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Mar 14, 2019 2:15 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

A Year Later, Hampton Bays Man Still Has A Fighting Chance In His Recovery From Spinal Injury

Mar 19, 2019 11:53 AM

When 22-year-old Hampton Bays resident Sean Grismer suffered a devastating spinal cord injury a year ago—he fell from a balcony while on spring break in the Dominican Republic—there wasn’t a lot of good news to be found. Talk between his parents and doctors focused on the dangers of getting his hopes up, and the single-digit percent chance that he would ever get out of a wheelchair. Life, they said, was going to be about adjusting to a new normal, not getting back to normal. The message from the medical professionals was clear: Life as he knew it before the accident was over.

But Sean did not heed the warnings.

Instead, against those long odds, Sean’s story has become one of hope—hope made possible by a small-town community coming together to give one of its own a fighting chance, and a young man doing the most to make good on that commitment.

It’s now been a year since the accident, and in that time Sean and his family have been through the most challenging time of their lives, buoyed, they say, by an incredible groundswell of local support that has given them reason to believe he will, in fact, walk again.

The Low Point

A few months after the accident, Sean, a former quarterback at Hampton Bays, weighed just 105 pounds, and he was in a bad place, both physically and mentally. He remembers spending Saturday nights pulling hairs out of his legs, desperate to feel something.

After several weeks at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey, followed by a move to Shepherd Center, a rehab facility in Atlanta, Georgia, the prognosis was grim.

“I wasn’t eating—I was not doing very well at all,” Sean admitted in a phone interview last week. “It was looking like there wasn’t really a lot of hope. They didn’t give me a lot of motivation. There wasn’t a drive to do more.”

The nightmare began on March 11, 2018, during a time of great joy for the then-21-year-old: spring break in the Dominican Republic. At the hotel he was staying at, the student on a break from the State University of New York at Geneseo had been engaging in horseplay throughout the day, climbing from the third-floor balcony of one hotel room to the one below it several times. But, having had a few drinks later in the evening, he tried it again, lost his balance and fell.

A doctor who is a friend of the family was able to help book a private medical jet to rush him from the Dominican Republic hospital the next day to St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City. He was in emergency surgery there by 6 a.m. on March 13, 2018.

Sean had emerged from the accident as a paraplegic, with no sensation from his chest down. Thirteen hours of surgery immediately left him with a spinal fusion, plus two rods, 16 screws and a metal “cage” inserted in his back. He also had suffered extreme head trauma, including a fractured skull.

For five weeks after the surgery, he had trouble spelling his name and remembering simple facts, like the name of the president of the United States. The head injury left him with almost no memory of the first two months after the accident, while he was recuperating at Kessler.

But, nonetheless, a fighting spirit emerged. Sean said his parents, friends and siblings told him that he would fight to try and sit up in bed, or ask to go to the rehab room to start therapy. Sean began rehab just days after the surgery, months before he was expected to, with the drainage plugs still in his back.

But that energy began to fade not long after the move to Shepherd on May 1, a move partly prompted by insurance limits on his stay at Kessler.

“After seven weeks, I was doing the same exact routine,” Sean said of his time at Shepherd. “I was getting a little bit stronger, but I felt like I shouldn’t be doing the same things over and over.”

‘Watch Me’

Sean’s determination to be in a place that was committed to the goal of getting him out of the wheelchair led him to where he is currently: the Barwis rehab facility in Deerfield, Florida. In just a few weeks at Barwis, Sean went from not being able to sit up straight to brush his teeth, to having full core strength and even partial sensation and movement in his legs. Most important, rehab work at Barwis includes being vertical and learning to walk with the assistance of a walker.

“Since I’ve been at Barwis, I don’t need a back rest to sit up anymore, and I have voluntary movement in my legs,” said Sean who credits the mentality of the Barwis staff for his drastic improvement.

But he admits that his own personality plays a role as well.

“Even before the injury, I was always kind of hardheaded,” he said. “When I hear ‘you can’t do it,’ the first thing I think is, watch me.”

The trainers at Barwis embrace that determination, and Sean’s mother, Erin Grismer, said the kind of physical training, athlete-centric approach taken at the facility is a great fit for her son, formerly the quarterback of the Hampton Bays football team and a varsity lacrosse player.

