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A Firefighter's Story

Steve Neely had never really thought of himself as an overachiever. In school he was an average student; as an adult, he was a hardworking regular guy. Steve worked for his father drilling water wells and part time for the Kaneville Fire Department. He lived near his parents and siblings in Elburn.

Steve’s dream had been to become a paramedic in his hometown. On July 16, 2006, Steve attended a day of orientation for the paramedic training course he was about to start. Riding his Harley home that evening, Steve was caught off guard as something darted out in front on the road.  An eyewitness would later say she thought it was a deer.

A good driver and experienced motorcyclist, Steve was able to avoid hitting the deer but the road he was driving on was recently repaved with a six-inch drop off at the edge.  When his motorcycle came to the edge of the road, the wheel turned and Steve lost control.

Steve’s parents, DeDe and Mark, were at home that night when friends from the fire department came to the Neely house to say Steve had been in a serious accident. Soon after the Neelys arrived at the hospital in Aurora, they found out Steve has been flown to a trauma center in Downers Grove. As they were driving to the hospital, DeDe anxiously remembered what Steve had told her on several occasions: “If I’m ever in an accident and paralyzed, you should just let me die.”

The news at the hospital was not good. Steve had broken three vertebrae in his back and two in his neck, a broken femur and several broken ribs, and a punctured lung. Because of the extent of his injuries and the trauma, Steve was unknowingly combative as he lay in the hospital bed.  The doctors chose to keep him in a drug-induced coma to prevent him from hurting himself further.  Steve underwent several surgeries. DeDe and Mark were told that Steve had been paralyzed from the chest down and that he would never walk again. He had a tracheotomy.  He was not breathing on his own.  DeDe’s worst fear was that when Steve did awake, and still needed the trach, that he would lose his will to live.

After several days, the doctors would try again to bring Steve out of the coma to further assess the extent of his injuries. Because he was so physically strong, Steve fought hard when he started to come to. His mother whispered in his ear that he needed to try to be calm and relax or the doctors wouldn’t allow him to be brought out of the coma.  Slowly Steve began to awake, but remained uncommunicative for quite some time.

Eventually Steve would become more alert and aware of what he had been through.  The hardest decision at that point for Steve’s family was determining when to tell him that he was paralyzed.  His parents feared Steve’s reaction.  When they began the conversation with him, they were surprised to learn that Steve already knew.  But rather than being depressed or even suicidal as his mother had feared, Steve was resolute and determined. He almost immediately accepted what had happened and began thinking in terms of a life that was not going to end, just change.

On the doctor’s urging, Steve’s family began to consider rehabilitation facilities, and chose Marianjoy. The day he was discharged from the acute care hospital, Steve was taken by ambulance to Wheaton.  He remembers the ride well.  Though there was anxiety and trepidation as to what was yet to come, Steve was glad to have some familiar faces transporting him that day.  His buddies from the Big Rock Fire Department were his ambulance crew. 

Shortly after arriving at Marianjoy, Steve was able to sit up on his own for long periods of time, his trach was removed, and he was eating on his own. Steve was ready for the challenges his therapists would provide him with.  Steve sees himself as a very independent person, and all he wanted to do was go home and become self sufficient as quickly as possible.

Steve speaks softly when he recalls his original rehabilitation goal. He wanted to leave Marianjoy walking on his own. The first night, when two Marianjoy physicians came to see him, Steve asked that for what he called “the flat out truth…tell me what’s going on and will I ever walk again?”  They confirmed that he would not, and for the first time since his accident, Steve cried.

Initially Steve’s parents were afraid he may have been transferred to Marianjoy too soon, but on the second day of working with occupational therapy, he was already dressing himself without help or the aid of any assistive devices. Steve remembers his therapist’s surprise at this accomplishment. She said, “I have never seen anybody in your condition dress themselves on the second day!”

Something inside Steve would not let him give up on life. “I’m grateful that I’ve always been an active person and that the work I’ve done has always been physically challenging. I truly believe one of the main reasons I’ve come so far so fast in my rehabilitation is that I was in such great shape to begin with,” said Steve.

“People ask me how I can have such a positive attitude after all I’ve been through, and I tell them I don’t know any other way to be. Something bad happened to me, but that is life. So, my life is different now. That’s all it is…different.”

After being discharged from Marianjoy, Steve came back to the Marianjoy Day Rehabilitation Program as an outpatient for three months. His therapists worked with him to develop a regular workout routine to keep his body as strong as possible. He remembers being taught something particularly valuable to an individual in a wheelchair. “One of the goals my outpatient therapists had for me was to be able to get from the ground back into my chair in case I would fall and no one was around. They told me to be patient, that it usually takes a few weeks to learn how to do that, but I learned in two days!”

Steve felt there was one key to being truly independent and that was the ability to return to driving. “I earned my commercial driver’s license when I was 18 and had driven a truck for a while. I just enjoy driving so much that I knew I would have to find a way to do it again.” Steve was introduced to Marianjoy’s Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, Pam Bartle and Anne Hegberg. “Pam got me behind the wheel and within no time I was driving again! When she found out that I hoped to get my truck equipped so I could drive with hand controls, Pam suggested I apply for financial assistance through a program at Marianjoy.”

The Clara Pfaender Fund is an endowment fund that encourages ministries sponsored by Wheaton Franciscan Services, Inc. and the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters. Steve received a grant from the fund which has enabled him to equip his Ford F150 with the adaptive devices he needs. “We are very grateful for this financial assistance. Equipping his truck will give Steve real freedom again,” said DeDe.

Steve is grateful his family chose Marianjoy. “I can’t say enough about the therapy I received at Marianjoy,” said Steve. “The therapists were great and really kicked my butt!  Honestly, I would tell anybody to come here. Not only are they good at what they do, but they are incredibly compassionate. They not only helped me physically, but emotionally.  I could just talk to them about questions or concerns I had.  And not just my therapists, but everybody who works there. It is clear the Marianjoy staff enjoys what they do.”

Now Steve’s looking to the future. “I want to work and be productive again. I’m thinking about becoming an emergency dispatcher. I’ve been on the receiving end of their calls as a member of the fire department, so it seems like a natural thing for me to do,” Steve said.

And his future may have something in store for him that, before the accident, he never would have considered. “Before the accident, I was sure I didn’t want to have children,” said Steve. “Now, seeing what my parents went through on my behalf, and seeing the love that they have for me…well, there is no other love like the love of a parent, right? I want to be able to give that to my child someday. I’ve learned so much about compassion and how important family is. If this is all the good that comes from my accident, it will all have been worthwhile.”