Story and video by Garrett Spahn
On a Friday night in the summer of 2015, a group of hometown friends congregated at a fire pit in Jack DiPierro’s backyard, their favorite hangout spot. There they cracked jokes, told stories, and simply enjoyed each others’ company, like they had been doing since elementary school.
To keep the good times going, DiPierro constantly stoked the fire with a seemingly endless and perfectly organized 8-foot wall of cut wood.
But this gathering was different from previous ones; this time the group gathered around a MacBook Pro so it could Skype Jared Grier, who was in Atlanta, GA, at the Shepard Center undergoing rehab and treatment. Grier had fallen out of a tree, fracturing his vertebrae and compressing his spinal chord, leaving him paralyzed. The laptop occupied Grier’s usual chair around the fire; the boys didn’t think it was right to have an empty one in the circle.
“It was always kind of a big thing when we would Skype him,” Sam Evans, a friend of Grier’s recalled of that summer. “The only time we ever really saw him in person was like a week after the incident. He was in rough shape at the time and it was hard to see him like that.
“But when we Skyped him, he was obviously getting a little bit more of himself back each time. His voice would get louder because he could move his chest more, and he could laugh, and would start to laugh again. It was a huge difference each time we Skyped him; it was great to see all the progress.”
Grier has miraculously managed to work his way back to life as a fully independent college student, through lessons he learned working on his farm, training as a devoted track athlete, and using his own self fueled determination.
A few months earlier on May 15, 2015, Grier ended his semester at Worcester Polytechnic Institute after taking final exams, and was looking forward to spending his summer in the quaint setting of Granby, CT tucked away on his farm with his close-knit group of high school friends.
Grier’s semester ended earlier than others, so he returned to Worcester, MA, for the weekend to spend time with the senior members of his fraternity in their pale yellow frat house before they graduated.
Grier was out throwing a Frisbee with his friends, when he decided to climb a nearby tree, something he says he has always loved to do. When climbing down, Grier missed a branch while trying to transfer limbs, and fell 12 feet to the ground; the fall immediately paralyzed him from the nipples down.
“I didn’t feel anything, but it felt as though the wind was knocked out of me. I was just on the ground, unable to really move any of my body. My arms felt very heavy and I couldn’t move my legs or anything,” Grier recalled.
Grier’s step-mom, Sue Okie, started a blog almost immediately after the accident, to keep friends and family updated on his condition.
“Today everything changed,” she wrote. “Life as we know it will never be the same. We will meet new people, experience new things and see everything from a perspective we never could have imagined. Raw emotion, pain, frustration, exhaustion. These will become an integral part of our lives at a level we could have never imagine,” Okie said in a blog post on May 15.
Initially, Grier spent three weeks at Massachusetts General Hospital near campus. The assessment revealed he had fractured his C6 vertebrae, the 6th lowest in his neck of 7 vertebrae, as well as compressing his spinal chord. Doctors determined he should be transferred to the Shepard Center, a facility specializing in spinal chord injuries in Atlanta, GA.
While in Georgia, Grier endured multiple surgeries as well as daily physical therapy so he could regain strength as well as nerve function. On only his second day at the Shepard Center, he agreed to participate in an experimental stem cell research study.
“At that time I felt as though I would take whatever chance I could gain anything back, so I accepted the offer,” Grier said. A few weeks later, Grier had 2 million stem cells injected into his spinal chord.
After his surgery, Grier went through what he described as a “boot camp” of intensive physical therapy. It covered everything from physical care and rehabilitation to personal independence, which involved teaching him how to adjust his daily routines so he could get dressed and get in and out of bed on his own. Grier said he was also educated about spinal chord injuries. He learned important stretches that he now does everyday to maintain muscle flexibility. In the beginning, Shepard Center staff had to do them for him, but he is now able to do them on his own.
Grier has made major improvements since then. His injury classification was deescalated a level, to a C7 vertebrae fracture, essentially meaning the vertebrae he broke is compared to one lower, which causes less damage. Grier has also improved motion in his arms, wrists, and torso.
At the Shepard Center, Grier was trained and taught to do strength exercises. He said he worked to build muscle, so things like transferring himself from his wheel chair to a booth when he goes out to eat, or his wheel chair into his car would be possible for him to do on his own.
When comparing himself before and after the Shepard Center, Grier said, “it’s black and white,” because of the improvements he has made. Gaining back his physical strength has been his biggest accomplishment. When he first came home, he couldn’t get out of the couch at his house, but now he does it multiple times a day with ease, he said.
Grier said his latest and greatest accomplishment was on Oct. 21, when he drove a car on his own, a little over a year after the accident that had left him paralyzed.
“Just one more step to being right back where I was. It’s not disabled, it’s differently abled,” Grier said on a Facebook post after driving.
Grier compared driving again to the liberation of turning 16 when he got his license, having the freedom to go where he wanted whenever he wanted.
Grier drives with hand controls; one hand is fixed to the steering wheel on a tri pin to steer. He rocks a lever back in order to brake and forward in order to accelerate with his other hand.