Trainers at the facility agree.

“We believe that Sean has the potential to walk again, based on a number of factors,” explained Nick Lucius who works with Sean at Barwis. “The first is our success in the past with individuals suffering from paralysis in returning neuromuscular function. The second is that within the first few weeks of training with us, Sean was able to reintegrate his lower abdominals, hip adductors and quadriceps.

“Sean has continued to show incredible focus and determination that drives his continued strength gains and improvements in walking.”

That kind of mentality has led to big changes out of the center as well. Sean lives on his own in a nearby apartment, taking care of himself, doing his own laundry, food shopping and meal prep. He drives himself to Miami three mornings a week for other physical therapy as well.

Regaining his independence has been a process, and his younger sister, McCaila, had a front-row seat to that, taking time away from school at the University of Buffalo to stay with Sean in the aftermath of his surgery, while he was at Shepherd. She says she learned a lot during the time she spent with him. She also has changed her career path, now determined to study spinal cord injuries.

“Sean has always been the most positive and determined person in the room,” McCaila said. “Sean was pretty stubborn growing up—which I hated—but now I see how great of an aspect that is in his personality through this ordeal.

“Sean’s determination, I would say, probably came from the tremendous support around him,” she continued. “Sean is the type of person who works hard to not let people down, and from this miracle I see that he’s continuing with that.”

It Takes A Village

Through it all, Sean and his family have been extremely cognizant of the fact that he wouldn’t be where he is without the support of his community, in particular the many people who contributed to his GoFundMe account—which has raised more than $150,000 to help pay medical bills and other costs.

Ms. Grismer, who is a nurse, said it was a blow when she found out, two weeks into Sean’s stay at Kessler, that their insurance would cover only 30 days.

“Most of the kids in the rehab facility were Sean’s age,” she said. “There were kids who had been there for months, and then I realized they didn’t have insurance—they were just paying for it.”

Ms. Grismer said they also saw kids go home destined to life in a wheelchair, never getting a chance to find out if they could defeat the odds and walk again, because the money simply wasn’t there.

“Sean was able to go to Shepherd and Barwis because of the GoFundMe,” Ms. Grismer said. “He really got a chance, like, one in a million.”

Getting there wasn’t easy, however. The first few months after the accident, in particular, were a strain on the family. Ms. Grismer, her husband, Gary, McCaila, and brothers Gavin and Logan would take turns staying with Sean for a few weeks at a time, making sure he was never alone for long stretches.

“I was afraid he’d get depressed,” Ms. Grismer said. “I was so afraid he’d give up.”

“It was hard for me to see my completely independent brother re-learning to live,” McCaila said. “That’s where I believe if we didn’t let people in to help, we wouldn’t have made it together as a family. I was worried sick about Sean, until I realized that he was actually worried about us—and that’s how things got easier.”

Family friends John Noonan and Stephanie Oakland were instrumental in starting the GoFundMe page, according to Ms. Grismer. Rehab facilities like Kessler, Shepherd and Barwis can cost more than $2,000 per day, a non-starter for all but wealthy families.

“It’s just been a series of not only donations but people just stepping up to aggressively help us out,” Ms. Grismer said. “People can say what they want to say about small towns, but it’s been amazing.”

Aside from financial donations, Ms. Grismer said that in the past year she’s seen a steady stream of people from the Hampton Bays, East Quogue and Southampton communities offer help in various ways, from putting the family in touch with experts in spinal cord injuries, to local contractors volunteering time and materials to make the Grismer home handicap accessible, to people helping the family purchase plane tickets by giving them their airline points.

Sean had his first visit back to Hampton Bays in August, when renovations to the Grismer house to accommodate Sean and his wheelchair were finished. After that, he went back to Shepherd until September, and then made the move to Barwis in Florida after the family concluded it would be better suited to his recovery. Barwis helps athletes rehab from injuries, and it has more of a “gym” kind of feel to it—something appealing to the former Hampton Bays standout athlete.

Those who know the Grismers say they have been impressed with how both Sean and his family have handled the ordeal. Dan Crough is a Southampton doctor who became friends with the Grismers when their oldest children were babies, meeting at a hospital parents’ playgroup for their kids. Sean is around the same age as his oldest daughter, Noelle, while McCaila and Mr. Crough’s son, Spencer, are also around the same age. The Crough family went to Florida to visit Sean earlier this month.

