Sunday, September 03, 2006

'Strength Over Stroke' by Holly M. Pullano

When Garrett Mendez looks back at the eventful and courageous year he has just lived, he and his friends and family all agree that he is almost exactly the same person as he was almost one year ago. And he is the same fun-loving person, with the same trademark grin, except for a few minor details the fact that he has become a stronger person; both physically and mentally, he has a fresh perspective on the fragility of life and has realized a new mission for the future. All of this may seem like a stretch for a teen just barely out of out high school, but it all becomes clear upon learning of Garrett's "miraculous" recovery after suffering from a rare brain stem stroke at the age of 19. The stroke, which struck the active, healthy teen for no real rhyme or reason, left him completely paralyzed, unable to see or speak, and required him to eat through a feeding tube and breathe through a respirator. And on Sunday, only nine short months later, Garrett, a Trumbull resident and recent graduate of Fairfield's Notre Dame Catholic High School, is hoping to lace up his hockey skates and take to the ice in Sunday's fundraiser for Hockey Fights Cancer. Hockey Fights Cancer is a joint initiative founded in 1998 by the National Hockey League Players' Association and the National Hockey League to raise money and awareness for those battling cancer and other illnesses. "I knew he was going to pull through because he's always been such a strong person," said Garrett's close friend Brittney Kish, with whom he attended high school and now the same college. "He's the same person and I always tell him what an amazing person he is. He always has a smile and a positive attitude." Eileen and Gary Mendez said their son's friends have been a "mainstay" during his illness and recovery. "They treat him just like they used to before the stroke," Eileen said as she sat in the family's kitchen with her husband and son bustling around her. "It's just been normal business." A natural athlete, Garrett had been a four-year varsity hockey and lacrosse player at Notre Dame, and was most recently on a junior hockey team at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass., where he attended college. But that all came to a grinding halt last year on the day after Thanksgiving when he began to complain to his father that he wasn't feeling well after playing in a recent hockey tournament. The following morning Eileen found her son lying unresponsive in his bedroom. "We couldn't wake him up, and my first thought was that maybe he had a stroke," Gary recalled on a recent August afternoon. "I didn't even know what that meant because 19-year-olds don't get strokes. They couldn't find a reason for why it happened, and at first they were not certain he would survive." But this year, the Thanksgiving holiday is certain to have an entirely new meaning to Garrett and his loved ones. Only weeks after the stroke, Garrett began to make "gigantic leaps and bounds" in his recovery process, according to his parents and therapists. After spending three weeks in the intensive care unit of St. Vincent's Medical Center, Garrett was transferred to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford to undergo rehabilitation. "His cognitive abilities were intact he was aware of everything, but he could not move or express himself," said Eileen, who explained that the particular type of stroke that afflicted Garrett is the "most devastating stroke you can have." But Garrett, who always has been a fighter, fought back once again. In only eight weeks, he proudly walked out of Gaylord with the assistance of a walker. "His therapists would look at me and say 'this is not the same kid,' because every day Garrett would outrun the goals they set for him," Gary said, with a positive light in his eyes. "He's always been an extremely hard worker, and he's never accepted the fact that he can't do something." The family was also quick to pay tribute to Gaylord Hospital, which Gary refers to as "the Rolls Royce of its kind." Eileen explained that every staff member the family encountered there quickly became like a member of the family from the nurses all the way to the maintenance workers. "They told us to just believe in what they could do, and we did," she said. "They were all absolutely amazing, and now they're our family for life." Flash forward to today, where Garrett is able to do almost all of the activities that many take for granted: walk, eat almost anything including his favorite food Cold Stone Creamery ice cream, go to the beach and joke around with his older sister Jen. He is coaching a youth hockey team, and he plans to return to college in January. "He knew all along that he was going to come out of it," Gary said. "You could see his determination and the will all along. It was amazing." But while Gary explained that Garrett's recovery has been well outside the norm, for Garrett, it is "not fast enough." Although Garrett is on the fast track to recovery, his mother explained that his speech remains heavily slurred, which makes it difficult for him to easily communicate with those other than his family and close friends. "Another thing that might bother him is that he's still not able to drive," Eileen said. But similar to all of the other challenges he has met, Garrett is determined to meet these latest goals head on. He regularly attends Gaylord on an outpatient basis to receive different types of rehabilitation, including speech, physical and occupational therapy. He also participates in pool therapy and golf and kayaking clinics that have helped him to regain his strength. "We didn't think he would even walk until November," Gary recalled. "But this is uncharted territory, and in his case, he's making a chart of his own. His thought process all along was, 'I'm going to get better.'" Eileen added that Garrett's team of therapists "kept rewriting his goals" because he would master things very quickly throughout his recovery process. But if his miraculous comeback is not enough, Garrett, who wears a wristband proclaiming "Strength Over Stroke," also explains that he has big plans for the future. "He wants to go into orthotics and prosthetics as a profession and volunteer at Gaylord, because they helped him so much," Eileen said. "He met his goal and was able to walk out of Gaylord, and now he wants to be able to give back by helping others," Eileen said. When the family was asked what the most important lesson they have learned throughout their son's ordeal, they quickly responded that it had brought the family and their entire community closer together. "The most important thing to learn is that tragedy hits us all, but we band together," Gary said. "These things either pull families apart or bring them together." "As bad as you think it is, it could always be worse," Eileen added. "We were lucky in so many ways Garrett has been such an inspiration to so many people, and we have been overwhelmed by the support of his friends," Eileen said. This overwhelming sense of friendship and community is certain to come together on Sunday, where Garrett is hoping skate onto the ice to drop the ceremonial puck for the Hockey Fights Cancer fundraising event. The event, entitled the "Finest/Bravest Hockey Tournament," will take place at the Wonderland of Ice, 123 Glenwood Ave. in Bridgeport over the course of the weekend. Hockey teams from the New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, Danbury and Waterbury police departments and the Fairfield, New Haven and Danbury fire departments will compete in a pool play tournament format. The games take place from Thursday to Saturday and will culminate with the "main event" on Sunday. Sunday's festivities will kick off with championship games at 1 and 3 p.m., followed by the all-star game featuring Garrett's Friends All-Stars vs. the Finest/Braves All-Stars at 5 p.m. A fundraiser party including food, drink, silent auction, dunk tank, activities for kids, and live music by the band Remember September will follow the all-star game. Tickets are $10 and children under 10 are free. Tickets are only required for Sunday's event; all other days are free. For those who are unable to attend the event but would like to make a contribution, donations payable to "Bridgeport Police Hockey" can be sent to the following address: Bridgeport Police Department, Attn: Sgt. Granello, 300 Congress St., Bridgeport 06604. For more information about the Finest/Bravest Hockey Tournament, contact 203-913-2783 or visit

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