For new grandma cut down in hit-and-run, baby steps - The Buffalo News

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For new grandma cut down in hit-and-run, baby steps

This is how Dana Papaj's summer was supposed to be:

Cuddling her newborn grandson, Mikey, and helping her daughter, Brittany, with the baby.

Putting the finishing touches on the new house her other daughter, Courtney Sullivan, had purchased.

Spending quality time with her husband Donald, now that after years of hard work, his printing business was successful.

"Dana used to say it all the time: This is like too good," he recalled, sitting in the cafeteria at Erie County Medical Center on a recent afternoon. "Too good to be true."

On June 13, Papaj went to her daughter Brittany Gruttadauria's home on Grand Island to visit with 5-day-old Mikey and to take care of her daughter, who was recovering from a C-section.

At about 7 p.m., after the baby began napping, Papaj went to her  home, also on Grand Island, to take her dog, Molly, a spaniel/poodle mix, on an evening walk along East River Road. A pickup truck approached. The passenger side mirror slammed into the right side of Papaj's face with, doctors would later tell her family, 10 to 20 times the force of what would knock out a boxer or a football player.

The driver fled, leaving Papaj unconscious on the side of the road.

Papaj survived. But she was in a coma for a month and a half.

She is awake now but has next to no short-term memory and cannot walk unless someone is holding her. She can talk but many of her words come out as nonsense. She knows her family but she doesn't always know their names. She recognizes Mikey, but Gruttadauria knows that may be only because she's shown her mom a picture of the baby every single time she visits her at the hospital.

Her daughters ask Papaj to point to what was injured. Sometimes she points to her head. But not always.

"It's awful," Donald Papaj said in the hospital cafeteria while his wife was getting physical therapy. "It's disheartening. I don't know how to say it correctly but she's been reduced to somebody she isn't…. It's not fair."

Nearly four months after the hit-and-run, he, like his daughters, knows the hospital all too well: where the hallways go, which elevator to take, where they put out the glass decanters of fruit-flavored water. A hospital worker passes by and says: "Hi, Don."

No one can tell Papaj's family when she might be well enough to leave ECMC.

June 13

When the pickup hit Papaj, she was not carrying any identification. It took state troopers a couple of hours to figure out who she was. A neighbor saw Molly running loose, and she followed Molly to Papaj's house. Another neighbor was able to give troopers Papaj's name.

State police released this surveillance camera image of the pickup truck believed to have struck Dana Papaj. (Photo provided by State Police)

"That night is like a movie in my head," Gruttadauria recounted over coffee at a Tim Hortons on Grand Island. "It doesn't feel real."

She was sleeping when a trooper knocked on her door.

Don Papaj had been golfing at Audubon Golf Club in Amherst with friends and was walking back to his car when he got the call from his son-in-law. He raced to ECMC. The daughters and their husbands arrived soon afterward.

When they were allowed to see Papaj, she was hooked to a ventilator. There was a gash on the right side of her head and blood caked in her hair. Her neck was in a brace.

"It didn't even look like her," Gruttadauria said.

Papaj had suffered severe trauma to her brain, and the way the doctors and nurses were talking, it was clear they weren't sure she'd make it through the night.

She did. But she was in a coma.

Correction officer owns truck in Grand Island hit-and-run

'Don't let her be like this'

Don Papaj and his daughters spent every moment they could with Papaj in the ICU.

They stood by her side and held her hand. Gruttadauria told her about how Mikey was doing. Don Papaj would tickle her feet trying to get her to react. They all prayed.

It was excruciating for them to see Papaj like this. She took great care of herself, walking every day and eating a healthy diet.

Courtney Sullivan recalled marveling to her mother about everything she does for the people around her. "She'd say: 'I'm so fortunate. I need to give back.' She has such an appreciation for everything."

Papaj had a gift for painting that she enjoyed sharing. As a teacher aide at Huth Road Elementary School on Grand Island, Papaj had worked with special education students. "She would paint them with a superhero body," her husband said.

As Papaj's family kept vigil at her bedside, dozens of friends came to visit. Hundreds of others sent get-well cards. Even more reached out through a Facebook page a friend started. Students at Huth Road made hearts which Brittany and Courtney decorated the ICU wall with. And parents and staff at the school took turns bringing them meals – casseroles, pasta dishes.

"That is helpful, the outpouring," Don Papaj said. "We have boxes and boxes of cards and drawings."

Once in a while Papaj would open her left eye. On occasion she'd whisper a word though nothing that made sense. Her uncertain state brought back painful memories for her family. Papaj's younger brother was in a coma for over a decade before he died in 2007.

Gruttadauria remembered visiting her uncle at the nursing home.

