On May 17, 2014, when then 19-year-old Spencer Dray lost control of his car and slammed into a guardrail in Cuyahoga Falls in a one-car accident, his parents were told he may not live.
If he survived, no one was sure what type of life he would have.
Even after 60 days in a coma and time spent in a nursing home, Spencer couldn’t hold his head up, speak or move the right side of his body as the result of his traumatic brain injury.
On Thursday morning, the now 26-year-old on exited Akron Children’s Hospital, lifted his arms, waved, gave a bow from his wheelchair and told staff, “I love each and every one of you,” as they cheered.
Spencer had stopped by the hospital with his parents to thank his outpatient caregivers for the last five years of care.
Spencer Dray, a traumatic brain injury patient who received therapy services at Akron Children’s Hospital, receives a clap-out from his caregivers.
Betty Lin-Fisher, Akron Beacon Journal
On Beaconjournal.com: Watch a video of Spencer Dray’s clapout and farewell
“We love you, Spence,” said Lindsay Ripple, the occupational therapist on the Children’s team who has worked with Dray, along with physical therapist Chuck Miller and a team of other caregivers from multiple departments.
The Drays, who have lived in Bath for 24 years, are moving to Colorado to be closer to family and to plan for the next stages of care for Spencer.
The afternoon of the accident, the roads were wet and he took a curve on Bath Road in Cuyahoga Falls too quickly.
“I hit a guardrail going 56 miles per hour,” recalled Spencer, a 2012 Revere High School graduate. “I’m lucky to be alive. Thank God.”
The guardrail went through the windshield, took Spencer’s ear off and caused significant damage to the left side of his brain, which impacted his use of the right side of his body.
“Probably if it had been a half-inch further, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” said his father, Larry Dray.
Cognitively, Spencer retained a good portion of what he learned in school, said his mother, Sheren. As his parents were describing the immense difficulties of fighting their insurance company to get care, Spencer added that the insurance industry “treat me like I’m cognitively impaired.”
“His intellect is there … [his] impulse and judgment is impaired,” his mother said. “One day he might be fine doing something but you wouldn’t dare trust that would be OK.”
The family wanted to thank Spencer’s caregivers before they moved to Colorado.
Larry Dray said the family didn’t know that at age 19, after Spencer had some world-class therapy at Craig Hospital, a specialty rehabilitation and research for people with spinal injury and brain injury in Colorado, that he could get care at Akron Children’s.
“We’ve had a half a dozen therapists here,” he said. “Every single one of them is at the top of their game.”
“They’re not only incredible, they’re phenomenal,” Spencer added.
While most of Akron Children’s Hospital traditional pediatric population “ages out” of care at age 21, some medically complex patients like Spencer get care until they are about 26, spokeswoman Laurie Schueler said. The hospital also cares for adults in some areas like the burn unit.
Ripple said she is very proud of how far Spencer has come. She has been his occupational therapist, even through COVID, when they had to move to telehealth visits, since April of 2016.
“He was pretty paralyzed when we met him,” said Ripple. “He was pretty significantly limited. But since being in therapy and with family carryover of what we ask them to do, those skills have significantly improved.”
When he first started therapy, he couldn’t dress himself, Ripple said. He’s about 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, so “that was a lot for his dad to have to do every day.”
“And now he can dress himself and tie his own shoes,” Ripple said.
Larry Dray retired from his job with Omnova Solutions when the accident happened to care for Spencer. He would usually come to the therapy activities, including getting in the water during aquatic therapy, to learn what to do and teach Sheren and Spencer at home.
Sheren Dray did “a yeoman’s job” fighting and coordinating with insurance and handling that aspect of Spencer’s care, her husband said.
Also among those providing support has been Sherri Roberts, the social worker at Children’s who Sheren Dray said was her go-to person to get connected to programs and help.
“She has been a guiding force and was always willing to help,” Sheren Dray said.
Still making progress
Spencer’s speech is somewhat slurred, but when Miller, the physical therapist, first met him, Spencer had to use a machine to type what he wanted to say.
At first, he relied completely on a wheelchair to get around.
But now, though he still gets transported in a wheelchair or will use it sometimes, he walks with assistance from a parent or therapist and uses crutches, a walker or a cane. More recently, he can walk on his own with a safety belt, Miller said.
Miller said Spencer was motivated and enthusiastic during therapy.
“He never really complained about having to go and do it. He always knew it was what he had to do to recover and they could get to a point where they could move and be more independent,” Miller said. “It was his long-term goal. The family and him did everything in their power to get to this goal.”
Miller said most healing often happens within the first two years, but nearly seven years after the accident, “I would argue there’s always room to improve and he will never fully heal, but he can always make improvements … I feel like we continue to see healing currently.”
The Drays are closing on a new house west of Pueblo, Colorado. They’ve already sold their Bath house. They plan to be in Colorado by the end of May.
Sheren and Larry Dray said they’re getting older and they know that Colorado has traumatic brain injury programming where Spencer can get the same access to care as an adult that he did as a patient at Children’s.
The move also will get the family closer to Spencer’s older brother, Lorcan Dray, who lives in New Mexico.
Spencer is excited about the move and said he wanted to move to Colorado before the accident.
“It’s bittersweet,” his mom said. “We have lots and lots of support in the community here.”
Beacon Journal staff reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ. To see her most recent stories and columns, go to www.tinyurl.com/bettylinfisher.