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Hit-and-run victim's family finds 'new kind of thankfulness'

Five months after Dana Papaj suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was struck by a hit-and-run motorist on Grand Island, she will be home for Thanksgiving dinner.

It will only be for a few hours. She's still recuperating at a nursing facility and not well enough to come home permanently.

The meal will be low-key – just immediate family.

But she'll be home. And her husband, Don, and daughters, Brittany Gruttadauria and Courtney Sullivan, are thankful for that.

"She's making some progress. It's still slow. But she's definitely made some progress," Gruttadauria said.

Papaj is able to communicate better. Her memory is improving. She still needs round-the-clock care, but seems to be more herself.

"Everything is a little less scary," he daughter said. "Moving more in the right direction."

Throughout this year, when tragedy struck and lives were turned upside down, Western New Yorkers rallied to do whatever they could to help. They welcomed dozens of families driven to Buffalo from their homes in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. They set up a account for 90 people left homeless by a West Side arson. And they raised more than $90,000 for the family of a Buffalo Police officer who died in a tragic diving accident.

Dana Papaj with her two daughters, Brittany Gruttadauria and Courtney Sullivan, in a family photo taken before the June 13 accident when Papaj was struck by a pickup truck as she walked her dog on East River Road near her home. (Provided by Dana Papaj's family)

Every day since Papaj was injured on June 13, her husband and daughters have taken turns being at her side. She was in a coma for more than a month at Erie County Medical Center and was in the acute rehab wing of the hospital until just a couple of weeks ago. She's now at the hospital's longterm care facility.

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

As Papaj's family kept vigil, friends rallied to support them. Neighbors and former neighbors sent cards and gift certificates. The students at Huth Road Elementary, where Papaj was an aide, drew hundreds of hearts to decorate her hospital room. A friend created a Facebook page where people could leave her notes of support.

The school staff came up with a way to help. Every other day for the whole summer, someone from the school delivered dinner for Papaj's family.

Roseanne O'Brien, a special education teacher, remembered how after she'd had her baby, her mother and mother-in-law cooked meals for her and she remembered how helpful that was. She wanted to do the same for Papaj, who had been looking forward to the birth of her first grandchild – born five days before the hit-and-run – and had talked about all of the things she was going to do to help her daughter with the baby.

"That was our motivation," O'Brien said.

Papaj's co-workers at Huth Road created a Google spreadsheet that was shared via email with anyone who wanted to help. It listed the date, the person bringing the food and what they would bring. Meals like chicken and gnocchi soup and meatloaf with mashed potatoes were dropped off at Gruttadauria's house, where a cooler was kept on the porch in case no one was home.

"I think we all wanted to do something meaningful to let them know how much we love Dana, how much we love them," O'Brien said.

The meals were a huge help, Gruttadauria said.

"We weren't cooking or anything like that so to come home and have a meal every other day, it was really, really wonderful…. It was so nice to know people were thinking of us," she said.

Papaj has been home a few times now, since moving to the nursing facility. The home visits seem to be triggering her memory.

A week ago, Papaj and her daughters were making pies for Thanksgiving and Gruttadauria couldn't remember the temperature to set for baking the pie crust.

"Four hundred degrees," Papaj said, not skipping a beat.

Papaj's family is encouraged at her progress and are making arrangements so that she can come home permanently, possibly as early as next month if everything can be arranged with the insurance company and home health aides.

"We'd like her home before Christmas," Gruttadauria said.

As Thanksgiving approaches, the family is grateful to have Papaj in their lives and for all of the support they received from the community.

"It gives us a lot to be thankful for this holiday season," Gruttadauria said. "I don't think I've ever felt that term before. It's a new kind of thankfulness…. I'm so thankful for everything. It's going to make for a good holiday season."

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