“Sean has an unbelievable attitude,” Dr. Crough said. “He makes you laugh at how he has dealt with difficulties he has faced living with a wheelchair. It’s like going out with the mayor when you go out here with the Grismers.”

Dr. Crough said the Grismers have provided a model for what taking care of a family member in crisis should look like.

“Each one of us hopes we would be up to the challenges faced in a situation like this,” he said. “The Grismers faced it head on. Gary held down the home front, and Erin went into motion.

“Erin is a force of nature on a normal day. She is the kind of nurse who is hardworking and has a twinkle in her eye that tells you she knows what is going on, and she will take care of you. As a mom, she routinely had a gaggle of neighborhood kids trailing behind as she whirled though play dates and sports events.”

Dr. Crough added, “When Sean had his accident, she had the strength and focus of an action hero.”

The Rebirth Of Hope

Ms. Grismer says that while she feels overwhelming gratitude that Sean has been able to be at Barwis, thanks to the financial support from the GoFundMe page, that money is due to run out in June. She and her family are now anxious about the future. She spends much of her time applying for scholarships available through various foundations in the hopes that she can keep her son on the same path by continuing the progress he’s made at the rehab center.

While Sean’s mental well-being and approach to his future have greatly improved since he’s been at Barwis, he naturally still has good days and bad days. His mom developed at least one coping strategy that has become a running theme in their conversations.

“I always talk about the movie,” she said, with a laugh, referring to how certain parts of the story would appear if a movie were being made about his life. “It’s how I keep Sean going. I’ll say, ‘Oh, this is going to be great in the movie,’ or ‘This might be a sad part.’ But I do feel like it would make a great movie. His story is so great.”

Sean said he feels like he’s come a long way from the days when he was plucking out his leg hairs and totally reliant on everyone around him.

“Things have absolutely turned around,” he said. “I don’t hate waking up in the morning. In the months after the injury, I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted everyone to do everything for me. But that changed about a month into Barwis. It hit me when I looked around: my room was a mess, and I needed food, and I sat there for a second and was, like, what are you doing? You’ve got to get it together.”

Knowing that so many people back home were rooting for him and had made personal and financial sacrifices to help him out provided plenty of motivation as well.

“I wanted to get down on myself, but I knew there were over a thousand donations,” Sean said. “There are over a thousand people who don’t want me to just sit down here and call it.”

That support system has been crucial for Ms. Grismer as well, as she’d had to balance a full-time job and the rest of the responsibilities that come along with parenting three other children while trying to do everything she can for Sean.

“After the accident, I knew I couldn’t handle it on my own,” she said. “I think I draw on other people. So much of it is overwhelming. Since the accident, I have really relied on our support system.”

Both Ms. Grismer and McCaila have said that Sean has been their biggest source of strength and inspiration.

“He says it gets better every day,” Ms. Grismer said. “He’ll tell me, ‘Yesterday, I took 10 steps, and today, I took 15.’”

Ms. Grismer admitted that watching her son struggle for every step can be acutely painful for her as a mother. “Every day he pushes through,” she said. “It’s amazing. I think he really knows that if he works hard, good things will happen.

“In the beginning, I thought maybe it was all futile,” she continued. “But now I can see that he’s really gaining. He’s taught me to be positive and have patience.”

Sean has applied those traits in his own life, of course. He is taking an online college course, and hopes to finish the roughly three semesters worth of work he had left while he was still a student at Geneseo. Earning a bachelor’s degree is on his long-term to-do list.

As for the rest of his family, they’re eager to get back to spending as much time together as possible, with a new perspective on what that means.

“My son Gavin is a senior now, and he said he used to take family vacations for granted,” Ms. Grismer said. “Now he says they mean so much more. They were so afraid that Sean wasn’t going to make it.”

Ms. Grismer’s future hopes for all of her children are simple. She hopes they can show the community how much the support has meant to their family. And she believes in their ability to do it.

“I hope my kids will continue to pay it forward,” she said. “[The community] really kept us afloat.

“I think, in two years, Sean will walk again,” she added. “And I think he will be an inspiration to people.”

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