Paralyzed by a brutal crime, finding a will to live - and contribute

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Kevin Neary was shot and paralyzed in November. Family and friends have run fund-raisers. LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff

At 2:38 a.m. on Nov. 15, Kevin Neary found himself sprawled on the sidewalk of Bodine Street near the pretty brick rowhouse where he rented an apartment.

He couldn't feel his arms or legs. He tried calling, "Help," three times, but with each attempt, as though in a nightmare, his voice grew weaker. Why could no one hear him?

Minutes passed. Neary opened his eyes to see a police officer kneeling beside him. "Don't let me die," he pleaded.

Over the next few weeks, he sometimes wondered whether he'd have been better off dead.

He couldn't help brooding, "I don't want to live like this. I don't want to be in a hospital bed. I don't want to be paralyzed."

Those were the bad days, he says. The rare days when dozens of relatives and friends weren't lined up in the hospital corridors waiting for a turn to see him.

Four months later, Neary still has low moments. He is 29 and will never walk or hold someone's hand or take a breath on his own again. But he says he no longer wishes he'd closed his eyes for good the night he was shot.

For he has resolved the existential question that many people avoid or ignore:

"What makes my life worth living?"

 

"I started to follow him"

Christopher Easton is a 20-year-old high school dropout with a juvenile record and an amateur tattoo spelling "North Philly" in large swirls across his throat. On Nov. 18, three days after Neary was shot, Easton was arrested while trying to escape through a window of a friend's home. "I saw a white guy walking down Second Street towards Brown Street," he told police. "I figured I was going to rob him because I had nothing to do, so I started to follow him."

Surveillance videos caught glimpses of the two soft-focus figures, gray and white shadows passing into view. Neary, walking purposefully, confidently, on his familiar route home, down Second Street, then right on Brown. Easton can be seen hanging behind not to be noticed, crossing at an intersection, feigning a change in direction, then cutting back, picking up his pace.

When Neary disappears off the screen, Easton follows 10 seconds later.

In the upper right corner of the video, the digital clock reads 2:32 a.m., then 2:33.

"I walked up to him," Easton said. "I pulled up my shirt to show him my gun. I told him, 'You know what it is,' and I told him to give it up. He didn't want to give up his stuff, so I pulled out my gun and said, 'You think I'm playing?' The guy said, 'What, are you going to shoot me?' "

By 2:45, the video shows a patrol car racing to the scene, lights flashing.

Easton's trial on an attempted-murder charge is scheduled to begin Sept. 10. Among the case records are photographs taken that night. One shows the hole, small as a moth bite, where the bullet pierced the shoulder of Neary's crew-neck sweater. Another shows Neary in the Hahnemann University Hospital emergency room, wincing, his neck in a brace, a pillow spattered with blood. Yet another documents his belongings. A watch, a silver hoop earring, and the contents of his wallet - a credit card, a driver's license, and $16.

 

A generous nature

What if?

After their last senior year final exams at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, Neary and his friends went out to a bar to celebrate.

"Typical of Kevin, he was more than happy to spend money on other people," recalled Tom Lione, a classmate. "He bought a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, and when we finished it, the bartender asked, 'Would you like me to open a second bottle?'

Kevin said yes.

"We offered to pay, but he wouldn't take our money."

Neary wasn't flush. He got through school on scholarships and loans, but he'd always had a job and believed in enjoying his money.

The middle son of three boys, Neary grew up in a modest colonial house in Chichester. Stenciled hearts line the kitchen walls. The window over the sink looks out onto a big fenced yard.

"The American dream," said Neary's father, Joe, an accountant. "Twenty-six years here."

 

Receiving last rites

All his sons have done well, Joe Neary said. The oldest, J.P., is a major-gifts officer for Penn athletics. Chris, the youngest, is a legislative assistant in the U.S. Senate. Kevin, the entrepreneur, was always a good student, first at public school and later at the Salesianum School, a Catholic boys school in Wilmington.

Floating in and out of the drug-induced slurry after he was shot, Neary was surprised to see a priest from Salesianum at his bedside.

"He was administering last rites, but it didn't register," Neary said. "I was wondering what's going on. I just got shot in the shoulder."

He remembers, too, trying to answer detectives' questions and looking at mug shots of suspects. He had to use an alphabet board to spell out his answers or try to mouth words so his brothers could read his lips.

He managed, which surprised no one who knew him well.

"In school, I remember him being so focused," said Kristine Cipolloni, his eighth-grade teacher.

Cipolloni was among more than 300 friends, relatives, and acquaintances who attended a fund-raiser for Neary in February. Four events so far have raised more than $130,000 for his medical bills and house renovations to accommodate his disabilities. Each event has sold out weeks in advance; another is planned for May.

After Neary graduated with a degree in history and political science, a health-care company hired him as a recruiter. In 2010, he founded his own recruiting company, naming it tangentially after the city he had grown to love - Avenue 215 L.L.C.

"I really like the atmosphere," he said. "The renaissance, the edginess, the modern buildings and the green buildings."

He had been living in Northern Liberties for several years. While he built up his business, Neary was forgoing health insurance and supporting himself as a waiter, most recently at Union Trust Steakhouse.

Knowing how hard it is to make a living in restaurants, when Neary ate out, he would sometimes leave a tip that was double the value of the bill, said Anthony Coombs, one of his Penn classmates.

"He is also the kind of person who doesn't want to burden his friends," Coombs said. "When his mother died around Thanksgiving break, he didn't tell any of us until after he got back to school."

Those qualities, the intelligence, generosity, independence and drive, that made him a good friend would always serve him well in life. Now, they have become essential to his survival.

