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Jim Kenyon: A Fairlee Teen’s Journey Forward

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Published: 6/25/2017 12:32:25 AM
Modified: 6/26/2017 12:48:53 PM

A few weeks after a skiing accident in February left her paralyzed from the hips down, 16-year-old Sierra O’Leary received a text from a concerned Rivendell Academy friend who asked if she’d ever walk again.

“I don’t know,” O’Leary responded. “Nobody knows.”

But this much O’Leary does know: It’s way too early to give up.

After completing nine weeks of therapy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, O’Leary could have returned home to Fairlee and got on with life as a paraplegic.

But at the urging of her parents, Robert O’Leary and Susan Gyorky, Sierra has stayed in Boston and continued to push herself so she might some day walk again. At Spaulding, the family heard about a nonprofit organization called Journey Forward that works with people who have suffered severe spinal cord injuries.

O’Leary spends two days a week at Journey Forward’s gym in Canton, Mass., going through the paces of an intense exercise program aimed at getting her back on her feet.

It’s not inexpensive, however. The sessions cost $100 an hour — and are not covered by insurance. Her most recent bill came to $1,600. Her parents put it on a credit card.

Last week, I sat with Robert and Susan on the back deck, which was recently outfitted with a wheelchair ramp. They’ve looked into renovating an upstairs bathroom to make it wheelchair-friendly and installing an elevator to their daughter’s second-floor bedroom.

But they’re holding off.

“Do we fix up the house so Sierra can move back home?” Robert said is a question they wrestle with. “Or do we spend money on Journey Forward so she might walk back into the house someday?

“In my gut, I know she’s going to be able to walk again.”

Sierra tried downhill skiing for the first time during Rivendell’s school vacation week in February. Her older brother, Jeremy, an experienced skier, took her to the Dartmouth Skiway in Lyme.

Sierra seemed to get the hang of the sport quickly. By the last run of the day, she was ready to strike out on her own. I’ll meet you at the bottom, she told her brother.

But shortly after they got off the chairlift, Sierra took a wrong turn onto a steep slope, where she quickly picked up speed. “I hit an icy patch,” she told me. “I’m not entirely sure what happened after that.”

Apparently, she lost control and hurtled into the air, landing hard on her lower back. When the ski patrol reached her, she said her legs felt “locked up.”

Susan, a registered nurse in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s cardiac catheterization lab, was at work when her husband called. Robert, who’s been a stay-at-home dad and has done odd jobs ranging from substitute teaching to waiting on tables, had just heard from Dartmouth Skiway that his daughter had suffered a back injury. An ambulance was taking her to DHMC.

Hospital tests showed that Sierra had suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury. The good news was that she still had feeling in her legs.

Sierra underwent a 12-hour surgery for a burst fracture of the first lumbar vertebra in her lower back. Afterward, she could still move her legs.

But 36 hours later, she took a sudden turn for the worse. She had lost feeling in her lower body and no longer could move her legs.

After two weeks at DHMC, Sierra was transferred to Spaulding, where doctors speculated that inflammation around the injured area was causing her paralysis. Spinal shock, they called it.

After the inflammation subsides, some patients have been known to regain their mobility, doctors told Sierra and her parents.

But it can take months, sometimes years.

“There’s been a slow realization for Sierra that this wasn’t something she could quickly bounce back from,” her mother said.

That’s where Journey Forward comes in. “It gives her something to be fighting for,” Susan said.

The exercise regimen is meant to keep Sierra from losing muscle strength and bone density. That would increase her chances of regaining mobility, if the inflammation diminishes.

In one exercise, “I pull myself up (on a bar) and someone holds my hips so I don’t fall,” Sierra told me over the phone last week. “Standing up is kind of painful, mostly in my back.

“I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I might as well try.”

She’s also joined a Boston-area YMCA that offers programs for the disabled and is undergoing outpatient therapy at Spaulding to learn how to navigate life from a wheelchair.

She’s living with her grandmother, who has a condo in a building equipped with an elevator, in Quincy, Mass. Her parents spend a lot of time driving back and forth to Boston, taking her to therapy sessions and bringing her home on weekends.

As news of the family’s ordeal spread, offers to help poured in. Along with providing meals, people have volunteered to care for Sierra’s younger sister, Sofia, and watch the family’s Siberian husky, Quincy.

Parish Players, a community theater group in Thetford that Robert has been involved with, donated the proceeds from its Father’s Day matinee. Fred Allard, a nurse who works with Susan at DHMC, organized a “Sprint for Sierra” fundraising event on Saturday at Rivendell.

A family friend started A GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign on Facebook to help with Sierra’s expenses, such as Journey Forward, that insurance doesn’t cover.

“We’re lucky, compared to some people,” her dad said. “We live in a community that cares about us.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


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