Late on the night of September 9, 2011, Heather Reidy of Vinalhaven got the phone call that every parent fears. Her son, then 18-year-old Joey Reidy, who was away at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont for the first time, had been hit by a car. Joey was in critical condition.

When Heather and her husband Norman arrived at the hospital, they learned that Joey suffered from a brain shear, which means his brain literally turned in his head, as well as some bruising on his brain, and a fractured left tibia and fibula. Joey was in a “minimally conscious state,” what most refer to as a coma. The prognosis was grim.

But the real story here is not the injuries Joey suffered, it is the incredible recovery he has made over the past several months as well as the astonishing support the Reidy family has received throughout this nightmare. From the moment they arrived at the hospital, the Reidys were not alone in their struggle. According to Heather, they arrived to find “a waiting room full of college students,” including Joey’s Vinalhaven High School classmate Catherine Haley who attends nearby Burlington College. Support for the Reidy family came in every form, from the Vinalhaven community, the Champlain College community and strangers alike. Vinalhaven School students made signs to hang in Joey’s hospital room; people sent words of comfort via email and Facebook. Champlain College provided a cottage for the Reidys so they wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel, and refunded Joey’s tuition. The Vinalhaven Community Outreach raised “an unbelievable amount of money” that was “mind-blowing,” said Heather. “It really helped [later] in Boston, especially, to pay hotel bills.” Perhaps most surprising was a $50 gift card to Olive Garden that was left anonymously at the hospital for the Reidys by a couple of strangers whose son had been in an accident when he was in college as well.

Back home, members of the Vinalhaven community began wearing blue wristbands in Joey’s honor. The bands read “Prayers for Joey” and “Go Gentle,” a nod to his high school nickname, Gentle Joe. In addition, to honor Joey, both the high school girls and boys basketball teams wore warm-up t-shirts before their games for the entire season that read “Go Gentle” on the back. During high school, Joey had been the boys basketball team manager.

Almost from the start, Heather began posting nightly updates on Joey’s progress on Facebook. “I knew people were concerned,” said Heather. “I wanted people to know how he was doing. I was able to get out there what was really going on. It was kind of therapeutic for me.”

Joey spent the first 25 days of his recovery in the surgical ICU at Fletcher Allen Hospital. By September 21, he had opened his eyes and was moving his fingers, the first significant signs of recovery.

On October 12, Joey was taken to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston to participate in their Disorders of Consciousness Program. “It was just what he needed, it was close to home, and we had heard all great things about it,” Heather said. Just over two weeks later, Joey achieved one of the biggest milestones in his recovery. On Halloween Joey’s therapists discovered that he could read. Heather was ecstatic. Her immediate response was “Yes! I knew it!” According to Dr. Joseph Giacino, head of the Disorders of Consciousness Program at Spaulding, being able to read a command, understand it, and follow it, as Joey could, was the best sign they could have hoped for.

On December 15, Joey said his first word, and four days later he was speaking in complete sentences. Christmas night, Joey remembered his Facebook password, allowing him to communicate with his friends outside the hospital. “I really liked it,” Joey said. Using an iPad he got for Christmas, his brother Jack typing for him, Joey updated his status: “merry christmas, come see me. i just remembered my password.” Not long afterward, Joey was able to type on his own.

According to Heather, each day in therapy Joey would “do something more and he consistently scored better on their assessments each week. With brain injury, progress is typically very slow and not always upward. Joey’s progress at Spaulding was straight upward, no “plateauing” and very rapid. To quote the doctors there, “He is our best, fastest recovery from the Disorders of Consciousness program ever.” Joey was able to return to Vinalhaven on February 15, five months and six days after his accident.

And what a homecoming it was. The Vinalhaven community pulled out all the stops for Joey’s arrival. The fire trucks were at the dock to greet the boat when Joey and his family drove off. Posters adorned telephone poles from the ferry all the way to their driveway. And in the middle of town, community members gathered en masse to line Main Street and cheer as Joey and his family drove through town. “It was overwhelming,” said Heather. “It was crazy. We didn’t expect that at all.”

Joey continues his rehabilitation at home. According to Heather, “Joey is almost back to his ‘old’ self again. Although with brain injury, people tend to change, Joey really doesn’t seem like he has much.” She said, “There is still some cognitive work to be done, getting his memory and attention better, but it’s obviously all there, it just needs to come together. And that is the truly slow part about recovering from brain injury, it just needs time to get better.”

Joey hopes to return to Champlain College in September although he may have fewer classes at first. “The school has been very accommodating,” said Heather. “They’re going to support him in whatever he needs.” As any parent in her position would, Heather expressed some trepidation in sending her son back to school. “Of course I’m worried,” she said, “but I can’t not let him go. I pray to God that he stays safe and stays in the cross walk. I have faith that he’ll be all right.” On the other hand, when Joey was asked if he had any reservations about returning to school, his answer was an emphatic “No.” q


Kris Osgood is a freelance contributor living on Vinalhaven.