Gabe Kennedy was in a great mood on a recent Monday. After almost a month of being on a liquid diet, his doctor had just told him he could eat soft foods.
“It makes a difference,” said Kennedy, who had gotten used to putting soup in a blender. Instead, “I’ve been eating a lot of pizza, so I’m a happy guy.”
Less than two years ago, the Juneau-Douglas High School grad was a victim of a hit-and-run in Reno, Nevada. The doctors didn’t think he’d survive. Kennedy was in a coma for 10 days; he was 24 at the time.
Now, at age 26, he’s just happy to be living.
“I can’t believe I’m still alive sometimes,” Kennedy said, speaking on a phone from Suquamish, Washington, where he’s been since the end of February, staying with his aunt and uncle.
Kennedy grew up in Juneau and graduated from JDHS in 2007. His stepfather Russ Haight (a veteran Juneau Police Department detective who recently retired) and brother Theo Kennedy still live here.
After high school, Kennedy moved to Washington where he worked and attended Perry Technical Institute in Yakima. He moved back to Juneau in 2012 for almost two years. He worked for GCI, commercially fished and saved up money for his next move — Reno.
He arrived there October of 2013. During the week, he worked at a call center. On the weekends, he was in the mountains skiing or snowboarding. If there wasn’t enough snow, he was hiking. For Kennedy, life was good.
“Heck yeah, I was happy,” he said.
But, on the evening of May 8, 2014, his life changed forever.
He was out walking and skateboarding with two friends who were going to take him to a skate park he’d never been to.
“We had to cross the street. My friends were in front of me in the crosswalk, so I figured it was safe. I looked, there wasn’t anybody, and then — I don’t remember anything after that,” he said.
Kennedy was hit by a small sport utility vehicle. His friend told him he flew 180 feet in the air before he fell to the ground. The SUV drove off.
The next thing Kennedy remembered was coming out of a coma with his right leg amputated.
“I didn’t wake up and wonder where my leg was. I knew they had to amputate it because I heard all the doctors talking about it. Being in a coma is pretty weird. I wasn’t awake, but my subconscious was working pretty hard. I could still hear everything,” he said.
After nearly dying, Kennedy turned 25 years old in the hospital, shortly after emerging from the coma.
“I was really bummed when I came to,” he said. “I was one of those skateboarding punks, a snowboarder, mountain hiker, just very active, and I felt that everything I liked to do was over.”
He went through more than 20 surgical procedures. Both his femurs and his remaining ankle are metal.
“Almost every day for a while, he was going into another surgery,” his mom Solea Kennedy said. “And to be honest, a lot of it is a blur because it was so intense and just all the decisions that had to be made. It was really constant.”
She said he broke at least 10 major bones and his skull. Doctors warned Solea Kennedy that her son would likely never be the same. Kennedy had a traumatic brain injury.
“The amount of brain injury he suffered — just that alone without all the other injuries — commonly people don’t survive, but those who do remain in a vegetative state,” she said.
It took Gabe Kennedy a couple of months before he was able to communicate. He said it felt instantaneous.
“My brain just turned on. I could talk again and my memory started to come back,” he said.
After the accident, Kennedy spent three months in a hospital — half in Reno before he was transferred to the University of Washington Medical Center.
When he was discharged, his mom rented a room for him on Whidbey Island, where she lives. Her job as a fight attendant for Alaska Airlines kept her away from home, so she said she hired someone to help take care of Kennedy. He was in a wheelchair at the time.
He started physical therapy a few months later and, with a prosthetic leg, quickly went from needing a walker to not needing one.
“Now, I can walk around with the best of them. Sometimes people think I have a little bit of a limp but I also have a fake leg, so it is what it is,” Kennedy said.
He said he can almost run, but he can’t skateboard yet. He said that’ll happen when he gets a new prosthetic leg, one that bends at the knee without making him fall down.
Kennedy lived on Whidbey Island recovering for about a year and a half, until last month when he had another near-death experience.
His diaphragm burst, a complication from the hit-and-run. Kennedy collapsed and was found laying on the ground in a family friend’s driveway. He was medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle where his stomach was removed. Now, he has an 11-inch incision on his belly.
“I can handle broken bones, but getting your stomach removed was different, so I was kind of a weenie for a while with this one,” he said laughing.
On the phone, he laughed a lot and was constantly joking around.
“My brain injury really exacerbated my sense of humor because after all, if you’re living and you’re not laughing, what they hell are you doing? You’re missing the point, you know?” Kennedy said.
He said he wants to get a job, but phantom pains randomly crop up, leaving him in pain all day. He still can’t drive, and he’s on food stamps, so he said he often feels like a charity case. But he has his music.
He plays the guitar and writes songs, passions from his prior life that he can still do.
“I like to sit around and play my music. It keeps me happy and gives me hope that I’ll be able to drive my car, be a real person again and be more independent,” Kennedy said. “That’s what keeps me going because I’m stubborn, and I like breathing, so I think that’s what keeps me going.”
Support and help from Juneau has also helped, he said. While in the hospital, he received cards and words of support from friends. He last visited Juneau during Thanksgiving.
Many in Juneau have also contributed to the Gabe Kennedy Rehabilitation Support Fund on GoFundMe, which his mom started a few days after the accident at the suggestion of a news reporter in Reno covering the hit-and-run.
As of March 18, the fund has raised more than $38,000 from 465 donations. Solea Kennedy said over half the people who have donated are from Juneau. The money has gone to expenses like rent, medical costs that weren’t covered by insurance and basic everyday needs.
Myree Townsend, the person who hit Gabe Kennedy, turned herself into police two weeks after the accident, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported. Her sentence of 24 to 84 months in prison was suspended to 60 months probation and 500 hours of community service, according to KOLO-TV. Townsend was also ordered to pay administrative fees, plus restitution totaling nearly $1 million.
Solea Kennedy said Townsend has only contributed $33 a month, which pays Kennedy’s cell phone bill.
Kennedy’s journey to recovery is still ongoing. He’s made a lot of progress, but the accident left him permanently changed.
Still, he doesn’t resent Townsend; there’s no point, he said. And he doesn’t waste time feeling bad for himself.
“I really got screwed over,” he said. “But in another light I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. I can get up and walk around now — how? It’s crazy that I’m even still here.”
• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For anyone interested in donating to Gabe Kennedy’s recovery, Solea Kennedy requests it be done through Alaska USA Federal Credit Union to the “Gabe Kennedy Third Party Special Needs Trust,” account #1886799. Members of Alaska USA can do it online. Others can drop off a check at branches at Sealaska Plaza, Fred Meyer and Safeway.