ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Drew Donnellan reaches his lips to the plastic straw sticking out of his motorized wheelchair.
He puffs hard once, and his chair edges forward. A soft puff turns right, a soft sip left. A hard sip jolts him backward.
This “sip and puff” system is Drew’s link to the independence ripped from him on May 12, when he landed on his head during a flip at gymnastics practice.
One month after the accident, during rehab at Craig Hospital near Denver, the 16-year-old is living on what feels like a whole new planet.
He wears bright white K-Swiss shoes two sizes too big — to account for swelling — and medical socks to encourage blood flow.
He is 30 pounds lighter than he was six weeks earlier, the muscle mass melting away from lack of use.
He fights battles, in his chair and in his head.
“There are a lot of things about myself that I’ve learned,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain it. Unless you’re trapped on a desert island — then you might understand.
“When you’re on a desert island, you have to become independent and just kind of fend for yourself. You’ve got to become independent and try not to get so down.
“If you get so down on your injury, you die from inside. And you won’t get better.”
Hanging in a harness, Drew feels about as far from home — and as far from normal — as he could ever feel.
In his first few hours at Craig, the 16-year-old Tucsonan is put in a lift, a miniature crane that hoists him into his hospital bed. Nurses bustle around him while he hangs in the air. It’s so different from what he was used to, where he was supposed to be.
“So far away,” he says. “Weird. Horrible, knowing that everything I know and love is way out there.”
The night of the accident, a surgeon at University Medical Center told his mother, Fran, to take Drew to Craig. The next day, a gymnastics dad and a UMC nurse suggested Craig.
Five days after the accident, Fran’s insurance approved the trip.
Craig, one of the nation’s best spinal cord and brain injury treatment centers, draws patients from 47 states every year. Former NFL players and Columbine victims have gone there.
Drew heard such glowing reports, he thought the hospital would have ceilings made of gold.
On May 23, he and Fran boarded a medical plane and flew to the Denver suburb. She stared out the window at the snow on the Rocky Mountains. Drew slept. It was beautiful, but surreal.
When they arrived at the $2,000-per-day hospital, it wasn’t what Drew had imagined.
“Everyone kept saying how nice it was … like a resort or something,” he says. “For some reason, I pictured myself walking in.
“I don’t know why.”
Drew was diagnosed with Quadriplegia, a weakening of all four extremities caused by a spinal cord injury in the Cervical region. His spinal cord was bruised below the second cervical Vertebrae.
Drew hasn’t had leg function since the moment of his accident, when 99 percent of the damage is typically done. The message his brain sends through the spinal cord to the rest of his body is cut off at the point of injury. There is a chance he can regain some movement in his upper body, but there are no promises.
At the beginning of his hospital stay, Drew counted the days — literally — until he could go home. Ninety days, minimum.
“I started thinking about how I’m going to get home, and when I’m going to start walking and stuff like that,” he says. “They were talking as if I was going to be like this forever.”
“I kind of felt like, ‘Hey, am I not going to get better?’
“Then my mom’s like, ‘You’ve got learn about what you have now. Just in case.’ ”
In his first weeks at Craig, Drew dictates a list of goals to his mother.
He wants to get a certain score on his breathing test — past 1,000 five times in a row. Because of his athletic build and superior lung capacity, Drew never had to be put on a Ventilator like most people with his injury. His nurse and doctor regard that as amazing.
He wants to regain enough arm function to push a manual chair on his own. The manual chair just seems more normal to him. More human.
His black motorized chair looks so foreign, a mass of wires and tubes. Every 20 minutes, Drew’s upper body moves backward with the chair, reclining and moving him so he doesn’t get sores.
A CamelBak — a bladder of water strapped to his back that he can sip through a straw — is slung over his shoulder.
A sling on his right arm encourages muscle development. A silver-dollar-size kill switch sits beyond his left temple, close enough to hit with his head when he wants to stop the chair. A Catheter pours into a bag strapped to his leg.
