The first entry on the grierstrong.com blog set a remarkably honest tone for what will likely be a lifelong journey for Worcester Polytechnic Institute freshman Jared Grier and his family.
Written by his stepmother, Susan Okie, just hours after the 19-year-old mechanical engineering student fell from a tree at Worcester’s Institute Park, the words were candid, realistic and inclusive in describing the accident that severely injured Mr. Grier’s spinal cord, and, in almost an instant, made him a quadriplegic.
“Today everything changed … life as we know it will never be the same … we will meet new people, experience new things and see everything from a perspective we never could have imagined … raw emotion … pain, frustration … exhaustion. These will become an integral part of our lives at a level we could have never imagined …,” Ms. Okie wrote.
“We will get through it,” she continued. “…We will stay positive and reach out to others for help more than we ever thought was possible. We always helped others and now we find we need help ourselves. This is our journey. On this day our youngest son Jared fell from a tree and broke his neck. He fractured C6 and is paralyzed from the nipple line down. He has some movement in his arms and wrists but limited movement in his hands.”
Mr. Grier will spend the summer learning how to live his new life at the Shepherd Center, a hospital in Atlanta specializing in the treatment of spinal cord injuries. Just over a month has gone by since he fell from that tree. In that short period, Mr. Grier said he has thought long and hard about what his injury means.
“I’ve gone over the different wishes, what could have been, what will my life be like, what can I make of this?” he said in a recent telephone interview from Atlanta.
Those are big questions. But for now, Mr. Grier and his family are focused on smaller, more practical details.
On May 6, Mr. Grier’s father and stepmother made the drive from his hometown in Granby, Connecticut, to WPI to help him pack his stuff so he could come home for the summer. His freshman year went well; he made friends and by the winter was pledging Lambda Chi Alpha with Tyler Beaupre, a high school friend who also made the jump to WPI, and a mutual friend they both got to know on campus.
His father, John Grier, said they went out to dinner while in Worcester; he said he slipped his E-ZPass transponder into his son’s car and gave the vehicle a once-over to make sure it was roadworthy after sitting on campus for a while. They moved some items to the fraternity house for the summer, and headed back to Granby.
“My plan was, on the next day, to come back up, and spend some time with my frat brothers,” Jared Grier said. “Some of the senior members wouldn’t be returning, and I wanted to enjoy one last night with the fraternity before spending my summer with friends from high school.”
He spent the dry, sunny, 80-degree day with his fraternity friends and in the afternoon went to the park for some Frisbee, Jared said. The graduating brothers at Lambda Chi Alpha were basically passing the time until they walked across the stage.
“One thing I used to love to do, and I got this from my father, was climbing trees,” Mr. Grier said. “I don’t know what it is — it’s a challenge, it’s physical. It really drove me.”
With another student, he climbed a tree in the park.
“I got into a pretty high branch,” he said. “I’ve done it a hundred times before. It wasn’t crazy.”
Getting up the tree wasn’t the problem, said Mr. Grier, whose Facebook profile photo shows him swinging from a tree branch.
“The problem was that when I decided to get out, I made a poor judgment. I swung out on a branch to release from it and drop down, but I miscalculated and swung off the branch.”
The momentum flung his body farther out than he planned, putting him into a horizontal position. He landed on his back.
“It was a really weird experience,” Mr. Grier said. “When I initially hit the ground I didn’t actually feel any pain, probably because of the instantaneous paralyzing. Most of my body instantly lost some feeling. After I landed, I attempted to move. I remember being short of breath, like I had the wind knocked out of me. I was still conscious.”
His friends rushed to his side. He told them he couldn’t move his legs. They told him not to move, and called WPI police. Shortly after, he was at UMass Memorial Medical Center — University Campus.
WPI has an “administrator on-call” designed for such an event, although Emily Perlow, the institute’s director of student activities, said it’s usually for run-of-the-mill things like a sprained ankle or the flu. Even though Mr. Grier’s fall happened off campus, the college immediately responded.
“We were very aware of what took place,” Ms. Perlow said.
She said the administrator contacted the family, and said WPI staff worked closely with them in the early days of Mr. Grier’s hospitalization. They provided housing and helped with things like locating his car.
Several of Mr. Grier’s friends were there when he fell and decided it was important to make sure he was never alone, a fraternity selling point to students struggling to fit in or find friends.
For Mr. Beaupre, the high school friend who also joined Lambda Chi Alpha, Mr. Grier’s injury was the ultimate chance to demonstrate the “brotherhood” fraternities are supposed to foster.
Mr. Beaupre also had gone home to Granby for the summer but chose not to return for that first Thursday in May. He was notified about his friend’s fall in a message from his brother, Andrew, also a WPI student.
“He said ‘call me as soon as you can, something crazy just happened,’ ” Mr. Beaupre said.
The fraternity was shaken by the accident and knew it had to do something.
