(Photo by Joseph McGonegal)
Jerry Donovan drove his mini-van into the parking lot of his old high school, Catholic Memorial, the other day.
Donovan is paralyzed from the chest down, so to maneuver out of his swiveling driver’s seat, into his wheelchair and out the ramp of his van is a feat unto itself.
What Donovan saw next was something we see every day – a car (in this case a UPS truck) parked with its hazards on in front of the school – sitting directly in front of the curb cut designed to get wheelchairs up to the sidewalk.
Donovan politely reminded the driver of why that curb cut exists. She got the hint.
Welcome to Jerry Donovan’s new life, one that emerged after a 1999 accident that nearly killed the Norwood resident.
“I turned my truck over underneath the Prudential building,” Donovan, then a 20-year veteran repairman for Boston Gas, recalls. “I fell into a pit off the ramp about thirty-feet deep. I don’t remember it at all – which is a good thing.”
Donovan awoke at Boston Medical Center a few months later. Doctors had medically induced a coma after giving him a 2% chance of survival. He had severed his spinal cord and broken a dozen other bones. “I was in intensive care for months,” he says. “I was in a daze. I was thirsty and hungry and just confused. It really bothered me to be so drugged up and not know what was going on. It was the worst period of my life.”
Donovan’s wife, three children and mother supported him through it all, but his worst enemy was himself. Then, at the Spaulding Rehab Center in Boston, Donovan met David Estrada, who wheeled into his room one day. “He told me that he had driven there to see me. I said ‘no kidding?’ He was going to law school at Northeastern and doing all these things in a wheelchair. He turned a corner for me.”
A decade later, Donovan is the one turning corners for others. Anyone who watches him golf in his Legacy Financial sponsored paramobile device, and in particular those like him who are paralyzed – is instantly inspired. Donovan wheels up to the tee box, pushes a button that operates a lift to push his upper body into an erect stance, and swings with a sturdy right arm to put the ball straight out the fairway, 175 yards.
His short game is just as solid.
Donovan’s new day job is to counsel those who, like him, have injured their spinal cords, lost mobility, or are recovering from severe accidents. A veteran volunteer for the Spinal Cord Injury Association on Spaulding Rehab’s paraplegic and quadriplegic ward, Donovan knows well the process of healing that every man and woman goes through.
“At first, I felt like I was half the man I was before I was paralyzed,” he says. “But you really need someone who’s paralyzed to talk to, someone who’s been there and done that. Unfortunately, [the ward] is mostly men, twenty-eight to thirty-four years old who’ve been in accidents, and at first they’re giving me the finger, telling me ‘I’m gonna walk out of here.’ I let it roll...as you can imagine, they’re very upset. It’s such a life changing event.”
“But it’s a process,” he adds. “You have to be able to deal with it in order to move on and get stronger.”
Donovan went through the same dark times, doubting he’d ever recover and cursing his fate. When he finally got home, he realized that his once strong upper body had wasted away, and he started going to the gym again. Coincidentally, there was David Estrada, in the same gym.
“He told me I should come in and see him [at Spaulding]. I came in once to help out, and then he said, ‘why don’t you come in here a couple days a week?’”
Donovan has now counseled a hundred or more paralyzed men and women, individually and in a weekly support group. Like him, they thought they had nothing left to live for when they started rehab. Donovan’s convinced them that they do, telling them about his weekly rituals of swimming, bicycling, golfing and working out. The letters he gets from ex-rehab patients each year are testament that they believe him.
“I tell people, ‘it’s not what you can’t do. It’s what you can do,’” he says. “I tell people that if we can do these things, we’re way ahead of the ball game. I’m keeping myself as loose as I can and I’m waiting for the cure. I really believe there’s going to be a cure, but if I were to sit around like a couch potato, I won’t be ready for it.”
“It’s hard to describe, what Jerry does for others,” says Fred Corcoran, who founded Northeast Accessible Golf with Donovan in 2010 to increase mobility impaired golf tournaments and players. “He’s one of the driving wheels of our organizations, and one of the finest human beings I’ve met in my life. He dedicates every spare hour he can to others with disabilities and challenges, and especially veterans.”
Through Northeast Accessible Golf, Donovan is advocating for all golf courses to someday provide paramobile chairs like he has, ones that the mobility impaired can rent like any other golf cart. On the other end, he’s still working to convince more spinal cord injured players to try it.
“I gently encourage them to come out and try it,” he says. “You have to do the best with what you have. And now that I’m into it more, I just love doing it. I’m outside, I’m in a beautiful place with friends. We laugh, and we have a lot of fun.”
This article first appeared in CM Magazine, a publication of Catholic Memorial School