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The new normal

Cyclist Greg Germani onlong road to recovery after hit-and-run crash.

Greg Germani has been waiting months for this moment. It’s a Thursday night in late July, and he’s going back on the air on WRFG radio, a guest of the Western swing music show “Sagebrush Boogie.”

Although he’s been behind the mic here more than a dozen times, he’s been away for more than a year. Tonight, he slides the headphones on easily — they’re as big as padded saucers in his slender hands — and gives the host, Dave Chamberlain, a deliberate thumbs up. When Dave introduces him on-air, Greg, 51, sits up arrow-straight before he leans into the microphone to greet his listeners with a smooth, “Hey, folks.”

At the microphone beside him, his girlfriend of three years, Beth Anne Harrill, grins from ear to ear. When the Porter Wagoner song, “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” comes on, they lean toward one another and recite the lyrics together.

During a break in the show, Greg takes a sip of bottled cherry lemonade and, with Beth Anne’s help, looks over the hand-written playlist for tonight. With Dave’s help, he’s selected his favorites — Ray Price, Deke Dickerson and Bonnie Owens, among others. And Beth Anne helps him keep track of what’s been played and what’s up next.

Greg’s day began before 8 a.m., with three hours of physical therapy, then a “dry run” to the studio, a fried chicken lunch and a nap before the 8 p.m. airtime. He’d practiced his show banter, too, and although he wasn’t required to stand up in the radio station, he’d worked on that in physical therapy.

The bright white bulb signaling that someone’s called in to the show lights up, and the glow illuminates Greg’s face. Prompted by a question, he expertly summarizes the history of country singer Melba Montgomery. Into the show’s second hour, Greg begins to tire. He slumps to the right in his wheelchair and appears to doze briefly, but he’s conserving his energy. Other people in the studio show signs of the late hour, but when it’s time to take the mic again, Greg’s ready and willing.

Minutes after the show signs off at 10 p.m., Greg, Beth Anne, Dave and Caroline — Greg’s nurse for that evening — exit the studio into the hot night. In the parking lot, Greg’s tote bag of vintage country and rockabilly LPs goes into the adaptive van beside his wheelchair. With Beth Anne at the wheel, the vinylologist, as Dave calls him, heads home, satisfied to have regained a favorite activity from his old way of life.

Never be the same

A commuter cyclist for more than 20 years, Greg routinely biked the 8.6 mile route from his home in suburban Decatur to his job as a program edit supervisor at Turner Broadcasting and back again.

He has no memory of it, but on June 9, 2014, he was heading home when witnesses say he and the driver of a Dodge Nitro had a verbal exchange. A few minutes later, Greg was found under a parked car. He had been dragged 50 feet and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The Dodge Nitro was gone.

Video from a home security camera shows a red Dodge Nitro traveling to the right and disappearing from the screen. Then a bicyclist passes by, traveling left. Soon after, the Dodge Nitro appears again, also traveling left. They both disappear from the screen.

The video circulated on the web in the days after the incident, and a tip led police to an apartment complex garage in Midtown, where they found the Nitro hidden under a tarp.

The owner of the vehicle, Joseph Alan Lewis, 19 at the time of the incident, turned himself in to the authorities. He faces several charges, including criminal attempt to commit murder, aggravated assault and battery and tampering with evidence. He remains in jail awaiting trial, currently set for November.

Greg spent the next six months in the hospital: first at Grady, then at Kindred Hospital and Shepherd Center. Beth Anne took that time off from work as a law clerk for a federal bankruptcy judge. She chokes up just a little when she calls him the “best boss anyone could ever ask for.”
On that first night at Grady, a doctor told her Greg’s life would never be the same. Neither would hers.

Those six months allowed her and his mother and brothers (his father, an Air Force colonel, died in 2001) to prepare and learn how to care for Greg at home. In addition to dealing with insurance companies, doctor visits and physical therapy sessions, Beth Anne had to figure out how to reverse-engineer the administrative aspects of her boyfriend’s life, figuring out his computer passwords and logins, and pay his bills.

Stepping into someone else’s shoes while maintaining her own life has been an enormous challenge for Beth Anne, who lives nearby and spends evenings and weekends with Greg. But one of the hardest things she’s had to learn is how to accept help as a caregiver.

“You have to let go of the notion you can control everything,” she says.

For the time being, Greg requires round-the-clock nursing care. He depends on the assistance of others to prepare his meals and help with showering, dressing and the like. Physical and cognitive therapies are part of his daily routine.

Beth Anne describes Greg’s necessity for help in “every single thing” as a delicate situation: Greg is a former athlete and a man who likes his solitude. Maintaining privacy and dignity are important, no matter how brutal the injury and recovery.

Man of enthusiasms

Greg’s friends will tell you that he’s a man of enthusiasms. He’s been a bicyclist since he was a kid. He’s not anti-car, just pro-bike. In fact, he owns a classic 1959 Chevy Impala, currently in the care of a mechanic friend.