“We talked to his dad,” Mr. Beaupre said. “We said we wanted to get the frat involved, to make sure Jared was alone as little as possible. We set up spreadsheets everyone could sign into, and say I’m going at this time, I’m going at that time. It got to the point that we had so many people in the waiting room, we would do shifts, three at a time, for a half hour or an hour.”
Around the same time, a donations Web page popped up. The Grier family had already made the decision to transfer to the Shepherd Center for more intensive therapy and treatment, but even with insurance, the massive financial costs were coming into focus.
Again, people who knew and loved Mr. Grier took action. In just over a month more than $40,000 poured in. Alumni and fraternity brothers at Lambda Chi from around the country donated. An anonymous $10,000 gift arrived. People from elementary school, high school, and others in Connecticut contributed and asked if there was anything else they could do.
The flight from Worcester to Atlanta carried a $12,000 price tag. John Grier said he has been humbled at the generosity from strangers and people he knows.
“We’ve thanked people, we’ve put up posts on the website thanking them, but we can’t even come close to showing how thankful we are,” he said. “I think it’s derived from so many different reasons, but it’s really about how many people he’s touched and affected.”
Jared Grier said he’s grateful, but also acknowledged he was a little surprised, and at times overwhelmed, by all the support.
“We received donations from people I’ve never met,” he said. “I’ve received messages from people saying, ‘I’m willing to do whatever I can.’ People came out of the woodwork, they’re coming from everywhere.”
That’s one of the reasons Mr. Grier and his father said the blog comes in handy — it’s an easy way to keep people updated.
In Atlanta, the streams of visitors are limited to family, some extended family in the region, and other spinal cord injury patients at the Shepherd Center.
“I’m on a floor with a number of other kids close to my age,” Mr. Grier said. “They’re going through a similar thing, I’ve spent time talking with them, and they all say that if you don’t put in energy to get better, you’re not going to.”
His father said that kind of peer support was a huge factor in deciding to move to the Shepherd Center.
“The first day we were there, four kids wheeled in,” John Grier said. “They all said, ‘We made it through.’ One of them fell off a bike, another one dove into a shallow pool. All these stories these kids tell, and only a month or two earlier they were in the bed like Jared saying, ‘What the hell do I do?’ It’s quite amazing to see the transformation at the center.”
The Griers approach the recovery with a sense of realism. Jared Grier’s injury left him with only limited use of his arms and little feeling in his hands and fingers. He’ll likely never walk again. Still, he’s already managed to feed himself, and last week started stem cell treatments as part of a study that could improve his outlook.
“It may change nothing,” John Grier said. “But it could change something.”
Meantime, Jared Grier is simply working on becoming as independent as he possibly can.
“My daily routine consists of waking up,” he said. “I can still move my arms, but I have no real movement of my hands. There’s a condition where I can move my wrists, my hands slightly open and close. But I wake up, the nurse and the tech bathe me, they wipe me down, they keep up my hygiene. I have a catheter — my bladder has sort of gone free-form.”
Other than that, he’s been practicing feeding himself and has been working out his muscles, practicing balance in his wheelchair and even getting some time in on an electro-stimulation bike.
He’ll spend the summer at the Shepherd Center, but then return to Granby to continue his recovery. His family is coordinating contractors and engineers to retrofit the house. The plan is to convert part of the house into a two-bedroom apartment he’ll share with his older stepbrother.
Beyond that, one goal Mr. Grier has mapped out is finishing his degree. He credited his interest from an early age in building and fixing things to his father, who works on a crew that maintains a corporate jet.
“He builds things and fixes everything around the house” Mr. Grier said about his father. “I saw that, and wanted to do something similar.”
Of all the things he’ll have to learn to adapt to in his post-injury life, Mr. Grier said he’s not too worried about continuing with a career in engineering.
“Whether it’s manufacturing or (research and design), I want to be a part of the future of this country,” he said.
Getting that degree might be pushed back a bit, but Ms. Perlow, the WPI activities director, said the university will welcome his return. The school is fully accessible, and it will work with the Grier family to determine the best accommodations. She noted his fraternity house can accommodate those with wheelchairs.
His father said Mr. Grier is digging deep for strength and is perhaps having a tougher time than he lets on. All they can do is simply be there for him.
“There are moments when he lays there at night, his mind races,” John Grier said. “Fortunately, he’s got a very active mind, but he spins himself into this high-anxiety stress. So we’ll calm him down, talk him through it. But some mornings it’s difficult.”
Jared Grier said he knows there will be down days. But there are things he’s just going to have to get through.
“I have days when I get very upset. At this point, I have to keep moving forward, progressing, getting back to a better state. The best state I can be.”
To follow Mr. Grier’s progress on the family’s blog, go to grierstrong.com. To donate, go to www.youcaring.com/help-a-neighbor/jared-grier-a-story-of-quadriplegia/355803.
By Steven H. Foskett Jr.
Telegram & Gazette Staff