This is the story of a sister and brother.
They say you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. In my case, I did not get to choose that I had an older brother. But, for as long as I can remember, Drew was always my best friend.
Drew was born on June 15, 1993. Four years later, I was born. When I look back at memories of us, so many good ones flood in. But, some of my favorites are centralized around the one thing D loved most: hockey. Whether it be the countless knee hockey tournaments that took place in our living room or the weekends I spent at the rinks cheering him on, hockey was always his thing that I loved because he loved it. Hockey made my brother so happy, even in the darkest times of his life. I will always be eternally grateful to the sport and the boys that made Drew so happy for so many years.
Drew’s whole life revolved around lacing up his skates and getting out there on the ice. Drew played hockey his whole life, spending weekends traveling with his teams and weeknights practicing. His senior year of high school, he lived with our aunt in Pennsylvania so he could play juniors hockey. He took online classes before returning to our local high school when the season ended. Drew graduated from RHAM High School in 2011 and then went away to North Carolina to attend High Point University.
Everything seemed to be going well for Drew. As much as it was hard saying goodbye to him and adjusting to being an only child, he was happy. He quickly made friends and started to get serious about his school work. But, when I think of High Point now, one story comes to mind… one where his concussions impacted him off the ice. He was playing basketball with friends and fell, hitting his head. Luckily one of his friends from home also went to school there and he called her. Obviously, when you hear someone hits their head, it is a given that they are in a lot of pain. However, his speech was slurred and he wasn’t making much sense. This is when I began to realize how damaging head trauma is.
I always knew Drew had a history of concussions. At a very young age, he got his first one during a game. Being 6’4” and scrappy, Drew was always the first to jump off the bench to defend his teammates or run his mouth and antagonize his opponents. Being the “enforcer” comes with lots of responsibilities, but in Drew’s case, it also came with a lot of concussions.
To be honest, I am not sure just how many concussions D had in total... sometimes I felt like a simple bump of the head brought on symptoms. Sometimes, I think he wouldn’t say anything because he didn’t want to be taken out of the game. But, it wasn’t until the last concussion that made brushing them under the rug impossible.
I will never forget where I was when I got the phone call saying that everything changed for the first time. He had come home from college his freshman year and joined another junior hockey team in Massachusetts. I was at my friend’s house when the home phone rang for me. It was my mom. I always had a fear of not being at Drew’s game in case something happened. Nine out of 10 games he was ok… this game he wasn’t. Someone checked him, but it was not a normal check. The other kid’s stick was pushed against his chin, popping Drew’s helmet off. When he landed, his head hit the boards then the ice. My mom had said he was coming home after going to the hospital.
When he came home, he was out of it and in a lot of pain. His last memory was being hit, completely forgetting the process of going to the hospital and getting home. After going to the doctors, they told him that his brain damage was so severe, he was never to play a contact sport again. A huge piece of Drew never came home with him after that game. This is when his worst nightmare came true and mine started.
I find it hard to verbalize who Drew was, because quite honestly, I have never met anybody like him. He was kind, but protective. He was smart, but an idiot at the same time. He was capable of being serious, but preferred not to be. After a bad day, I would come home to his freckled-face and goofy smile and no matter my mood, laugh until tears rolled down my cheeks. He made everyone laugh. Underneath his 6'4" stature, Bauer jacket and exterior "game face," lay a heart of gold. He would do anything for anyone if they just took the time to ask. He did everything for me. Most of what I know today, Drew taught me. Most of who I am, Drew inspired me to be.
When I think of my brother, I don’t like to think of the negative. I like to remember Drew as my goofy idiot older brother who had a magical power to make me laugh when no one else could. We had so much fun together doing anything, even grocery shopping. As much as we laughed and joked around, he was my rock. He was the strongest person I know. He was able to read my face and know exactly what I was thinking or feeling. And if it was something he could fix, he would. That was Drew.
After that hit, Drew was never the same. For weeks, he sat in a dark room refusing to talk to anyone. Yes, he was in pain from his concussion... but I think that what hurt more was losing hockey. Desperate to get back on the ice, he used to hide his hockey bags in the bushes in hopes my mom didn’t see. That hit changed it all. Drew scored a 2100 on his first attempt at SATs. However, simple things that once were easy for my intelligent brother to accomplish became frustrating. School work that I used to ask him for help with became so challenging, I found myself tutoring him. He became irritated a lot faster, snapped a lot quicker and smiled a lot less.
With this being said, Drew attended trade school to become an electrician and graduated top in his class. The work, though harder for him, got done. Concentrating, which was again more difficult, was accomplished. He did it. He started playing men’s league, which was non-checking, reintroducing hockey into his life. He got hired for a local electrician shortly after and started working immediately. He loved it. I was so proud of him. I thought things were looking up for Drew and I had high hopes that his new-found success was enough to keep him here. I so badly just wanted him to be happy.
On February 17, 2016, my brother took his own life and his last breath. Something like this still does not make any sense. I am consumed by pain, guilt and emptiness. Words cannot describe this feeling of life without my best friend right beside me. It has been over a year and I still can’t understand why or how… “why did he leave, how am I never going to hug my brother ever again, why didn’t he say something that night, how am I going to live life without my best friend?” I will never get any of these questions answered.
Drew used to tell me that he knew his brain was not working and that there was something wrong. He said he could feel himself being incomplete. He felt his brain change. I so desperately wanted to help him or give him answers myself. However, at the time, there were none.
However, after deciding to donate Drew’s brain, some of my family’s question found clarity. His brain was diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as well as Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS). The more I learn about CTE and PCS, the more I answer Drew’s questions. I wish I could call him and tell him he wasn’t crazy… that the changes and confusion he was feeling, he was not alone in feeling. Maybe he would still be here today if he had the answers.
My brother’s death was my worst nightmare that every day I wish I could wake up from. But, I know I never will. With this being said, what my family and I went through is something that another family should never have to experience. Drew’s death is a reminder of how important safety and observation is. No matter how bad they want to get back on the ice, don’t let them until they are ready. No matter how much they love the sport, no game is ever worth saying goodbye.
Before this, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. However, now my life path is clearer than ever. Brain damage and CTE are such an important cause that needs to be more well known. Through connecting with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, I learned a sad truth that my family is one of many families devastated by CTE. I want to help families like mine. I want to help kids like Drew. I want to make a difference. I want to carry out Drew’s legacy.
Since his passing, our family and friends have been committed to spreading the word of CTE and brain injuries. Each year we host an annual golf outing in his honor. All proceeds are donated to Boston University and the Brain Bank to further research and hopefully help other families.
Although Drew's earthly journey has ended (far too soon), his passing continues to teach me things every day. I now realize that brain injuries are not something to mess with. Although the consequences can be life-altering, if you realize the severity and the potential dangers, avoidance is possible. So, if you or anybody you know suffers from similar conditions, please, please, please seek proper medical attention for the sake of you and your family. Had Drew known then what I know now, things could be different. Regardless of circumstances, Drew has always been and will always be my big brother--partner in crime--bodyguard (at least he'd like to think so)--role model, but most importantly--my very best friend. I know he walks beside me each and every day and I feel blessed to even have had the opportunity to have him in my life for the time that I did. We'll always be together in mind & in spirit, jamming to our favorite song... "Like an ocean you can't see, but you can smell...but I do know one thing, where you are, is where I belong."
However, I do not want his death to be the only thing his legacy stands for. I want my brother to be remembered for the happy, loving, wiseass he was. I want memories of Drew to bring smiles to people’s faces. I want Drew to be remembered as the real Drew, who he really was before CTE. With this being said, I want his absence to serve as a constant reminder to all...