COVINGTON, Ky. -- Just a month ago, Bryan McNamara’s wife didn’t recognize him or their two children.
Now, Valerie McNamara is recovering slowly from a traumatic brain injury she suffered when a building's roof in Covington partially collapsed and hit her with falling debris.
The Northern Kentucky mother of two was a chaperone on a school field trip on Sept. 29 when the building on West Pike Street began to collapse. Bricks and debris fell from the roof, critically injuring her. Three other chaperones were injured, but only Valerie’s injuries were serious.
Since then, the 41-year-old has faced a series of challenges, but she’s making progress.
“To get the diagnosis of her being a paraplegic is difficult, but losing her mind is the most difficult to deal with because you're losing the person,” Bryan McNamara told WCPO during an exclusive interview. “To see her come back, and be able to communicate and recognize her family … We've learned to celebrate really small wins.
“It doesn't sound like much, but when you're experiencing it, it's big.”
Watch Kathrine Nero's full interview with Bryan McNamara in the video player above.
Initially, Valerie was completely unresponsive -- even when medical staff would stick things under her fingernails and pinch her chest. She also had to undergo surgeries on her ankles, spine and pelvis.
She regained consciousness in early October.
Slowly, she started responding. First to pain and then to the barrage of questions Bryan asked her every day to try to gauge her level of cognition.
Her answers still come in whispers.
“They think that with the breathing tube that maybe her vocal chords were damaged, so she really struggles to speak verbally, but she will speak through whispers,” Bryan said. “Sometimes her answers are very accurate and sometimes they're not, but that's kind of the thing with a traumatic brain injury: You have ups and downs.”
Now, more than a month after her injuries, Valerie is making progress at Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. The facility has a team that specializes in traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries. McNamara said Valerie can reach and grasp, and she is improving cognitively as well.
He said she is also working on balance. The goal is for her to be able to sit in a standard wheelchair. But the McNamaras know they’re at mercy of the human body and how quickly it will heal.
And she still may never walk again.
That’s one lesson Bryan says the family has learned: When it comes to brain injuries, patience is a virtue. Valerie’s neurosurgeon advised them to be optimistic but also realistic, he said.
“I think what that says is we need to look for the things she's going to be able to do and how she's going to improve, but we are on a timeline that we can't control,” Bryan said. “Her brain will heal as her brain heals, and they will have to measure the significance of her spinal cord injury over time to see what control she can regain.”
In the meantime, prayers and community support are keeping the family going.
“I know the prayers are helping from the community, and Valerie's a fighter,” Bryan said. “She's very tough. She's in good shape. She's young, and she's showing progress every day.”
Before Valerie’s injury, she worked as a nurse at St. Elizabeth Healthcare and volunteer religion teacher at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Burlington.
Friends have set up a fund called "Valerie's Prayer Angels" at Fifth Third Bank to help with medical expenses. The fund got a boost in mid-October when Xavier University men's basketball coach Chris Mack put on a youth basketball camp fundraiser at St. Henry's athletic complex.
More fundraisers are planned, including a big one, "Valentines for Valerie," planned for Feb. 10 at Receptions in Erlanger.
Additionally, Immaculate Heart of Mary had a 12-hour prayer service in Valerie’s honor. Conner Middle School has also supported the family by organizing meal deliveries. Countless people have sent cards and messages of support, McNamara said.
That outpouring of support has been a source of comfort and strength for the entire family, Bryan said, especially for the McNamara children. Faith, 12, and Brennan, 13, also draw strength from their mother.
“Valerie is a very spiritual person, and I can see that shine through my children,” he said. “They're very strong.”
Seeing Valerie’s progress first-hand also helps keep the family going, McNamara said. During one of her family’s most recent visits, she laughed out loud for the first time since the accident.
“It was great to see her laugh,” he said. “It just makes you feel really good, and you feel blessed for every little, tiny progress you see.”