If he had not met Easton on Bodine Street, the odds are Neary would have gone on to run a company, marry, raise children and spend holidays with his large extended family and an occasional night out with his buddies.

He may still get to do all those things.

When the bullet severed his spinal cord, it was as though the essence of who Neary was - and is - suddenly concentrated in the parts of him that remained quick. As though the strength that abandoned his muscles retreated to his core, distilled into an intensely potent personality.

"I refuse to let this diagnosis define who I am," he said. "What will define me is what I do in the future."

 

Love of family, friends

Can the love of family and friends be enough to feed the will to survive?

During his three weeks in the hospital, Neary said, visitors would sometimes stand awkwardly, staring, making him feel as though he needed to entertain them.

It upset him, but it helped him focus on proving that although paralyzed, he was still Kevin, still there.

"It's my family and friends that are getting me through this," he said.

Before he was shot, he said, he was never the kind of guy to cry. Now, he can't hold back his tears.

On Dec. 9, after surviving 10 operations to stabilize his neck, install a pacemaker, insert and remove various tubes, and repair other internal wreckage from his wounds, Neary was transferred into Room 546 at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.

He could not raise his head to look out the window. He could not be moved into a sitting position without fainting. And he had not yet learned how to speak well with the ventilator that was keeping him alive.

Yet from the first day, the hospital staff said, Neary made his mark on the place.

"He was insanely appreciative," said David Wiedeman, the respiratory therapist.

And he wielded his sense of humor like a wand, capturing people with his charm.

"We didn't sleep for the first few weeks," said Ali Keirsey, a physical therapist. She said she and Amanda Weeks, an occupational therapist, thought about Kevin constantly. "During lunch breaks, we talked about what we could do for him. He has a way of getting to you."

At Magee, many patients have friends and relatives who invest weeks and months learning how to provide care, performing the basic tasks that become major undertakings - dressing, bathing, exercising. Neary's entourage was particularly large and loyal. Even his dry cleaner visited.

Throughout Neary's 14-week stay, the staff said, the numbers never diminished. Yet he never talked about the shooting.

"Everything with Kevin is about moving forward," Wiedeman said.

"But he didn't like loud noises. They startled him," Keirsey said. "When he asked what we were planning to do over the weekend, he'd tell us to be careful and make sure you're not alone."

Learning to speak with a ventilator requires patience, timing and practice, and over the last three months, Wiedeman said, Neary has achieved a nearly Olympian mastery.

"When I was working with him, he'd get immersed in the task at hand and forget about why," Wiedeman said. "He had this unique ability to be in the moment."

Wiedeman, 51, said he and Neary developed a close friendship. "I confided things in him that I don't share with anyone." Both movie buffs, they spent one afternoon analyzing the character development in Robert De Niro's 1995 film Heat, a film about criminals, hunter, and prey.

Presented with the option of making a motorized wheelchair move by puffing into a straw, Neary declined. "He didn't want anything in his face," Keirsey said. Instead, he chose to learn how to control the chair by moving his head - a more demanding skill involving neck muscles.

On Feb. 23, his last day at Magee, Neary had his family bring Friends of Kevin Neary (FOKN) T-shirts for everyone who'd worked with him, made sure his baseball cap was tilted just so, then posed for a picture surrounded by the staff. Before he left, he asked his father to help him say goodbye to a few of his favorite therapists.

"He had him lift up his arms and put them around each of us to give us a real hug," Keirsey said. "Then he told him to pat his hand on our backs."

No patient had ever done that before.

 

Back at home

If you could never walk or breathe on your own again, what would you miss most?

Neary is living back home.

His father, with help from his seven siblings and their spouses, has made taking care of Kevin a full-time job. To avoid skin damage, Neary has to be moved every 30 minutes during the day, and every two hours throughout the night. He needs a dozen medications to prevent spasms and blood clots, help him sleep, and control anxiety.

Like the 48 percent of Americans with spinal-cord injuries not covered by private health insurance, the family risked going bankrupt. The Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury Prevention Care and Cure reports that the average cost of caring for a patient like Neary in the first year is more than $800,000. Over the course of his lifetime, the sum will be more than $3 million, based on the estimated life expectancy of 15 to 18 years for someone who becomes ventilator-dependent at age 20.

Medicaid is paying most of Neary's bills for now, although it does not cover many items that would make him more comfortable and independent, for instance, the table that allows caretakers to give him a proper shower instead of a sponge bath.

Everything about his injury is expensive, from the tubing and filters for his ventilator, to the $65 sophisticated straw with multiple ball joints that allows him to sip water.

Neary, however, is luckier than most.

His network of supporters is formidable. They built a ramp to the house and turned the ground floor into a bedroom and accessible bathroom.

Local news coverage has helped bring in generous donations, including a used van so he can get to therapy appointments.

On March 27, Neary is scheduled to have another operation. This one, which has only a moderate chance of success, will cost $150,000. The surgeon is going to try to salvage a nerve that allows Neary to shrug his shoulders and connect it to a pacemaker that might make his diaphragm work.

"If I can get off the ventilator for six hours, that's a work day, or enough time to enjoy a Phillies game," Neary said. "Work is a big part of who I am. It's work and baseball for me."

His chin trembled. His father wiped away the tears.

"I'd like to be an active member of society," Neary said. "Doing peer mentoring with the spinal cord injury community. If I can go back to the city someday, that's what I want to do."

Then the front door opened. One of Neary's aunts arrived, announcing, "I've got crab cakes!"

 


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

Contributions may be made to Kevin Neary Trust, Box 1824, Upper Chichester, Pa. 19061 or at http://kevinneary.com/kevin-neary-trust