Grier has returned to his boyhood home, a large farm in a quiet part of Granby, CT where he lives with his father, Jon Grier, stepmother, stepbrother Logan Fry, 5 dogs, 1 horse, 10 mini horses, 3 sheep, 2 Nigerian pygmy goats, a goose, and a coop full of chickens.
The property, hidden far back from the road by a long driveway, blocked by a cattle grate, includes a barn, chicken coop, pastures for horse and goats, a pond, as well as lush woods that surround it.
“One of the things I learned about the environment I grew up in, specifically the fact that I lived on a vast piece of land, was that there was always something that needed to be done,” Grier said. This included mowing the lawn, feeding the animals, stacking hay and doing whatever else was necessary to maintain the land.
As he was growing up, Grier took the hard earned work ethic he learned from his home, and decided to apply it to running. He joined his middle school cross-country team in 8th grade and became hooked on the sport.
His newfound love for running led to him to join his track team at Granby Memorial High School, where Grier truly fell into his niche. Grier won first place at the North Central Connecticut Conference in the 4×100 meter sprint and was 6th in the state in the 4×100 meter sprint as well as the 100-meter sprint. He also broke the high school record for the indoor 300-meter sprint — the last race he would ever run before his injury.
Eight-year High School Track Coach Bob Casey said Grier was a mediocre miler, the team wasn’t very good, and so Casey had the freedom to assign Grier to sprinting. “Everything kind of came together for him,” Casey said.
“My favorite part of running was the last sprint of each race when you’re neck and neck with someone, pushing as hard as you can to beat them. I soon realized I didn’t have to deal with all the beginning running and could do events that work, just a neck and neck sprint,” Grier said.
Casey believes Grier’s hard work ethic led to his success.
“One of the things was, he established a goal. Because outside of the shot put record, for indoor, the 300-meter record was the oldest record we had. Nobody had broken it. That became his goal. And he worked to achieve that goal, and it was the focus all the way through that last year. Everything he did was with that in mind,” Casey said.
Casey said when he heard about Grier’s injury, he had no idea how to respond.
“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t send him a card, an email, I didn’t donate (to a fund established for him), and I didn’t know what do quite honestly. And it bothered me for a long time.” Casey said.
But one day, he called the family, and after almost a year from the date of the accident, the coach began planning an alumni track meet, where the proceeds would be donated to the family.
The meet raised around $2,500 and over 50 alumni athletes returned to Granby. Casey said the best part was for Grier to see how the team and community supported his son.
“Here’s a kid who should be going to parties, chasing girls, and drinking beer or doing whatever, and here he is learning how to put on his socks,” Casey said. Casey said he thought reuniting Grier
Casey believes that the lessons Grier learned in track, like setting goals and training to beat the 300-meter record, will benefit him in his recovery, Grier agrees.
He said his rehabilitation at the Shepard Center was all about setting goals. Short term, like gaining the strength to switch from a power wheelchair to a manual chair, which he accomplished, and long-term goals like his won day-to-day independence.
“Having that prior training of working hard and knowing that putting in the effort that will pay off in the long run, allowed me to see that even though that day [of the injury] I could barely lift a few pounds and not even lift my arm above my head because my right tricep wasn’t even there, I knew it would just take time and I needed to work at it,” Grier said.
He said understanding that just because sometimes in one race he wouldn’t achieve his goal, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be able to in the next race. This has helped his recovery process.
He understands that the world does not slow down for him, even though he is now paralyzed. He uses his farm as a symbol for how time waits for no man.
“Whether or not you do anything, the grass and weeds will continue to grow,” Grier explained. “So no matter what happens, you have to keep up with the time, and understand that everything continues to move forward, whether you are or not,” he said.
After taking a year to live at home and adjust to his new lifestyle, Grier is now back at WPI, taking classes, attending fraternity functions, and continuing to make progress.
Grier said his rehabilitation has granted him the physical and mental strength to reach his goal of independence. He has made great progress with his new strength, like getting himself in and out of bed, getting ready in the morning, and getting in and out of his own car to drive.
“I was surprised at how far along he was,” Casey said. “I didn’t expect him to be able to wheel himself in the wheelchair. He’s really gone quite a ways. Everyday I’m sure there’s something special he has to overcome, but he’s come a long way already.”
Fraternity brother Miles Robinson said seeing Grier’s full independence while he is back at WPI has been “awesome.” Robinson was abroad in Panama when Grier first returned to WPI, so when he returned and saw Grier again, he said it was incredible how far he had progressed from when he was first injured just a year and a half ago.
Grier said his future goals have also changed as a response to his injury. As a mechanical engineer interested in focusing on manufacturing and design, he said he wants to come up with ways to improve life for himself, as well as others in his position by creating new tools that make things more accessible for people who are paralyzed.
Grier is projected to graduate with his mechanical engineering degree in 2019, and would like to start looking into internships to further prepare him for his future, regardless of his injury.
Grier’s life prior to his injury did a lot to mentally prepare him for his new life after his injury. Dating all the way back to his hard work of running on the track and working on the family farm, Grier’s mindset has always been about setting and achieving goals. No matter how daunting his tasks, Grier has always been willing to accept a challenge, and use his powerful internal drive to achieve what he wants, no matter how much the circumstances seem to be against him.