When Greg was 10 years old, riding his bike was a favorite way to explore the world. His mother, Judy Germani, describes the next-to-youngest of her four sons as naturally inquisitive. He always wanted to know where roads went. He got serious about cycling during college at the University of Georgia, when he went on Century Rides, 100-mile rides completed within a 12-hour span. His best time was eight hours.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, after he’d graduated and moved to Atlanta, Greg got up at 6 in the morning and rode to see his parents in Warner-Robins, arriving at 2:30 that afternoon. Even now, Greg’s proud to tell you the distance — 120 miles — his longest ride ever.

Cycling isn’t his only passion. Dozens of vintage black-and-white publicity photos, including shots of a chimpanzee riding a pony and lady wrestler Ada Ash, line the hallway of his home. They depict what Greg calls “oddball entertainment,” and he’s collected them for years. It’s part of a bigger category of things he collects — records, photos, and maps, most of it vintage.

<br/>Classic prints of movie stars, country singers and other photos Greg Germani finds on eBay line the walls of his Decatur home.


Classic prints of movie stars, country singers and other photos Greg Germani finds on eBay line the walls of his Decatur home.

One day in 2003, Greg discovered a cache of old photographs on a Georgia State University site that left him, in his words, “thunderstruck.” It inspired him to create the popular Atlanta Time Machine website.

Last updated five days before his injury, the site is a treasure trove of thousands of historical photographs of Atlanta sites, some famous, some quotidian, each matched with a contemporary image, most taken by Germani. Driving or biking, with a digital camera at the ready, he explored Atlanta neighborhoods and streets, many of which he’d never been on before.

“He’d get some scheme about finding an old area that had been condemned for airport expansion, or the old Atlanta prison farm,” Beth Anne says, laughing. The site even has a link to a goofy theme song, “Atlanta, My Home Town,” with a visual of the 45 rpm 1961 recording by Terry Lee Jenkins.
The Atlanta Time Machine website and its Facebook fan page are both online and accessible to the public, but adding new material will have to wait until Greg’s ready to manage the site again.

Then, of course, there is Greg’s love of music. He’s been a regular at the Star Bar in Little Five Points for more than 20 years. For him, one deciding factor in a friendship is, “Does this person like good music?”

He’s not shy about reaching out to musicians he admires. Nashville headliner Chris Scruggs, grandson of Earl Scruggs, met Greg through a Facebook message. Greg had seen him play and wanted to bring him down to Atlanta to do a steel guitar show.

Greg Germani with musician Chris Scruggs in 2012.

Greg Germani with musician Chris Scruggs in 2012.

“Like all music fiends,” Greg says, “I wanted to share my discoveries.”

He figured it would cost more to drive up to Nashville for a show and rent a hotel room than it would to bring a band down to Atlanta. On more than one occasion, Greg raised a little money from the cover charge, pitched in some of his own, and, as Chris says, put on a show with a “nice positive energy for people who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to hear it.”

Greg’s openhearted support of local musicians has come back around. His friends in the music community have staged private acoustic shows for Greg in his home during the past year, including his friend Jay Murphree with “Rodeo Twister,” Dan McNeill, who plays rhythm guitar in a band called “The Wheel Knockers,” and James Kelly, who performs as Slim Chance in the band “Slim Chance and the Convicts.”

Greg Germani with members of the band Rodeo Twister after a home concert.

Greg Germani with members of the band Rodeo Twister after a home concert.

Greg’s situation has provided the music community the opportunity to give back to someone who’s always been there for them.

An ‘atta boy’

An Alpharetta grandmother was watching the local news one night last June around the first anniversary of Greg’s injury when she caught an interview with him. Moved by his story, the family contacted Greg to arrange a meeting. They had a vehicle to give him, a bright red Toyota Sienna van. When it comes to getting in and out of a vehicle from a wheelchair, the donor, who asked to remain anonymous, knows the drill. She bought the adaptive van when her husband became disabled. He died in 2014. She remembers clearly that transporting a person when “every bone in their body hurts” wears on everyone involved.

Why donate a nearly new, adaptive vehicle to a stranger?

Sometimes people just need an “atta boy,” she said.

Others touched by Greg’s story have offered help, too.

Chris Scruggs and other musicians have staged several benefit shows. The first was at the Star Bar last summer. The most recent was this past May at Kavarna in Oakhurst. For that show, Greg and Beth Anne set a personal goal: He would walk in.

Earlier that day, Greg was moving a “little slowly,” Beth Anne remembers, but the minute the door to the coffee house opened, he was taking off the seat belt in his wheelchair.

“A big thrill went through my body when I beheld that scene,” he says of the friends gathered around the stage to play and enjoy live music. While Beth Anne held his hands in front of him and a nurse stood behind him, Greg walked 20 or 25 feet that night.

For Chris, seeing Greg on his feet was a powerful moment, a demonstration of the strength of his character.

