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Jim Kenyon: Teen driving for independence after spinal injury

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/18/2019 10:08:47 PM
Modified: 5/18/2019 10:08:45 PM

Sierra O’Leary rides a stationary bike mile after mile. She crawls backward across a gym floor with 8-pound weights strapped to her ankles. She pushes her 120-pound body to complete 10 or more pullups without resting. (Her record is 16.)

The exercise regimen is designed to build the 18-year-old O’Leary’s core strength, improve her balance and ward off muscular atrophy.

She puts herself through the demanding workouts, she told me, because she has “no choice.” Her dream of someday walking again forces her to “keep plugging along.”

It’s been more than two years since O’Leary suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury in a skiing accident at Dartmouth Skiway. She immediately underwent a 12-hour surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for a burst of the first lumbar vertebra in her lower back.

She came out of surgery still able to move her legs. Within 36 hours, however, she had lost feeling and movement in her lower body. Doctors speculated that inflammation around the injured area was causing her paralysis from the hips down.

Some paraplegics have regained their mobility after inflammation subsides, but the process can take years.

In the meantime — or in the event that her paralysis is more long-term — O’Leary has another goal.

“I want to be as independent as possible so I can go to college,” she told me.

Like many teenagers, O’Leary ties her independence to obtaining a driver’s license. In her case that means having an “adaptive vehicle” with hand controls instead of foot pedals.

Before getting her license, O’Leary must attend adaptive driving school. She’ll then need an adaptive car. Grant money is available to help with the cost of making modifications to a new or slightly used car. But even then, O’Leary’s parents, Robert O’Leary and Susan Gyorky, figure their family’s out-of-pocket costs will be about $30,000.

Which brings me to an upcoming three-day show at the Fairlee Town Hall auditorium. Upper Valley actors and musicians will take to the stage May 31-June 2 to raise money for O’Leary’s adaptive car.

The 80-minute show, featuring skits and songs, is called “An Evening with May and Nichols... and Porter.” It’s based on a 1960s Broadway play, featuring the improv comedy duo of Elaine May and Mike Nichols. (As for Porter, that would be Cole Porter.)

Showtimes for May 31, a Friday, and June 1 are 7 p.m. The Sunday matinee starts at 2 p.m. A reception follows each show. Donations will be accepted.

The Fairlee Town Hall is a fitting venue. For decades, the historic building’s second-floor auditorium got little public use due to lack of handicapped accessibility. Last year, an elevator was installed as part of an $850,000 town renovation project to the century-old building.

Having the show in the auditorium — and his daughter in the audience — wouldn’t have been possible before the building upgrades, Robert O’Leary pointed out.

“It’s a significant step forward for our town,” he said.

O’Leary is an actor who frequently appears in local productions. In March, he appeared in Working at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction.

Gyorky, a cardiac cath lab nurse, joked that her husband had to call in a lot of chits among his theater friends to get the ambitious show, which has 16 cast members, off the ground.

Katie Kitchel, of Norwich, told me it really didn’t take much to convince her and others in the cast to get involved. “When someone in our theater community needs help, we try to be there for each other,” she said.

O’Leary and Gyorky and their four children have an “amazing can-do attitude,” she said. “To watch them from the outside, it’s very inspirational.”

Richard Waterhouse, who splits his time between New York and Newbury, Vt., directed Working. When O’Leary told the Upper Valley theater community what he had in mind for his daughter’s fundraiser, “we all jumped in,” Waterhouse said. “It’s a great cause and an opportunity for people to give back.”

After meeting with Sierra and her family a few times since the February 2017 accident, I see why people are eager to help.

“Sierra’s taught us how to buck up,” her mother said. “We just focus on what needs to be done.”

For Sierra and her father, that means putting her wheelchair in his Mazda station wagon every Wednesday morning to make a 2½-hour drive to Canton, Mass., a little south of Boston.

Once there, Sierra works out with a neuro-exercise specialist for two hours in a gym for people who have suffered severe spinal cord injuries.

After Sierra and her father spend the night at his mother’s nearby condo, she’s back in the gym, run by a nonprofit organization called Journey Forward, for another two hours. Sierra’s workouts, along with physical therapy sessions at DHMC, include standing with the help of leg braces.

At Rivendell Academy’s graduation ceremony last June, a supportive crowd erupted in applause when Sierra lifted herself out of her wheelchair to walk slowly across the stage in leg braces to receive her diploma.

Watching Sierra that evening, some people in the audience thought she’d been cured. But it wasn’t the case. With leg braces, “I can walk short distances, but they’re really for exercise purposes,” she said.

The Journey Forward sessions, which cost $100 an hour, are not covered by insurance.

Last year, a Texas-based nonprofit called Chive Charities that covers medical expenses for people who are trying to regain their independence awarded $20,000 to Sierra to pay for Journey Forward. The grant runs out this summer, but her parents will find a way to keep her in the program.

Said Gyorky: “It puts a lot of hope in our lives.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

Valley News

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