Mike Farragher spoke to paralyzed Irish American musician Billy Keenan last week about his new life and how a famous NYPD officer gave him the strength to go on.
It takes a millisecond for the cruel hand of fate to change a life forever, a lesson that Irish American bandleader Billy Keenan learned the hard way.
Keenan was born in the Bronx and raised in Rockland County. After graduating from Albertus Magnus High School and Fordham University, Billy served his country overseas as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Keenan played Irish music since he was able to hold a tin whistle and graced the stage as the lead singer in the Summerwind Band as well as the Prime Time Showband, playing countless area venues and weddings over the years. To support a growing family of two boys, Keenan also taught history at North Rockland High School.
An avid surfer, life as he knew it was wiped away on September 14, 2013 when he was caught by a wave and suffered severe spinal injuries. Keenan was left unable to use his arms or legs, requiring assistance 24 hours a day.
The reaction from his Irish and Irish American musician friends in was swift, showing the big heart that beats amongst this community. A committee of around 25 was formed to include members of Celtic Cross, and they set out to organize and execute three fundraising concerts in May of 2014 to raise money for the round-the-clock care their friend would now need.
While Keenan languished in the hospital until August of 2014 the medical bills began to mount. Pat Dinnen, a longtime friend and bassist for Celtic Cross, commandeered the boards to finish the production of an album of original music Keenan was working on. Fans opened their wallet at these fundraisers to donate to the family and purchase the album, which gave way to another tragedy Keenan says damaged him as much as the surfing accident itself.
On May 4, 2014, a massive benefit at the German Masonic grounds in Tappan, New York was attended by thousands who donated a huge influx of cash, according to Keenan.
“The money raised has unfortunately never been made available to me,” Keenan said.
Soon his worst nightmare came true after his marriage to his wife Noreen, a registered nurse and his primary care giver, unraveled. “She helped me get ready and dispensed my medicine,” Keenan says. “My mother stepped in to be my primary care giver. Spring and summer 2015 I needed an aid and began inquiring about the money because the bills kept piling up. I kept asking about it and I got nowhere.”
There have been a series of health setbacks along the way, including a stage four pressure ulcer that went uncared for. “It went down to the tendon,” Keenan recalls. “The only way I got life saving therapy was an aide that took pictures and sent it to my family. If that didn’t happen, I would have gone into septic shock and died.”
Keenan says he reached his lowest point a few months after the accident, when he was breathing through a ventilator. “Here was a guy who played five musical instruments and was grieving over the loss of being a triathlon, a musician, an active husband, and father. There was a halo screwed into my head to keep my head stable. I suffered three blackouts and sent me down in the middle of the night to Nyack Hospital and I laid there for nine days in complete desperation,” Keenan recalled.
“An attorney, Dennis Lynch, came into my room. He put me on the phone with Steven McDonald. He was a cop with the NYPD who was on a foot chase with a 16 year old, the teenager shot him in the neck, and he became a quadriplegic. He transformed into an ambassador for the NYPD. At my lowest point, he called me and said, ‘Billy, there is one thing to remember: after all you will go through, there will be light.’ It was like God speaking through him as a vessel to give me hope.”
Buoyed by that hope, Keenan focused on one goal: getting back into the classroom. He went for therapy at Helen Hayes Hospital and worked with Jaclyn Offito, a speech therapist. “She’d take me to a lecture hall and go through a 30 minute lecture on the topics I’d teach,” he recalls. “That planted the kernel of hope that some day I’d be able to return to teach.”
Colleagues at his school donated their sick time once Keenan’s ran out, which kept the struggling teacher in salary and benefits. On September 1 of 2015, he miraculously went back to the class.
“I wake up at 5:30 a.m. and it takes me an hour and a half to get ready,” Keenan explains. “I teach a full load of five classes a day. I have a full time teaching assistant to work the computer and apart from that, I do everything else. It gives me something back I thought I’d never get back again.”
One of the more valuable lessons he hopes to teach is not in a book, but by his example of overcoming adversity.
“I hope I am a model for the kids that just by showing up and doing the job, that they, being able-bodied students, have no excuse to drag a little more out of them than what they thought was possible.”
Public school teachers are true servants that don’t enter into this vocation to get rich, so one can imagine the dire finances of a man who must make his paycheck stretch over a mountain of medical bills.
“My situation is this: I went back to work on September 1 and I am living paycheck to paycheck,” Keenan says matter-of-factly. “My take home pay is about $6,400 per month and my total outlay for medical care is over $6,000. I just found out this week that my insurance company is discontinuing my nursing visits and nurses’ aides, which is a complete breach of contract. I guess I’m going to have to appeal that on top of everything else that’s going on.”
Despite the incalculable loss of physical vitality and family, Keenan hasn’t lost his trademark Irish humor.
“I am a man of great faith and can really identify with Job from the Old Testament; he lost everything. I can identify with that but then again, I’ve lost so much more, that man has nothing on me!”
Keenan is grateful for the love and support he’s received from his fellow teachers and musicians and intends to live a full life regardless of what lies ahead.
“I died twice,” he says. “The day of my accident there was one surfer and he pulled me out of the water, where I lay face-down. I drowned that day and had to be defibulated twice. I made it back to the classroom and as a Catholic my faith has me believe that I was put on this earth to teach something out of this. I am living proof that every breath is a gift.”