The chair needs constant adjustment, and that frustrates Drew. One day, he spends two hours watching Craig employees tweak the chair, from the cushion to the footboards.
“All that time seems not wasteful,” he says, “but it seems like I should be doing rehab instead of sitting there and getting knocked around.
“It seems like they’re focusing more on the chair than they are getting me better. What I want them to do is focus on my arms and still focus on my legs a little.”
The chair is Drew’s link to the outside world — it serves as his legs. But it’s also a reminder of where he is.
“It symbolizes not being able to do what I used to be able to do,” he says.
The last goal on Drew’s list is to be able to walk.
After a while, Drew and Fran leave the list sitting on the table in his room. Drew’s goals, they decide, are not ones that can be checked off a slip of paper like a teacher grading a math test.
“Those aren’t really goals you can work to,” he says. “If I can walk again, getting movement in my fingers … it’s up to the spine to do that.”
So Drew imagines his brain sending little balls of healing to his spine, delivering letters like a mailman.
The “sip and puff” propels Drew to another day of class. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., his life is scheduled in one-hour blocks.
During Physical Therapy, Drew is laid out on a mat — not too different from the ones he used to perform on. Electrodes are attached to his biceps to stimulate muscle activity. His legs are massaged. Occasionally, he is strapped into an exercise bike. The electrodes power his legs. He is put into an apparatus that stands him up in front of a mirror.
His Occupational Therapist, Jennifer Bolka, takes Drew to the basketball gym in the basement of the 50-year-old hospital. Today is the first day he practices driving his chair with his right arm.
“Left!” the therapist urges. “C’mon, Drew! You can do it. Just a little more.”
Drew gives the chair a John Wayne glare. He moves his shoulder, which tugs his arm inward. His hand, draped over the joystick, turns the chair just a little.
Drew cannot sweat. His nervous system should tell his blood vessels to open and close — depending on whether they want to retain or lose heat. The message, however, is interrupted at his point of injury. When he’s outside, Drew feels like he’s in a stuffy room.
He gets hot in the mornings and cold in the evenings. Toward the end of the afternoons at Craig, he sits in his motorized wheelchair covered in towels, sipping hot tea from a straw to stay warm.
Drew is learning how to live as a quadriplegic.
He tried out new skills, like turning the page of a book for the first time since the accident. Using a wand with a piece of sticky blue goo called dicem on the end, he pushes at the first page of the children’s book, “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” Its pages are large enough for a beginner to turn.
After a few tries, the page turns. Then another. And another.
“Turning a page in a book, scratching your nose — those things are huge,” Jennifer says.
It’s an emotional struggle. On some level, embracing the new lifestyle makes Drew realize he might not get better. But mastering the smallest things in life — brushing your teeth, feeding yourself — is an emotional boost.
“People who have been injured nine, 10, 12 years still aren’t totally OK with spinal cord injuries,” his occupational therapist says. “If you’re on a ventilator, you want to get off the ventilator. If you don’t have hand function, you want hand function. If you’re a Paraplegic, you want leg function.
“That’s human nature. If I own a house, I want a bigger house.”
So Drew keeps pushing. He learns how to type without using his hands. With a headset on, he works with Dragon Naturally Speaking, a program customized to his voice that types what he says. The system and laptop was a gift from Yoichi Tomita, his gymnastics coach in Tucson.
Drew goes to a favorite computer game Web site, even though he doesn’t have enough movement to play.
“Wake up!” he orders the machine. “Go to address. www.G-A-M-E-S-P-O-T.com.” The computer doesn’t hear him correctly. “Scratch that.”
Drew then opens a word-processing system.
“Today’s Tuesday and I feel good,” he says, and the computer types it. He goes to his favorite music Web site and selects “Tell It Like It Is” by Aaron Neville. The teenager grooves to the song written in 1967.
On a Friday in late June, Drew and other patients take a field trip to the Denver Zoo. Drew is afraid he’ll fall asleep in his chair. Or worse, mow down a child who runs in front of him.
