Getting dressed, eating and walking.
These three things, among a multitude of others, are what Aidan Gray is having to learn to do again at 23 years old.
July 31, 2021, was a normal day just like any other.
Gray was in Winter Garden hanging out with friends before he started heading back to his Windermere home at night.
He was only two-and-one-half miles away from his house on County Road 535, when he suddenly swerved, flying off the road and crashing his car into a tree.
The next thing he remembers was being in a bed in a hospital room. His parents were by his side.
Although officials and staff are not sure what happened, the accident report shows the car reacted to a sudden type of movement, as if Gray had seen an animal running out or a flash of light.
Gray’s mother, Doreen Torres-Gray, said she happened to be in Miami looking at colleges with one of her two younger daughters the weekend of the crash.
She said Orlando Health Trauma Center called and said her son had been life-flighted from the scene and she should get there right away.
“I pretty much stopped breathing for a second,” Doreen said. “And then you just go into an automatic mode of, ‘OK get all your stuff together, get in the car, drive there and just wait to hear any small piece of information.’ And then from there it just becomes a lot of waiting.”
Aidan’s father, Chris Gray, was home with their other daughter and traveled straight to the hospital.
Aidan suffered a grade three diffuse axonal injury to his brain. As a result, he was at a score of three on the Glasgow Coma Scale — the lowest possible score on the scale associated with an extremely high mortality rate — for the first week.
When the family arrived at the hospital, Doreen said there were a lot of details to be worked out, especially with COVID-19.
Because Aidan was in the Intensive Care Unit, only two people could stay with him and they had to be the same two people for the duration of his stay.
Aidan was currently on a ventilator and would need surgery to put a drain into his brain to relieve pressure. Without the drain, the doctors said they would have to do another surgery to remove a piece of his skull.
Aidan remained in a coma for 17 days.
Thankfully, the drain worked, marking the first miracle in Aidan’s journey.
Doreen and Chris stayed with Aidan, which Doreen said was one of the greatest challenges at the time, because of his two younger sisters, Isabella and Madelyn, who wanted to see him.
“They were obviously devastated and wanted to be with him,” she said.
Aidan was intubated, utilizing a tube to breathe for him, had an IV and nasogastric tube to help carry food and medicine to his stomach through his nose.
Over the next couple of weeks, Aidan progressed to the next steps — going through a tracheostomy, a surgery to insert a tube in the trachea, and a nasogastric intubation, a surgery to pull the tube from his nose to put a tube into his belly, both long-term solutions to make him more comfortable.
Aidan stayed in the hospital for about three months, working on his progress at a shocking speed — with the goal of his last few weeks to head to rehab.
He worked on his skills to qualify for the Disorders of Consciousness special program, following commands such as lifting his thumb and squeezing a hand.
After qualifying for the program, he was in it for almost a month before transferring to Brooks Rehabilitation in Jacksonville for four weeks.
At the end of November, Aidan finally was able to return to his home.
“I just wanted to go home really bad,” he said. “I wanted to see my friends, my family, just be around people. When I was at the hospital, I was with nurses and stuff, and they were nice, but I didn’t know them as people, so I felt a little shy.”
Aidan continued to work to recover through home, occupational, physical and speech therapy.
He said he took many walks around the neighborhood and had to relearn how to live his life after coming home.
Aidan and his family expressed the nurses and medical staff were “amazing” and “wonderful.”
“They’re just incredible with what they do,” Doreen said.
Although no friends could visit Aidan during his stay, the community showed up for him in other ways.
Aidan received numerous phone calls, FaceTime calls and text messages.
“Even when he first started to be able to eat, like the very first week, we had people dropping things off and wanting to know what he could have,” Doreen said. “We had neighbors who would come and drop off smoothies, ice cream — anything he could try. Even people I’ve never met.”
Aidan said the positive messages and energy helped him to push through.
“It’s been really good hearing from people that I’m doing well and hope I’m doing better,” he said. “It’s been really helpful and motivating.”
Aidan currently is working on his certification to become a personal trainer, which he has almost completed. He said his passion comes from wanting to assist people.
He loves animals, pizza and chicken parmigiana, his friends, and, most of all, his family. He is easily recognized with his sense of humor and smile that lights up any room.
Memory is both his biggest struggle and his biggest success.
He said his memory is progressing but there are certain things he still has trouble remembering, where spots are blanked out.
“A lot of time, I can’t think about how this happened or why this is happening; I’m just wondering so much,” he said. “I’m doing really well, but as I do well, I become more aware of my situation, and I’m sad. It’s just hard, sometimes.”
Doreen said although there is still a long way to go, her son’s progress and determination is inspiring.
“Often, he will say he always has these opposite feelings of he can feel happy but also sad, and I think I have that same sense, where I am amazed at what he has done and I’m incredibly grateful that he’s made this kind of progress, but it’s also overwhelming,” she said.
In the future, Aidan said he hopes to get back to where he was, doing “normal things” — working, working out, driving, golfing, playing basketball and more. He also hopes to share his story to help other families on similar journeys.