On September 11, 2016, a young woman who had recently graduated from SUNY New Paltz with a BA in English, summa cum laude, was riding her new bicycle on Route 299 toward the Gunks, where she frequently went rock climbing. On a stretch of road just west of the Butterville intersection where the shoulder was completely eroded, Gabriela O’Shea was struck from behind by a Jeep and flung 30 feet through the air.
Gaby came out of a coma with no memories left of her life before the collision – her education and work experience, her world travel, her immersion in climbing and yoga, her years of dancing with the Vanaver Caravan. She didn’t even recognize her own mother at first. Her injuries were extensive and severe, affecting her head, neck, ankles, elbows, ribs, pelvis and vertebrae. It took four surgeries to reconstruct her right arm, and she lost much of her peripheral vision due to traumatic brain injuries (TBI). She couldn’t chew or swallow food, walk, talk, read or write.
A less determined spirit would’ve been defeated, perhaps. But Gaby O’Shea has proven herself a force to be reckoned with, and a courageous voice both for cyclists and for people with disabilities. Less than a year following her disaster, she had already taken up the torch to make local roads safer for nonmotorized vehicles. A community of cyclists, friends and family rallied around her to lobby municipal, county and state officials for lower speed limits and wider shoulders on 299. Even while going through intensive rehabilitation, she began organizing “awareness rides” to educate drivers that they need to share the road.
This May – National Bike Month – she hosted a series of four bicycle rides in support of the Love Your Brain Foundation’s Ride for Resilience campaign. The last one took place on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon on May 27, with about 20 cyclists converging at the River-to-Ridge trailhead in New Paltz and doing a slow ride along the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail to Tillson for lunch, live music from guitarist Steve Pague and conviviality at the Rail Trail Café.
“The Ride for Resilience is a global cycling campaign to educate, engage and empower the TBI community,” Gaby explained. It’s an ongoing project of the Love Your Brain Foundation, which was founded by professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his brother Adam after a devastating 2009 accident as Kevin was preparing for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Love Your Brain (LYB) emphasizes “community and resilience” as key to enabling TMI victims to pick up the threads of their lives, rehabilitate, reintegrate and reengage. The organization offers free resources including yoga, mindfulness and psychoeducation workshops, both live and remote; Gaby O’Shea was able to attend a retreat in Maine and found it very helpful.
“My connection to LYB has been restorative and very empowering,” she wrote. “Through it I connected to a large community. I engaged in fun and healthy activities. I became able to feel hopeful, powerful, capable and worthwhile through the support of LYB and my volunteer work with them.” Participants in Saturday’s ride pledged donations to the Foundation, and it’s still possible to support Gaby’s latest campaign at https://give.loveyourbrain.com/fundraiser/4578662.
The local community of cyclists who turned out for the event, including members of the New Paltz Bike/Ped Committee, were there both to advocate for safer roads and to support TBI victims, as well as to laud the inspiring example that Gaby has been setting. While there was much praise for the expansion of the bike trail network in the Hudson Valley and beyond, several said that they no longer care to risk riding on the roads with motorists who lack awareness that bicycles also have the right to be there. Narrow lanes, poor signage and inattentive drivers were among the hazards cited by Michael Reade of Highland, a member of the Ulster County Trails Advisory Committee. Despite recent infrastructure improvements, “New Paltz is a pretty dreadful place to ride a bike,” he said. “Pick any street you want, it’s dangerous.”
Seven years after the collision that changed Gaby’s life, the shoulder still hasn’t been restored on the stretch of state road where it happened. As early as 2017, New Paltz Town supervisor Neil Bettez, Village mayor Tim Rogers and then-Ulster County executive Mike Hein had all pledged their support to widening the shoulders, and submitted requests to the New York State Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit on Route 299 to 45 miles per hour. The State bureaucracy moves at a glacial pace, however.
According to Stephen O’Shea, Gaby’s father and prime partner in transportation advocacy, “The shoulder is in the works, and could happen in 2024. They’ve been having trouble getting rights-of-way from property-owners.” He and Gaby were planning to meet with current County executive Jen Metzger this week, he noted. Though “car-centered culture” has fostered “a lot of resistance,” he said, “I see hope. Younger people are riding bikes more, and people are afraid to get out on the roads.”
Meanwhile, Gaby’s personal horizons continue to broaden. In late 2019, she undertook an intensive six-month stint at the Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU, which required her to live in Manhattan on her own. Then COVID shut down the in-person program, so she came back to New Paltz to continue the work remotely. She also returned to SUNY New Paltz part-time, including two classes in Disability Studies with professor April Coughlin. “I’m interested in pursuing recreational therapy as a career,” Gaby said.
These classes have emboldened her to resume some of her old activities. She has taken up drumming with Ubaka Hill’s Drumsong Orchestra and joined the local chapter of ParaCliffHangers, an adaptive climbing group that “will work with any form of disability.” While she no longer rides on roads, she is now able to use a recumbent bicycle, and recently moved to an apartment at Zero Place, affording her easy access to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.
Another perspective that she honed while taking Disability Studies courses is a frank, gritty, pragmatic approach toward her limitations: “I am disabled physically and cognitively by the severe TBI that I survived. And I am determined to make the most of my abilities, however changed, to live a great life.” She has little patience for currently trendy terms like “deficits” and “differently abled,” regarding them as romanticizing and even derogatory. “It negates, denies and undermines the depth and the reality that we live. The fact that I am legally blind and have slowed processing speeds is literally disabling,” she told HV1. “I work more than twice as hard to accomplish tasks, and I do so with dignity.”
To learn more about the resources offered by the Love York Brain Foundation, as well as how to support that organization’s efforts, visit www.loveyourbrain.com/ride-for-resilience.