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20-year-old upbeat, optimistic in wake of paralyzing accident

'He is still Brian'

AMBOY – Brian DeArmitt’s return home was something to be thankful for in and of itself, said his mother, Julia.

Monday, 5 months to the day after a diving accident that left the 20-year-old a quadriplegic, Brian left the hospital.

Coming into town on state Route 52, he saw the words “Welcome home Brian” on the Shell gas station marquee. Then he was surprised with a police and fire truck escort, and with the dozens of friends and family members who lined the road to welcome the former Dixon youth to his new home in Amboy.

At the single-story ranch, a gift to his family from his great-aunt Rita Glenn, everyone cheered. Tears filled his eyes and he broke out in a broad smile.

His dog, Jack, who anxiously awaited his arrival, jumped into the car and onto Brian’s lap, wagging not just his tail, but his entire body. He stopped only long enough to lick Brian’s face.

“I’ve been really looking forward to seeing him again, too,” Brian said. “He’s my little buddy.”

The Dixon High School graduate has wanted to live in Amboy, near his best friends and cousins, the Kaleels and Goys, since he was 3.

“I tell him, ‘Yeah, but you had to break your neck to get here,” Julia said with a laugh.

It is humor, prayer and Brian’s positive outlook that is getting their family through. That, and the overwhelming amount of community support that has kept their spirits lifted, his mom said.

“I thanked him one night from the bottom of my heart. I said, ‘Brian, I want to thank you for making this so much easier on the rest of us. Your attitude and outlook ... I could have a child who is moping, bitter and angry. And instead, you made it so much easier for the rest of us.’

“He is still funny. He is still Brian.”

Brian talked about his June 24 accident.

“I never thought that would be the last time, the last day I would ever walk out of my house in Dixon. Sitting on a dock, 3 feet above the water, with my friends, I saw a boat full of other friends going by. Not thinking, I dove into the Rock River head first after them.

“I think I was trying to do a flip, and just not thinking about the water being shallow.” It was 3 feet deep.

“All I remember is hitting the back of my head – then everything went white. I remember not feeling any pain or fear. The white light I saw was peaceful. I knew I couldn’t fight it.”

He regained consciousness and tried to scream for help, but he was submerged.

“I tried to move, and swim to get out of the water. That was when I realized how serious it was. I just remember wanting to move so bad, and I couldn’t. I yelled for help and inhaled water.”

On the dock, his friends worried when he didn’t resurface but thought, typical of Brian, he was playing a practical joke.

“When I didn’t come up for a while, they came in after me. They found me about 15 feet from where I jumped in.”

Colin Brinkmeier and Ben Emmole pulled him onto the pier. His neck was broken and his spinal cord crushed.

“When I came up, I guess I gained consciousness. I saw them huddled around me, and I said, ‘Don’t tell my mom.’”

Laughing now, he said he worried she would be upset because she always warned him of the dangers of diving into water head first.

With reason.

“My first words to him in the emergency room were, ‘How many times have I told you ...’” she said. “When you’re out having a good time, you don’t think about that stuff you were taught, I guess.

“It was kind of always a fear I had in me. My husband [Paul] had an employee years ago who dove into the hotel room pool on his honeymoon and broke his neck. I used to tell my kids that story all of the time, and Brian knew better.”

Brian is accident prone, and “we were in the hospital yearly with broken bones and stuff,” he said.

This time, though, it was different. “I got the call that they were putting him on a board and that he dove – I knew deep down in my heart,” Julia said. “I kept saying on the way, ‘Please don’t be paralyzed,’ I just knew it wasn’t the typical annual Brian accident.”

He was flown from KSB Hospital to OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, where he spent more than 2 weeks in intensive care. He was taken to Kindred Hospital, a long-term care facility in Sycamore. On Aug. 11, he moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for intensive therapy.

Through it all, his sister Ashley, 23, has been at his side. She recently returned from the Navy, where she was studying to work in physical education, but now will go back to school to become a certified nurse’s assistant and physical therapist. She will be his primary caregiver.

“My sister has been amazing,” Brian said. “She has been there through everything.

“Me and my family have gotten completely stronger and closer, same with my relationship with my girlfriend [Gena Chirchirillo] and friends. It has been all around good for me – I’ve met people who aren’t as lucky. Something like this can make or break a family.”

Brian has full range of movement in his arms, but his hands and legs are immobile and he has no feeling from his chest down.

He has surpassed doctors’ expectations. They said he would never breathe on his own, and they never expected him to regain any mobility. Most quadriplegics can’t use a manual wheelchair, because they don’t have function in their biceps and triceps, but Brian does.

He will undergo outpatient treatment two to three times each week to continue to strengthen his body.

“It is like learning to live all over again or being born again,” he said. “It is the hardest thing I have ever done. I used to complain about going to work every day – it is nothing compared to that.

“I look at the people on the 10th floor with brain injuries, and the kids in [pediatrics] ... they didn’t get a chance to live. You just have to thank God you are alive.”

Benefit for Brian

AMBOY – A benefit for Brian DeArmitt, 20, of Dixon, paralyzed in a swimming accident this summer, will be held from 3 p.m. to midnight Saturday at the Lee County 4-H Center, 1196 Franklin Road.

There will be dinner and music from 3 to 7 p.m., a silent auction until 6:30 p.m. and a live auction at 7 p.m., along with a 50/50 raffle.

Admission is $20 per person.

Proceeds will help the family pay medical expenses and make their new home handicap-accessible.

Monetary donations with checks payable to the DeArmitt family can be mailed to The First National Bank in Amboy, c/o Lisa Goy, 220 E. Main St., Amboy, IL 61310.

Call Goy, 815-677-0331, or Renee Kaleel, 815-857-2528, for more information.

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