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For Better or for Worse, In Sickness and In Health

Brain injury rehabilitation cements bond between former Shepherd Center patient Allan DaPore and girlfriend Kaitlin Fitzgerald.

This is a love story.

It’s a Shepherd Center love story, so it’s several other kinds of stories, as well – a lousy-luck story, a survival story, a redemption story. And like many love stories that emerge from Shepherd – there have been a few – it starts, most dramatically, in the middle.

That’s when Allan DaPore fell down a flight of stairs while leaving a second-floor restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina.

One minute, he’s a fun-loving, athletic (he ran the Boston Marathon) 24-year-old with a bright, fitness-driven girlfriend he met when both were freshmen at the College of Charleston.

Next minute, he’s in a coma, rushed to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) with a traumatic brain injury. A CT scan taken before a craniotomy for a subdural hematoma showed so little activity one doctor suggested surgery might leave him brain dead.

Three weeks later, in February 2015, Allan was transferred to Shepherd Center – still largely unresponsive, with his girlfriend, Kaitlin Fitzgerald, still by his side. She, along with Allan’s family, wasn’t going anywhere.

“His injury was very severe, but there was never any hesitation on Kaitlin’s part,” recalls Anna Elmers, M.D., the physiatrist who led Allan’s inpatient medical team. “This will sound cheesy, but every time I hear the song ‘Cheerleader,’ I think of her.”

Kaitlin credits Shepherd Center’s aggressive style of rehabilitation and empathetic culture with keeping her grounded during the initial upheaval in the couple’s lives.

“Going into something like that, no one knows what to expect,” Kaitlin says. “It involves a lot of trust. Dr. Elmers and I gelled immediately. She was good about being pragmatic – not giving false hope, but willing to explore every avenue.”

By the end of his first week, Allan started to perform many of the baseline tasks Kaitlin says “had been erased” after his fall – talking, eating, breathing.

As Allan grew stronger and more cognizant, he became more relentless in working to get better. His humor seeped through: Allan and the staff named each of his arms after a character in the Will Ferrell comedy “Anchorman,” to help him identify which one he needed to move.

Kaitlin supplemented Allan’s rehabilitation by continuing exercises after therapy sessions. She worked with him on his transfers. She helped him in the shower and bathroom. When he couldn’t determine when to swallow on his own, she set a timer while he ate so she’d know when to prompt him.

“I’m sure she had some of the hardest days you can imagine,” says Jessica Berman, MA, CCC-SLP, Allan’s speech-language pathologist. “But when she was in front of Allan, it was all about him. By the time he left Shepherd, Kaitlin had taken on the role of speech therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist – everything.”

John Morawski, MSN, a Shepherd Center nurse practitioner, says: “Their story was in place. Most folks do the ‘for better or worse’ thing after they’ve made that promise. It was really inspiring.”

Still, Kaitlin confronted hard truths. She was only 24. They weren’t married. It was uncertain whether Allan would recover enough to resemble the Allan she fell in love with years earlier.

With characteristic candor and humor, Kaitlin says: “Plenty of times I thought, ‘Should I just run away to Florida and be a bartender?’ I’d ask myself, especially since we weren’t married, ‘Is this what I want?’

“But our lives were so entwined,” she says. “As much as he needed me, I needed him. It might mean reinventing what we look like. We were a young, athletic couple, but we were also much more than those things. Bottom line: I was meant to be with Allan.”

Allan graduated from inpatient therapy after three months and moved to Shepherd Pathways, Shepherd Center’s comprehensive outpatient program for brain injury patients. The couple finally looked ahead to new lives back in Charleston.

To mark the milestone, Kaitlin got a tattoo of a bee – the only tattoo she’s ever gotten. Allan accompanied Kaitlin to the tattoo parlor in his wheelchair.

The tattoo was inspired in part by a birthday card she bought him early on at Shepherd Center with an inscription from her that read, “The best is yet to be.”

Allan taped it to his wall and told Kaitlin every night before she left his room, “The best is yet to be, for Allan and his honeybee.”

“During my dark times at Shepherd, I’d look at that card and think about our lives and futures and better things,” Allan says. “The words became our mantra. I still say them every night before I go to sleep.”

Allan walked out of outpatient therapy at Shepherd Pathways on his own. The couple devoted their first year back home to Allan’s continued rehabilitation. Then they reassessed their lives beyond that.

Allan asked Kaitlin to marry him.

“Before my injury, I took everything for granted,” he says. “My injury changed all of that. I stopped taking the simple things for granted and realized just how lucky I was to have Kaitlin in my life. It took losing nearly everything for me to wake up to the blessings in my life, but there hasn't been a day since that I don't recognize how lucky I am, especially to have her with me through it all."

The couple married in April 2018 on a beach at Kiawah Island, south of Charleston. They asked guests to make a donation to Shepherd Center in lieu of gifts.

Allan is now pursuing a job as a rehabilitation therapy technician. Kaitlin is a wellness coordinator at MUSC.

“This whole experience is nothing we would’ve planned,” Kaitlin says. “We joke that the brain injury club is one no one wants to be a part of. But we actively choose every day to see the silver linings. We appreciate everything we have.

“I don’t want to tie it all up in a pretty package,” she adds. “We’re human and we still want more. But our wedding day and being able to share our story, those are things we literally only dreamed about two years before.”

Among their wedding guests was Dr. Elmers.

“The whole thing defined their relationship,” Dr. Elmers says. “Most people don’t get put through a trial like this prior to getting married, let alone after. The wedding was just so… fulfilling. Everything came full circle.”

Written by Drew Jubera

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.