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Despite disability, student remains true to himself

By Erin Kirkland, Managing Photo Editor
Published October 25, 2012

Some have called him an inspiration. Others, a survivor. But to LSA freshman and quadriplegic Drew Clayborn, it’s simple: “I’m just Drew.”

The ventilator echoes behind him, a gentle reminder of why I’m in his room in the first place. It seems to complete his sentences, acting as an extra form of punctuation.

At first, I’m afraid to ask about his accident, but trying to dance around the question isn’t getting me anywhere: “Do you mind telling me what happened that day? What went through your mind?”

But he doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s quite used to the interviews. Three local Detroit TV stations — WJBK, WDIV, and WXYZ — have all profiled him. You name it, he’s done it. But I’m not interested in formulaic interviews consisting of his favorite color, cheesy poses and microphones that engulf half his face like the local TV stations. Instead, I’m interested in Drew.

And who is Drew?

His eyes light up, a smile etches across his face, and he leans back in his chair. “He’s this crazy kid willing to do anything at any moment.”

It’s this crazy kid — the one who said high school “went too easy,” the one who needed to find a way to stay entertained, the one who proudly wore purple booty shorts to his high school spirit week, the one who always pushed the envelope — who pushed it a bit too far.

He talks about his accident in his essay application to the University, titled “The Date of My Accident.” In addition to playing on the football team in his hometown of Commerce, Mich., he was a trombone player in the band and earned a role in his school’s theatrical production of "Seussical: The Musical" during his sophomore year.

During rehearsals for the performance, his high school director asked if anyone had any special talents to add to the performance, and Drew claimed he could do a backflip. Though he had never actually done one before, he rehearsed several times with his friend’s mother who owned a dance studio, and the first time he did the flip without her help was while “goofing off” in the hallway after school. Little did he know then it would also be his last.

Drew doesn’t remember what happened next. In fact, he doesn’t remember the first week in the hospital, thanks to the drugs that helped ease his pain.

What he later learned is this: He landed on and broke his back, rolled over and threw up. He then received CPR from his freshman football coach until paramedics came. He was unable to breathe on his own for an hour until the paramedics put a tracheotomy tube down this throat, and was then airlifted to University Hospital, which would become his home for the next three months.

As he recalls the story, he jokes in typical Drew fashion that he wishes he had remembered the transport since it was the only time he’s been in a helicopter.

Though much of the first week remains a blur, his father, LeDon Clayborn recalls that every time Drew would wake up, he would ask what happened and apologized for what he had done. It wasn’t until a week after the accident that Drew finally remembered. A nurse told him. Straightforward. Just the facts.

His initial thought was relief. He would probably get an extension on his English essay that was due. But after that realization, the permanence set in and Drew accepted the inevitable.

He was paralyzed.

***

When asking others about their impressions of Drew, they often talk about his strength and independent attitude, which might seem ironic due to his need for 24-hour care.

For his family, it seems as though Drew’s lack of burdening self-pity propels the entire family past the experience.

“I think he still wants to prove to his dad he could do whatever he thinks I want him to. He’s striving to be independent and to grow with life,” LeDon says.

“The whole family moved forward because Drew moved forward,” his 19-year-old sister Desirae explains.

His nurse, Kandi Epifanio, is his arms and legs.