Patrick Sheeran Jr., of Atlantic City, is one of the millions of people in the United States who have suffered traumatic brain injuries — the Centers for Disease Control puts the number at 1.7 million people each year.
But Sheeran isn’t a statistic. He’s a person trying to put his life back together after being struck by a car while walking home on Nov. 8, 2013. He and girlfriend Andrea Granieri will live with the results of that accident for the rest of their lives.
Since Sheeran came home from the hospital last February, Granieri has become his primary caretaker. The two, both 33, live together in Atlantic City and work at their new lives every day. They created a blog called 16 Petals of Blue Light to share their story with others in words, pictures and video. Granieri said they want to increase education and awareness about TBI, but also create a platform for Sheeran to speak out about his journey.
“This affects more people a year than cancer,” Granieri said. “Every single person in Atlantic County is interacting with people with brain injuries and they don’t even know it. Now, it’s like I can’t help but see it everywhere and I’m seeing how these people are treated because of ignorance.”
There are remarkable advances to help people with traumatic brain injury and other disabilities. But researching what equipment, programs and help is available can be difficult and time-consuming, especially for already-stressed caregivers.
That’s why Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation and Stockton University are hosting their first “Ability Fair” Friday, offering a place for people with long-term medical conditions to find out what assistance is available when their lives have taken unexpected turns.
Granieri had dreams to be a songwriter and musician. She made career plans, worked on songs and traveled from venue to venue to achieve her goals. Sheeran also composed and performed.
In fact, music is what introduced the couple while they were sophomores at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon. They met in a band program and had a unique friendship through the remainder of high school and college. Later, they drifted apart and their career pursuits brought them to different places.
They were both 30 and hadn’t seen each other in several years when Sheeran went to one of Granieri's last house concert tour shows in Ventnor. They reconnected when he walked into the room where she was playing that night.
“It’s strange because people say when you fall in love with someone when you’re young and then get back together later, they say it’s just like when they were kids,” Granieri said. “You think, is it really like that? And yeah, it is.”
Beneath Sheeran’s bright ginger hair, a hidden scar runs from the top of his right ear, snakes its way toward the back of his head before turning upward and continuing to his forehead.
When Granieri received the news of his accident, family members told her he was brain dead. She immediately flew from a music convention in Los Angeles to Florida, where he had been walking on a local street when the accident occurred.
“I wrote to his aunt and I said, I know it sounds crazy, but it feels like he’s hurt,” Granieri said. She immediately called his aunt. “I’ll never forget her voice. You know when someone says your name in a certain way that it won’t be good news. She said Patrick was hit by a car, that he suffered a traumatic brain injury. That was the first time I had heard that term.”
For the next weeks and months, multiple surgeries and tests were performed. Sheeran would eventually become a TBI survivor, but surviving didn’t solve everything. It would be a long road to recovery and stability.
With Granieri as his caregiver, Sheeran gets help with everything from going to doctors appointments to buttoning up his shirt. It’s a full-time job, but one she was willing to change her dreams for.
“A lot of caregivers of TBI say it’s an isolating experience, because brain injury is so specific, but it’s changed my life in wonderful ways, too,” she said. “You learn to appreciate every tiny little thing a person learns how to do.”
Cynthia Templeton knows all about being a caretaker to someone with a long-term disability. Her son sustained a spinal cord injury in 2004 that left him paralyzed from the chest down. She later founded Push to Walk, a non-profit rehabilitation center based in Riverdale.
The organization will present programs, services and education at Bacharach and Stockton’s Ability Fair Friday. The fair will feature more than 60 vendors with offerings for people with disabilities or long-term medical conditions.
“It’s very difficult to just find information and you’re so engrossed in the initial care and initial shock of the situation that things do seem overwhelming,” Templeton said. “Anytime you can put together vendors and organizations who provide info and services to people, it’s a one stop shop.”
Sheeran and Granieri use devices like MusicGlove to improve Sheeran’s finger dexterity. The program is similar to the Guitar Hero game played on an iPad. He uses a walk aid that has helped him improve “over 200 percent,” Granieri said.
But they’re looking for more, and with an injury like Sheeran’s, they will continuously be looking for ways to build up his independence and redefine a new normal in their lives. They've set up a fundraiser at Di Orio's Circle Cafe in Somers Point for Nov. 8.
“He is doing super well, but nobody really understands the invisible nature of his struggle. It affects every task you perform,” Granieri said. “We just keep pushing, make more ground. I don’t think there’s any limit as to where he can go.”