None of it happens.
“I don’t feel normal,” he says. “But I don’t feel like people are staring at me.”
It’s maddening for Fran, not knowing what her best friend and only child is going through.
“If there was any way to stop the discomfort, you’d change it for your kid,” she says. “As a parent, you just want to fix it.”
Her voice cracks. Tears flow down her face.
“What’s being grieved is parts of yourself,” says Dr. Toby Huston, Drew’s rehabilitation psychologist. “A loss of independence. A loss of control.”
It hits Drew sometimes when he passes in front of a mirror.
“I see my crooked body, all kind of thin and not the way it used to be,” he says.
In his mind, he doesn’t picture himself this way.
Drew wants to get better, but he’s still not sure what that means. He defines progress as recovering completely, but also as mastering his new life.
So when he talks to God, he doesn’t dare ask to be able to walk.
“I don’t pray to get better,” he says. “I talk to Him, like, ‘Hey, help me get home.’ I thank him a lot, just for the day and my mom and all the love and support.”
An Irish prayer card titled “Always Have An Angel By Your Side” sits on the shelf behind his hospital bed, next to a bottle of holy water gathered in Lourdes. A prayer card of St. Andrew rests nearby, next to a candle from Drew’s April 9 confirmation.
Fran, a self-described “wayward Catholic,” defines herself as more spiritual than religious. So she takes walks. She dumps her purse and rearranges it, trying to grasp some semblance of order. She tries to think positive thoughts. She meditates.
After staying for a month at the hospital’s on-site apartment, Fran moved into Drew’s room on the east wing. Bright and clean, it looks more like an apartment than the west-side rooms, designed for incoming and sick patients. She sleeps on a green checked foldout couch.
The hardest part is staying positive and practical at the same time. Her decision-making has to stay sharp.
“Time is so warped,” she says.
Drew’s high school picture sits behind his bed. His muscles bulge out from a Salpointe Catholic High School golf shirt. His hair is longer than it is now. Stuck on the wall with tape is Drew the Gymnast, holding a pose with arms down, lifting his body off the ground.
There are CDs and DVDs in the room, plus a book by Christopher Reeve. There are two kinds of tea — Tension Tamer and Sleepytime Extra.
“When I moved over here, I started thinking about the rehab and just getting better,” Drew says. “It’s pretty easy to be impatient. I think I’m a little impatient still.”
Drew is bored one day between classes in late July. He drives his chair to the bridge that connects the two wings of the hospital. He looks down to the world below — the street that passes underneath and the pine trees that line the street.
He has a thought — I wonder if I can lift my arm?
His mind tells his right arm to lift up from the arm of his chair. It moves. All the way up to his chest.
Fran walks up to her son moments later.
“Mom, check this out,” he says, smiling. And he lifts his arm again.
“It was just like you’d feel after you did something hard for you,” he says later. “It felt good.”
For now, this is what success looks like: Drew’s “sip and puff” has been disconnected. He can drive with his right arm now.
He can lift both his left and right arm from his lap to the arms of his chair. Encouraged by his progress, doctors delayed his return home by a week. He is to be discharged from Craig Hospital on Aug. 30.
“Wow, things can really work out for me here,” he says. “It comes to mind that I’m not gonna be in a power chair forever.
“It feels promising, like I can get this before I leave here.”
In a world that has been filled for 3 1/2 months with soul-defining tragedy and small victories, Drew feels close to being, in his words, “more normal.”
“It feels like I’m accomplishing my dream to push a manual chair,” he says.
As one dream becomes more attainable, another, coming home — and trying to return to his old life — is getting closer by the second.
Day TWO of three
SUNDAY: Drew falls during gymnastics practice and injures his spine. He and his mom, Fran, are forced to confront their new reality.
TODAY: 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.
TUESDAY: With Drew’s dream of returning home getting closer, his friends and family in Tucson prepare for his arrival.
on StarNet More photos, video of Drew’s last meet and audio interviews at www.azstarnet.com/special/donnellan