Stephen O’Shea had an accident while riding his bicycle this past summer. Turning onto South Putt Corners Road, he looked over his shoulder at just the wrong moment, hit the curb, and was rendered unconscious for a half-hour or more. He got back on his feet thanks to the tireless efforts of the staff of Helen Hayes Rehabilitation Hospital, and after three weeks his daughter Gaby brought him home.
O’Shea and other families’ members are again spending their time at Helen Hayes now, at the bedside of Gaby, who was struck by a car along Route 299 on September 11. He and his daughter’s mother, Blanca Babits, spend nearly all their waking hours there. Admitting that talking about his daughter is difficult, O’Shea agreed to speak about what’s transpired.
“It’s very, very difficult to see my daughter in this condition right now,” he said. He and Babits have made the decision to remain upbeat, and celebrate her progress. After the crash, Gabriela was flown the Westchester Medical Center for treatment before being transferred to Helen Hayes for rehabilitation.
O’Shea said that his daughter has regained consciousness and is responsive, but has not yet spoken. “She is making steady improvement,” he said. Moments to celebrate include giving a thumb’s-up at the request of a therapist, and moving her left leg this Monday.
“We were worried that the leg was paralyzed,” O’Shea explained, but after New Paltz massage therapist Marissa Pileggi worked on it she finally moved it on her own. “It was beautiful to see her facial expression after that,” he said.
Among her injuries is a hairline fracture of the pelvis. O’Shea suspects his daughter hadn’t moved the leg due to remembered pain.
Pileggi is only one of the people that O’Shea and Blanca are grateful for during this difficult time for their family. Blanca declined to be interviewed herself, but passed on through O’Shea her gratitude for the level of support received from community members, a sentiment with which O’Shea heartily agrees.
In addition to raising money for her care — $63,854 was contributed to an online campaign before it was shut down, and numerous other fundraisers have been planned – O’Shea said that individuals have offered to use their own talents to help with her recovery or with raising money to pay for them. Many of those stepping forward have never met Gaby, or anyone else in her family.
“We’re also grateful to people like [bicycle-pedestrian committee chair] Peter Kaufman for trying to do something positive, so a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again to somebody just out riding a bicycle. Activism is something that we support. I know Gaby will be so happy that people are doing something to change the situation that caused this.”
Shoulder-widening along Route 299 as far as Butterville Road — where Gabriela was struck — started just two days after O’Shea, Kaufman and others met with county executive Michael Hein. “I went to that spot the following day,” O’Shea recalled. “I was so, so angry. The pavement just stops at the white line.” It drops off precipitously from there to the rocky shoulder. “As a cyclist, you do your best to ride on that white line, but it’s very hard to do so. There is nothing provided for cyclists; this road is simply for cars.”
The newly-widened shoulder gives him a “bittersweet” feeling, O’Shea said. “It’s good, but why wasn’t it done before? Peter [Kaufman] has been working on this for years.”
Gaby arrived at Helen Hayes still dependent on a ventilator, but has now been weaned off the machine. That can be a harrowing time for patient and family, as the body tries to re-assume a responsibility that it had never been intended to give up in the first place. O’Shea said that the first step was the replace the machine with a “trach collar” to assist in breathing. Now the opening in her neck has been covered by a plug, and it will be able to heal. Her father hopes she will soon be able to talk again. Her father has seen her move her lips at the prompting of a therapist.
Without verbal communication, family members and doctors have to rely on other cues. O’Shea said that he’s been told his daughter’s rapid heart rate isn’t entirely unexpected. Gabriela is sometimes responsive. She tracks objects with her eyes, makes gestures and squeezes in response to questions, and on one occasion even cried for a few moments. At other times, she doesn’t react. It’s not yet clear why.
“We’d like to see more responsiveness,” O’Shea said. “It could be that she’s just tired of answering all the questions. We were told that she’s expending more calories in that mental work repairing her brain than she would rock climbing, She’s trying to re-create her world.”
Stephen O’Shea admits to sometimes feeling overcome. He’s struck by a wave of emotion when he least expects it. One thing he struggles with is language. “It’s devastating,” he said. “She’s a vibrant person. I don’t want to use the past tense, but she’s not herself right now.”
That his daughter would choose, after a day’s work at the Parish restaurant, to hop on her bicycle is entirely in her character, “We don’t know where she was going exactly” that fateful day, he said, but if she was on Route 299 he firmly believes it’s because that was the best route to her destination. Sometimes he asks himself, why he bought her “a nice bike for her graduation,” but then he thinks of the exhilaration she surely felt riding into the setting sun that afternoon. His daughter, like any bicyclist, has the right to roads that can be traversed safely.
“She was an English major,” Stephen O’Shea said. “I hate to have to speak for her.” That’s why, even though “there is nowhere more important to be than at her side,” he is speaking for her in taking the time to push for bicycle-safety reforms. “I hope this movement doesn’t lose gas, Mr. Hein does as he promised, and others continue their good work.”