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Huntington Station native finds 'gift' in continuing recovery from bike crash that left him nearly completely paralyzed

Huntington Station native Brian McKenna, top left, appears

Huntington Station native Brian McKenna, top left, appears via live feed on the "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" along with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, top right. Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / Michael Rozman

The first thing out of the mouth of Brian McKenna, propped up on pillows in his Salt Lake City hospital bed, was, "Hi. My name is Brian. I'm 30 years old, and I was recently paralyzed."

As an aside, he asks the assembled television crew: "Is it weird if I'm smiling when I say this?"

That was how the Oct. 1 audience of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" was introduced to the Huntington Station native, who has been in the hospital since late June when a nasty tumble from his mountain bike left him close to completely paralyzed from the chest down.

Throughout the video and real-time back-and-forth with DeGeneres, McKenna smiled, wise-cracked and mugged for the camera, sharing his astoundingly upbeat view.

From the get-go, he said, he felt there was no point in focusing on what he had lost.

In a later conversation with Newsday he spoke of realizing, as he was lying in the dirt, that nothing good would come of dwelling on the accident's "darker side." Also that "I should immediately accept this as reality" and view "every advance and gain as a gift." That, he said, was the best way for him to "have the most mental sanity" and to keep finding the fun in life.

The support of friends

At one point DeGeneres, a Big Easy native, refers to the life-size cardboard cutout of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees beside the bed.

McKenna quips, "Yah, I'm here with Drew -- Drew, say, 'Hi.' " Then, with a raised eyebrow, "Drew? . . . He's kind of starstruck."

And therein lies the root of why McKenna, his college buddy Jackson Smith and the flesh-and-blood version of Brees were on the show.

In early 2010, Smith, then a Marine infantry officer, was deployed for combat duty in Afghanistan. Graduates of Tulane University, he and McKenna had developed a strong connection to New Orleans -- and its football team -- having evacuated just before Hurricane Katrina's arrival, but back again for its lengthy aftermath.

So that Smith wouldn't totally miss out on Mardi Gras, McKenna created a life-size cardboard cutout of his friend wearing his dress blues, and lugged it around to parades, parties and other activities, making it a key prop in photos of the carnival hoopla.

"Didn't want you to miss all this," McKenna said in a note accompanying an album of some 50 photos that was delivered to his friend as a major battle raged. "Now you know you didn't."

The piece de resistance was an image of the cutout alongside Brees, who had been named MVP after the Saints' first Super Bowl win that February.

As Smith wrote last month in a Washington Post military blog, "I cried my eyes out" over McKenna's pulling off "the greatest act of friendship in the history of Mardi Gras." He said he felt he could never repay his friend and Brees for their kindness.

Fate presented him with a payback chance in June with McKenna's biking accident.

Can you see where this is going?

A 'granddaddy' of a gift

From a photo of McKenna, flashing a big toothy grin, Smith created a life-size cutout, and with it in tow, headed to Saints' practice at Tulane's stadium. Through the crowd of screaming fans, he managed to get Brees to pose with his arm draped around McKenna's cutout.

"To say it lifted my spirits and boosted my morale is an understatement," McKenna said of seeing the image posted on Facebook. It was having a friend appreciate the spot you're in and then "delivering the granddaddy of all gifts," he said on the show.

A 2003 graduate of St. Anthony's High School in Huntington Station, McKenna was a finance major at Tulane, then worked on Wall Street before his love for the mountains, adventure and outdoor sports led him to Utah and a job with Goldman Sachs, said his mother, Mary Anne McKenna, of Huntington Station, who has been in Utah with her son since the accident.

With the long-term prognosis for his condition unknown, she said he has been making some improvement -- such as moving his shoulders and breathing on his own for an hour or so.

Indeed, DeGeneres shared an update on Wednesday's show, with McKenna, sitting in a wheelchair, demonstrating from Utah how he can breathe ventilator free. In response to her mentioning his shoulder movement and a reflex in a foot, McKenna quipped, "Yeah. I mean. I don't know. Is that a big deal?"

A fundraising page has been set up, so far garnering more than $81,000 to help cover the cost of some of McKenna's medical needs.

As for her son's "amazingly good outlook on life" -- that of seeing each day as a new adventure -- she said that it's "amazing to be in awe of the child you raised" and that "he makes us strong."

A friend since middle school, fellow St. Anthony's alum and more recently an annual ski buddy on the Utah slopes, Peter Trombino, 30, said, "This December I still expect to see Brian on the annual trip."

After moving to Utah, McKenna immersed himself in the area's lifestyle, "while keeping his East Coast sarcasm," Trombino said. When it comes to friendships, his buddy "is thoughtful, inquisitive and passionate . . . and I think this has shown in the outpouring of love for Brian over the past few months."

An inspiration to others

Since the Ellen show, McKenna says he's heard from a number of people who have been touched by debilitating injuries, either themselves or family members. Never having considered himself inspiring, McKenna said, "It's really cool to see my mentality giving other people a refreshed outlook."

With plans to remain in Utah, McKenna said he's already looking for ways to engage in the outdoor activities he loves, albeit in a different capacity. He's on to programs there that are aimed at helping quadriplegics get back into sports, such as those with specially engineered sailboats and kayaks. Along those lines, McKenna said he is already involved in the development of special skis.

Each day before the accident, he said, "I lived as adventurously as I could."

Yes, McKenna said, he and other such sports enthusiasts appreciate and try to minimize the accompanying risks, but they are "the cost of what I would say is enjoying life a lot more."

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