After an Unexpected Injury, Young Man Teaches others what Matters
Kevin Greene thought he was doing all the right things. He had just left work on his 22nd birthday and was exhausted. While he would've preferred to stay home and sleep, his friends convinced him to go out and celebrate. They had a designated driver—another friend—so he felt secure and safe to party the night away.
The Kearny, NJ native was having a great time. On the drive home, Kevin was unaware that the driver had been sneaking drinks throughout the night. The speeding car hit a stop light, and jack-knifed into a tree. Kevin was ejected and thrown 100 feet.
Kevin broke his spine at T10 and sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Throughout his hospital and inpatient rehabilitation stay at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, he needed a ventilator to breathe, which made it difficult to to talk until he could breathe on his own.
Lacking all sensation and movement below the waist, the once active young man had to adapt to life in a wheelchair. Kevin always loved working outside and helping his father with various projects. He also participated in nearly every sport—soccer, running, wrestling, basketball, football, and golf. The typical twenty-something, he lived a spontaneous life. While he liked to have fun, he understood the importance of hard work. Around the time of his injury, he was working extra hours in an effort to save up enough money to return to school—money that went toward paying for damage and medical costs from the accident.
After his injury, however, life changed. “I still love my life, but it is more expensive and planned,” Kevin explained. “I’m still spontaneous; however, I have to call places I haven’t been to before to make sure I can get in, move around, and use the bathroom. I also have to buy medical supplies and special items that many 28 year olds do not need to buy.”
From the brain injury, Kevin also struggles with his memory. He can’t recall much before the accident and even a few years post-injury. Kevin participates in TBI research at Kessler Foundation, which explores new ways to improve thinking, learning, memory, processing speed, and fatigue in individuals with brain injury. “I sometimes feel that the effects of the brain injury are worse than my paralysis. People see me in my wheelchair and understand my physical limitations, but they don’t realize that my memory is a constant struggle,” he said. “I participate in research studies at Kessler Foundation because the brain is so very important and we do not know everything about it. The brain does not repair like the other parts of the body. Breakthroughs made at Kessler Foundation will help people in the future recover from brain injury.”
Kevin is still learning how to make a new life for himself. “The hardest part for me is trying to be the man I was and integrating ‘that guy’ into the man I am now,” Kevin stated. “I had to change everything about my life after the accident. I needed a different life path and that has been very difficult. Five years later, I am just getting back on my feet, so to speak.”
Unable to do his normal heavy lifting and building work, Kevin thought back to what interested him in school—science. He enrolled in the laboratory technician-training program at JFK, one of the disability employment programs funded by Kessler Foundation. The training program achieved its goal.
Kevin raves about his instructor, job coach, and program supervisor. In addition to teaching him everything he needed to know about being a laboratory technician, he also learned job-searching skills. “I got to see exactly what I wanted to do after the program ended,” exclaimed Kevin. “I received great computer training. I learned a lot and was able to land a job in a laboratory soon after finishing my training.
Upon completing the JFK training program, he was offered a job. Kevin is now responsible for maintaining a small medical laboratory; he orders chemicals, keeps maintenance logs of all machinery, stains prepared slides, covers the slides for later review by a pathologist, and prepares t histological specimens. In a few months, his lab will move to a new location. His employer built the lab to allow for complete and easy access for his wheelchair. Kevin’s success in his new career has motivated him to continue his education. He is completing his associate’s degree online.
Kevin’s also motivated to help people minimize their risk for disabling injuries. Kevin volunteers for the NJ chapter of ThinkFirst—a national injury prevention program for students from kindergarten to high school seniors. Kevin is one of ThinkFirst’s VIPs (Voices for Injury Prevention), individuals with spinal cord injuries who are willing to tell their stories to benefit others.
Kessler Foundation has sponsored the NJ chapter for more than two decades. ThinkFirst travels to schools and summer camps with Sandy DeLeon, the program director, and VIPs. VIPs explain how they were injured and how their injuries could have been prevented. “At first, I thought to myself, this must be a scare tactic; show them the ‘kid in a wheelchair’ and tell them this is what happens! That isn’t what we do at all,” Kevin declared. “Through a charismatic presentation, we let the children know what the brain and spinal cord do and why we should protect them. We give everyone the knowledge that certain behaviors carry real risk and that there are better choices. I cannot change what happened six years ago, but I can provide first hand information of what it is like for me to live in a wheelchair today.”
While Kevin wants to educate people on the consequences of injuries, he finds it equally important for the students to view him as one of them. He explains his error in judgment and how injuries take away the ability to enjoy running and other sports. ThinkFirst teaches students not to drive while intoxicated, use caution when diving, never text while driving and the importance of wearing safety helmets and seatbelts. If he had been wearing a seatbelt, his injuries could have been less severe, which Kevin reminds everyone he speaks to.
Now 28, Kevin focuses on the positive. He found a way to start a new career and influence the behaviors of young people. “Life is precious and people need to take it more seriously. Life changes in an instant and not always for the better,” Kevin emphasized. “I have been down a dark road, but I found my way back. Not everyone can do that. Why take the chance? Make better choices! Do not be an example. Set an example!”
Support Kessler Foundation’s rehabilitation research and employment initiatives, as well as the NJ-chapter of ThinkFirst, at Stroll ‘N Roll (and RUN!) on Sunday, October 21st in Bloomfield/Montclair, NJ. For more information and registration, visit www.kesslerfoundation.org/SNR.