"He was a vegetable," she recalled. "He couldn't move. If he wiggled his toe it was a big deal. All he could do is look at you."

She was terrified that her mother would end up the same way.

"Please God, don't let her be like this," Gruttadauria remembered thinking.

Dana Papaj, center, with her two daughters, Courtney Sullivan and Brittany Gruttadauria. Papaj, a Grand Island resident, has been hospitalized since June 13, 2017, when a pickup truck driven by a hit-and-run driver hit her as she walked her dog near her home. (Provided by Dana Papaj's family)

'There you are'

The changes in Papaj came slowly, almost imperceptibly.

Late July and into the beginning of August, Papaj was reacting more and keeping her eyes open longer. Once, when Gruttadauria leaned in to give her a hug, her mother seemed to give her a kiss.

"Oh, there you are," she remembered feeling.

In early August, Gruttadauria walked into her mom's hospital room.

A therapist turned to Gruttadauria. "Your mom made me cry today."

Gruttadauria was confused.

Then Papaj looked at her daughter and said: "I don't understand why she's crying."

Gruttadauria grabbed her cell phone and caller her dad and sister.

"Mom's talking."

They raced to ECMC and marveled at Papaj's sudden breakthrough.

Her words didn't all make sense. But she was talking.

That day she ate food for the first time. The family was suddenly hopeful. Maybe Papaj would be home by September.

'I want to go home'

Papaj seems to have the will to get better.

"Let's go! Let's go!" she tells her family members and therapists, and works on standing up from her hospital bed or wheelchair. They walk her around the acute rehab ward over and over.

But there's really nothing anyone can do to help her mind heal.

Doctors explained to the family that Papaj had suffered a diffuse traumatic brain injury. That meant the damage from the blow was spread throughout her brain.

Her memories are a jumble. She has no recollection of her daughters' weddings. She has no sense of time. She asked Gruttadauria: "Aren't you pregnant?"

Papaj has no memory of the accident. She doesn't seem to understand where she is.

"It's almost like she was reborn and she's a toddler," Gruttadauria said. "You can't reason with her. She wants to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. She'll want to stand up and we tell her: No, you've got to sit down."

But she insists she's leaving. "I want to go home," she tells her family. She gets especially upset when her husband leaves. One day, she tried to put her hand in his pocket to take his keys to keep him from leaving.

The doctors have explained to the family that it's common for people coming out of a coma to experience an aggravated state.

There are moments when her personality shines through.

Sometimes, she’ll run her finger lightly over her daughters' arms, like she used to when they were little.

A couple of times she has laughed.

A roller coaster

The last month has been especially hard for Papaj's family. That flurry of progress they saw in the beginning of August seems to have stalled.

Papaj can't be left alone at all. When they visit, they can't be more than a foot away or she'll try to stand up and walk, which she still can't do without assistance. At night, an attendant stays at her side all night.

"We saw the progress before where there were these big differences," Sullivan said. "Now it's kind of at a standstill. We've even seen a little bit of a decline here and there which is part of the whole process. It's going to be a roller coaster."

Doctors said to expect that progress will be slow and halting.

"I ask everybody I can think of, every doctor, and nobody can or will say what will happen," Donald Papaj said. "We don't know. I've seen miraculous recoveries so that's what I'm hoping for."

Edward Kuebler III

At the end of August, state police arrested the suspected driver of the pickup that hit Papaj. Edward J. Kuebler III, a correction officer at Wende Correctional Facility and a volunteer firefighter, was charged with fleeing the scene of the accident, a felony. He's been suspended without pay from his job.

The family has since filed a lawsuit against him, as well as the Town of Grand Island and Erie County, alleging they failed to maintain East River Road so that it was safe for pedestrians.

'That huge void'

The daily visits, the waiting, the worrying, it's all taking a toll on the family.

"My dad, my sister and I – it's an almost unspoken thing. We can't be negative around each other," Gruttadauria said. "If one crumbles, you can't complain to each other because we're all going through it."

If they need to break down or unleash her feelings, Gruttadauria said, they do it away from each other.

Don, the daughters and their husbands all got together on Labor Day, just the second time they'd all been together all summer.

But it just didn't feel the same without Papaj there. She was the heart of their family. Now, Gruttadauria said, "there's that huge void."

The next big step for Papaj will be a subacute rehab facility. When that will be, nobody knows. After that, they hope Papaj will go home.

Donald, Brittany and Courtney are all looking forward to that day, realizing that her recovery will likely never be over. That won't matter. She'll be home.

"We're going to throw the biggest party Grand Island ever saw," Donald Papaj said.

Until then, they try to stay strong.

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