The Reality of Hope

Keefer Family, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Kennedy KriegerEvery day I work with individuals whose lives have been drastically changed by paralysis. My job is twofold: first, to provide innovative therapies to help promote recovery and, second, to inspire and motivate my patients to push through the difficult times–sometimes as the encouraging cheerleader, and other times the demanding coach.

In my job, I’ve come to realize that we’re each gifted with a unique set of skills and abilities that allow us to contribute to the world around us. If we’re lucky, perhaps we can even use those talents to inspire and motivate others. But when I started my career in the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute, hoping to make a difference in the lives of my patients, I never expected that my patients would be the ones who constantly inspire and motivate me.

Brian Keefer is a patient whose strength, determination and genuine love for life inspire me in ways that are hard to put into words. In 2008, Brian was paralyzed from the neck down after a gymnastics flip gone awry. Soon after his injury, Brian and his family began making the 140-mile trip from to Kennedy Krieger every day for two weeks during his school breaks. Here, during bouts of intensive therapy, Brian spends five to six hours daily working with our team, all while maintaining a smile and exerting 100-percent effort.

When most people would call it quits, Brian keeps pushing; he knows no boundaries for himself. I have a feeling that it must run in the family. His father Steve, who left his job to become Brian’s full-time caregiver, now accompanies Brian to college each semester and helps him continue the rigorous activity-based restorative therapy program that we’ve designed for Brian to do at home.

Recently, though, the word “home” has taken on a new and unexpected meaning for the Keefer family. You see, Brian and his family have not only motivated and inspired me, but they’ve also inspired countless others, so much so that someone anonymously nominated them for ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. And that’s how, this past summer, Brian’s physician and other therapists joined me in working with the show’s producers and designers to create a wish list and consult on accessible home design, just in case Brian was selected.

Jenn Silvestri, Paul DiMeo, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Kennedy KriegerOn June 19th, 2011, a Father’s Day that Steve Keefer will never forget, we learned that Ty Pennington and the rest of the ‘Extreme Makeover’ cast had pulled their famous bus up to the Keefer family’s Pennsylvania home to surprise them with the news that they would be receiving a dream home. In one week, ‘Extreme Makeover’, Musser Homes and countless other volunteers built this deserving family a new home with an accessible apartment just for Brian, complete with the HydroWorx aquatic therapy pool that we had strongly recommended.

A Kennedy Krieger team showed their support on reveal day, along with thousands of others whose lives have been touched by Brian and his family, who joined together to chant, “Move that bus, move that bus!” I can’t wait for the world to see the amazing new home that was hiding behind that bus. You’ll see innovative technologies that allow Brian to do things that he was unable to do before: change the channel on the television, get his own drink, and send text messages. You’ll see his new therapy pool, complete with a treadmill, jets, video camera, a lift, and parallel bars–all of which combine to provide him with a weightless environment to help his recovery.

Kennedy Krieger, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Keefer FamilyOn reveal day, I was able to help Brian into his pool for the first time and show the ‘Extreme Makeover’ cast Brian’s abilities in the water. When he demonstrated how he could fully move his arms up and down, something he cannot do on land, the cast all drew closer to the pool. They were amazed that Brian was completing these motions without any assistance. I think it was in that moment that they realized what an amazing gift they had given to Brian. I hope that when all of the other people who made the gift possible–the builder, pool manufacturer, other vendors and thousands of volunteers–see this moment on television, it will be just as special for them.

‘Extreme Makeover’ and its many partners didn’t just give Brian and his family a new home: They gave them hope for the future. Our patients at Kennedy Krieger often tell us that we offer them the same thing–realistic hope for recovery and happiness after a devastating injury. When the episode airs, you may spot some people wearing t-shirts with the words “Hope in Motion”- -a mantra for the spinal cord injury program at Kennedy Krieger, where movement and paralysis aren’t mutually exclusive.

I’m eager for all of the ‘Extreme Makeover’ viewers to meet Brian and his family on Oct. 21, at 8/7 p.m. central on ABC.  I know that he will inspire you, just as he does me. Know that in Brian’s shadow, there are thousands of other amazing individuals living life to the fullest with a disability. At Kennedy Krieger Institute, we have the pleasure and privilege of serving more than 16,000 of these individuals each year. Their hope and passion for life makes this the best job in the world…although if anyone can lay claim to the same title, it’s the team at Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Don’t forget to tune in on Friday, Oct. 21 at 8/7 p.m. central on ABC! For more behind-the-scenes stories, photos and videos from Kennedy Krieger, visit

Jennifer Silvestri is an occupational therapist in Kennedy Krieger Institute’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury.

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2 Responses to The Reality of Hope

  1. Faye hammock says:

    I have a 5 year old with,SCI,TMI and many more problems since she was 2 years old results from a car accident.To Jennifer Silvestri your comment was so touching and heart warming makes me wish she was Takota’s PT.And to Brian Keefer you are so blessed to have such a caring Therapist and the family you have standing by you all the way.I hope you will have many more blessing through your journey of recovery.

    • Jennifer Silvestri says:

      Faye, Thank you for your kind comment. I am very lucky to work with so many inspiring patients. I will be sure to pass on your kind words to Brian and his family. I wish you and your daughter all the best.

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