he's different, but kind of like me."

Drew says he's "more humanized."

He is ready to leave Craig. There, he says, the staff focused on what he can't do. It's their way of preparing him for the real world.

Drew is planning to take American history and American literature at Salpointe from 10 a.m. to noon every day, then go to therapy. He has been doing the summer reading; his mom turns the pages. It's easier than turning them himself by using a wand with sticky blue goo on the end.

But more than anything, he can't wait to do some of the things he used to do: eat at Los Betos and Eegee's, and nap on the couch. He wants to hang out with friends.

Still, he knows things won't be the same as they were before.

His injury is part — but not all — of his new reality.

Because he is unable to do many daily tasks on his own, Drew will require a home health-care worker. He should not be alone, and will need around-the-clock care. Fran hopes to return in late October to her job as executive director of Atria Campana del Rio retirement community.

In a perfect world, Drew will improve enough to live independently in a few years. Fran wants her son to experience college away from home.

Monday, Drew pushed himself 100 feet in a manual chair. Wearing a brace on his right arm, he can stab strawberries and pears, and feed himself.

Before the accident, Drew thought he wanted to become a filmmaker; he was scheduled to go to film camp this summer to find out for sure.

He is still interested in that career, but now he's not sure what his future holds. Three and a half months after his life changed forever, Drew is still learning about himself.

"I've noticed qualities in me that still haven't gone away; they're part of me and part of my attitude," he says. "But there are new qualities I've noticed. That's part of the new me."

So is he the old Drew or new Drew?

"I think I'm both."

Day THREE of three

Sunday: An accident at gymnastics practice leaves Drew paralyzed.

MONDAY: Drew's injury takes him to one of the nation's premier spinal cord injury centers, where he learns to regain some independence and struggles to adjust to his new reality.

TODAY: With Drew's dream of returning home getting closer, his friends and family in Tucson prepare for his arrival.

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

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