The funds from those shows, combined with $75,000 raised on a GoFundMe web page, have gone to retrofit Greg’s one-story house to accommodate his wheelchair. The back of the house was rebuilt to include a brand-new, ADA-accessible bathroom, in which the floor slopes gently into the open shower area and there’s a handrail beside the commode.

The generosity of others has gone a long way in helping Greg adapt to his changed way of life.

Elephant in the room

On a recent summer afternoon, Beth Anne helps Greg stand and move from his wheelchair to an armchair, a spot more conducive to face-to-face conversation. With a certified nursing assistant looking on, Beth Anne pivot-lifts Greg to a standing position. From there, they perform a kind of two-step until he eases carefully into a deep armchair that provides a good angle from which to chat with visitors. His voice is raspy, but his handshake is firm.

He and Beth Anne agree that some things haven’t changed since his injury: the love of a good meal, spending time outdoors and catching up with each other at the end of the day. But the elephant in the room, as Beth Anne puts it, is Greg’s recovery. There’s physical pain from his injuries — two cracked vertebrae, in addition to the head injury — that has an impact on his relearning everything from bathing and dressing to cutting food and walking.

With a nurse, Greg practices walking the short hallway in his home several times a day. Learning to walk again takes a tremendous amount of concentration and effort. Getting better comes with other stresses. He is aware of what he wants to do but can’t yet accomplish it on his own.

Suellen Germani is Greg’s ex-wife. They divorced in 2011 but remain good friends. When she visits, they talk about old times and what’s going on with mutual friends. They still share Ruby, a miniature Doberman Pinscher. She lives with Greg on weekends, and Suellen during the week.

On visits, Suellen likes to remind Greg of his amazing athletic accomplishments. “This Georgia boy,” she says, climbed a mountain in Colorado on his road bike. He’s ridden the “Six Gap” Century Ride in North Georgia — more than 11,000 feet of vertical climbing, according to the ride’s website.

Greg is a fighter, Suellen says, and he’ll keep going even if it hurts. She tells him that his recovery is another mountain to climb.

Suellen was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, and after surgery and treatment, considers herself a survivor. She knows firsthand that the “new normal” is the hardest stage. As time passes after an illness or injury, she says, “there’s a real appreciation for life and a strong desire to live authentically.”

Greg’s long-term memory is intact. He’ll tell you in detail about his bike rides as a kid, about his job at Turner Broadcasting or his first date with Beth Anne.

He’s spot-on in those recollections and descriptions. It’s his short-term memory that requires work. Neural pathways need to rebuild, and memories old and new need to un-blend. Greg still confuses days of the week, people’s names. Sometimes he answers a question with information from an earlier topic. Sometimes he refers to Beth Anne as Suellen. Beth Anne compares the experience to a needle skipping on an LP record. His brain, she says, is working to get out of one groove and into another.

Friends in spades

Dr. Ford Vox, a brain injury specialist and staff physician at Shepherd Center, describes Greg’s brain injury as being “particularly brutal and unusual.” He had multiple contusions — bruises — in the front of his brain and deep inside, as well as subarachnoid hemorrhage, or bleeding between the brain and the tissues that cover it. The brain’s frontal lobe helps us organize our thoughts. In a case like Greg’s, Vox explains, there will be some slowness of thought, as well as issues with focus and completing more than one task at a time.

But the way Greg looks now, Vox says, is very different than those first few months, dramatically illustrating the brain’s capacity to heal over time. He says the conscious human brain has great capacity to improve with the support of friends and family. That is something Greg has in spades.
He counts among his strengths the good life he’s made for himself.

Despite Greg’s fascination with vintage things — as his classic Impala, his taste in music, his collections of old photographs and Atlanta Time Machine website demonstrate — he doesn’t live in the past.

“I live in the present,” Greg says. “That’s always been true.”
Greg and Beth Anne envision a day when he can walk without assistance.

Beth Anne says she hopes to someday give the adaptive van to a family who needs it. Greg nods in agreement when she says this, and adds that passing the gift along would be the “right way to proceed.”

But for now they’re focused on Greg’s recovery, one small gain at a time.

Behind the story

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

I write often about grief, trauma and the ways we survive tectonic shifts in our lives. Greg Germani’s story mattered to me for many reasons. I worked with Greg many years ago at Turner Broadcasting, and like so many people, learned about the hit and run on the news and social media, and followed his story through those same channels, rooting for him all the way. I’ve donated to his fundraisers, and recognize through my own experiences some of the intimate details of learning to adapt to a changed body. When the AJC offered me the opportunity to spend time with Greg and Beth Anne and share this new chapter in their lives, I took the challenge. Every story of how life can change in an instant is different, but in individual stories you’ll also find community. I hope I’ve done Greg — and Beth Anne — justice.
Jessica Handler
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE WRITER

Jessica Handler is the author of “Invisible Sisters: A Memoir” and “Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Newsweek, The Washington Post and More Magazine. www.jessicahandler.com

Read more of our Personal Journeys at myAJC.com/personaljourneys.