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Graduation day for Long Beach high senior is the latest stop on long journey

Robert Browne at his Long Beach home with

Robert Browne at his Long Beach home with his prom dates Jade Burkes, left, and Nadia Freudiger on Tuesday. Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Robert Browne was in super-hectic mode for Tuesday night's prom. The Long Beach High School senior rushed to get a haircut. He hurriedly picked up his black tux before meeting up with friends. And he did it all in a wheelchair.

After prom night is graduation day, which for Browne, 18, will signify a personal turning point.

When the University at Albany-bound teenager makes his way to the stage Wednesday, he'll do it sitting down. He's used a wheelchair since a 2014 surfing accident left him paralyzed below his chest. When he crosses the stage to receive his diploma, he plans to do it standing up with the help of new braces and a walker.

"I'm excited," said Browne, an athletic and outgoing 13-year-old surfer on July 3, 2014, when his head smacked a sandbar off Long Beach and forever changed his life and the lives of those who love him.  "A little nervous and excited, but more of an excited feeling."

For most of his classmates, the walk to a diploma will be a short one — probably just 25 steps. When Browne's name is called and he walks across the stage, it will be another in a slew of arduous journeys on his way to a hard-fought recovery, all done with the help of family, friends and the community.

Before the fundraisers, before his friends would stop by his house on his darker days to drag him out of it, before the regular Friday swim appointment with a school vice principal, before it all, was the surfing accident.

Browne remembered jumping from his board to avoid another surfer and hitting the sandbar. He shattered two vertebrae in his neck. Along with the paralysis, the accident left him with limited use of his fingers. 

When Browne's father heard about his son's accident, the family was recovering from a different calamity — superstorm Sandy, which virtually destroyed their home and left them living in a trailer in the front yard. 

"It's been a tough couple of years," said Tim Browne, his dad.

Robert Browne's friends were there to help him and his family make it through those difficult times.

One of those friends was Nadia Anne Freudiger, Robert Browne's prom date. They've been friends since sharing a bus stop in middle school but the accident drew the pair closer and now they're like brother and sister, Freudiger said.

The two went from taking bike rides and beach trips, Freudiger likes to say, to her hand-feeding her injured pal in the hospital.

"It affected everyone around him," said Freudiger, 17, also of Long Beach. "I do things that are accessible to him. We're all adapting. We're not letting him miss out."

Browne had been a top student before the injury, which kept him out of school for six months. Teachers came to the hospital to keep him up on his studies, his father said.

"He didn't give up," Tim Browne said of his son. "He just kept striving."

Admitting he has always been on the hefty side, Browne said inactivity after the accident added more than 30 pounds to his frame. He's gone through years of physical and occupational therapy to regain his ability to write, swim, text on a phone and play video games. When his mood soured, friends were there.

"They got me out of the house," he said. 

His brother, Michael, 16, became "his right-hand man," his father said. Brother Tim Jr., 22, "would literally pick him up and carry him upstairs."

The family installed an elevator. They widened the doorways and halls to make room for Browne's wheelchair. 

Browne has lost the pounds he put on, in part thanks to his weekly swims with Long Beach High School Vice Principal Andrew Smith. For months, the two met every Friday morning to swim in the campus pool.

Smith got Browne a wet suit to help him float. When Robert's grades dipped, Smith said he encouraged him to "get his butt in gear."

"He has an amazing spirit," Smith said. "He wants to do it on his own terms."

That includes graduation and Browne's been preparing. 

"These braces are a miracle," he said. "They lock my knees out. Then I use a swaying motion with my hips to walk."

Smith said he'll be nearby just in case. Tim Browne said he expects he'll be watching with "tears in my eyes." 

For his part, Robert Browne sees it as a milestone in his ongoing journey.

"It's been a long one, and a hard one," he said. "I've come a far way."

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