Sunday, February 11, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 11, 2001

Outpouring of aloha overwhelms paralyzed girl, family

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

Erin O’ Connor became paralyzed in a Big Island car accident last year. When her story became public, letters and cards - most with checks tucked inside - began pouring into her hospital room and Bank of Hawaii branches that were collecting for an aloha fund for her.

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She came to Hawaii with dreams. It was her first long trip away from home. Her first visit back to the place where she was born. Her first real job.

And when she left late last month, after almost five months in the hospital, she left with another dream.

"I know I’m going to walk again," Erin OConnor said from the wheelchair that was a gift from a well-wisher.

"I won’t listen to anyone who tells me I won’t."

Her eyes are soft gray-green and her face is a softer carbon copy of her father’s. She smiled shyly for just a moment, then more easily for the group of strangers who had gathered in her room on the day she was discharged from the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific. With laughter and handshakes, the

Lions Club and the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii presented her a promissory note for $4,000 to pay for a lightweight specialty wheelchair fitted exactly to her needs.

It came with lei and more love than she could comprehend.

It’s been almost five months since Erin’s legs were amputated above the knees after a Big Island car accident, and she is learning to live with challenges she could have never imagined. How do you move from a bed to a chair? What muscles can you use when you are paralyzed below the waist? How do you live with a back that aches all the time? How do you look at the future that once seemed so full of hope?

Slowly, over her months of hospitalization, the 19-year-old Irish girl regained strength emotionally and physically. Surrounded by her family, who decided against letting doctors prescribe anti-depressants, she has day-by-day begun to look forward again.

And she has begun to accept the small victories, from being able to sit up without constant pain, to beating her strapping 16-year-old brother in a race to swim across the Rehab Hospital pool.

The water was life-giving. Each morning for more than a month, it buoyed her. This will continue in the months to come as the family settles into a new home in Florida while Erin waits for space in the Miami Project, a state-of-the art center for research into nerve cell stimulation and regeneration.

She has decided she’ll train as a swimmer. Her smile is shy again.

It took her father, Jerry O’Connor, several weeks to find the right house in Florida. Erin had just one request: a swimming pool. Though it took time, he found it. A home near Fort Lauderdale. Near relatives. With a pool.

Erin O’Connor’s story became public when her aunt, Kathy O’Connor, was turned down by local service agencies when she appealed for help with resettlement costs last

October as the family flew halfway around the world to be with Erin during her hospitalization.

When the appeal became public, it touched a chord. Letters and cards - most with checks tucked inside - began pouring into her hospital room and Bank of Hawaii branches that were collecting for the Erin O’Connor Aloha Fund.

One family sent a check for $7, a gift from their children who emptied piggy banks after reading about Erin. Gathered in pennies, the coins were transferred into a cashier’s check for ease, said the simple enclosed note.

"I think people gave the money for a dream for Erin, for hope," said her father, close to tears. "That’s what the cards said.

"There were people sending in a thousand dollars without even basically putting their name. No phone number, not even expecting any thank you. It’s unbelievable."

One of the letters came from quadriplegic actor/director Christopher Reeve, dictated by the man himself. Reeve’s courage in the wake of his paralysis after being thrown from a horse has inspired millions of dollars in research into spinal cord injuries.

Yet another came from an anonymous benefactor who made a substantial donation to the Rehab Hospital to start a fund for others like Erin: people who slip through the cracks of service agencies because they aren’t needy enough, or don’t fit typical criteria.

Rehab Hospital administrator Bill O’Connor (no relation) said the fund will help subsidize costs for anyone without medical insurance.

"In this state, that’s starting to increase," he said.

Ko Miyataki, president of the Rehab Foundation, said Erin’s story may encourage other donations, too "as the public realizes the trauma that can befall any family."

At first from her bed at Queen’s, and then at Rehab, Erin began answering the letters that bore a return address, helped by her older sister Daniela, who has put college on hold to be with Erin. In a number of cases, she has even established a continuing correspondence with benefactors.

Despite the public attention, the family tried to draw a curtain of privacy around their daughter and themselves, shielding her from photographers as she began the arduous journey of life in a wheelchair.

"You have to understand the culture" of the Irish, explained Jerry O’Connor. After a tragedy like this, a family closes unto itself, erecting a wall of protection.

That wall came down briefly as Irishmen from all over the island gathered Jan. 11 at Murphy’s Bar & Grill in downtown Honolulu to raise money to help with Erin’s rehabilitation through the Miami Project.

Erin and her family stayed for the whole evening, and the girl hardly stopped smiling.

"She’s such a cute kid," said Murphy, whose wife sewed Erin a patchwork quilt from bright Hawaiian prints. "She’s got that angelic face."

Members of the O’Connor family flew in from the Big Island to stand together with their own and raise a pint.

"It was just incredible," said Murphy, "(UH football coach) June Jones was here, and a couple of other coaches from the coaching staff. A lot of people wanted to help and wanted to give. They wanted her to leave knowing what the meaning of aloha is."

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