Paralyzed from the neck down by a gunshot wound in 2011, Kevin Neary C’04 can’t help imagining that someday a medical miracle might allow him to walk again. In the meantime, he and his family are meeting the challenges and frustrations of his new life with strength, ingenuity, and charm to spare.
BY DAVE ZEITLIN | Photography by Candace diCarlo | PDF download
With an almost unnoticeable tilt of the head, Kevin Neary C’04 directs his motorized wheelchair from the new addition to his Delaware County home into the kitchen. Two men from Delco Alarm Systems jump from their seats to make room for him to squeeze through. “Thank you, guys, for all your hard work,” Kevin says, before continuing the arduous journey around the first floor of the two-story house he used to race through with his brothers.
As he gets near the front door, Kevin begins to have difficulty with the wheelchair, which he first learned to operate during his two-and-a-half-month stay at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. Although the process of controlling the chair by moving his neck muscles took a lot of practice, it was a method he far preferred to the alternative of puffing into a straw. But now the head pad on the wheelchair is loose, so he needs to call out to his father, Joseph, to fix it. Kevin still craves independence—it’s what he misses most since a gunshot wound left him paralyzed below the neck—but he often needs help. His father is usually there to provide it.
Armed with a screwdriver, Joseph tightens the head pad and Kevin continues his trip around the house, passing through the dark room where he began his new life after coming home from Magee a little more than a year ago. A life-size Phillie Phanatic cardboard cutout remains on the wall but the room is mostly empty now. Kevin stayed there until the new section in the back of the house—complete with a hospital bed, his own bathroom, and a sunny den with a flatscreen TV—was finished in April. He was happy to move. The other room was also where his mother had spent some of her final days before dying of lung cancer 11 years ago.
Kevin cuts into the dining room, makes a sharp right turn, and squeezes through a narrow opening to get back into the kitchen, where the two men from Delco Alarm Systems continue to work on a video feed into Kevin’s new room, which will allow Joseph—and Kevin’s rotating team of nurses—to monitor him while he sleeps. Outside, Joseph is discussing plans for a deck with a local carpenter, now retired, who had volunteered his services. On the other side of the house, a couple more volunteers are working on a new ramp that will make it easier for Kevin to get outside when he wants fresh air. Virtually the entire addition to the house was built thanks to donations and services from volunteers, some of whom didn’t even know Kevin. They often had to work around the many friends and family members who have flooded the Nearys’ modest house at the end of a quiet block in Upper Chichester, Pennsylvania, for the past 16 months.
“It has nothing to do with me,” Joseph says of the many phone calls he gets. “They all like Kevin.”
As if on cue, the doorbell rings. Michael Zamaro from Tender Care Phlebotomy has arrived to draw Kevin’s blood. This is done weekly to make sure no blood clots are developing.
“What’s up, Kev?”
“Hey Michael, what’s going down, bud?”
The two men, roughly the same age, continue to make small talk as Michael lifts up the pair of blankets covering the body of his favorite patient and rolls up the sleeve of Kevin’s button-down shirt. He’s having trouble finding a vein, so he switches arms. Kevin can’t feel anything.
“You got an exciting weekend ahead of you?” Kevin asks as the process drags on.
“Nah, I’ll just stay home probably,” Michael responds. “You go out and you either get shot or something’s going to happen to you.”
At first, it’s unclear if Michael has remembered Kevin’s situation when he says this. And for a few awkward moments, the words hang in the air. Finally, Kevin turns his head as far as his neck muscles allow and offers a pained smile.
“It happened to me on a Monday, man,” he says through heavy breaths.