Hiker aims to make strides for brain injury research


January 15, 2003|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ON MARCH 15, Devon Struck will take the first step of a 2,170-mile journey along the Appalachian Trail.

Starting in Georgia and ending in Maine, she will spend four to six months hiking alone to raise funds for and awareness of brain injury research.

Struck has worked at Produce Galore in Wilde Lake Village Center for two years while earning her degree at night from the Johns Hopkins University. She was inspired to begin her journey after becoming acquainted with Stephanie Gianfagna, whose mother, Margaret Pendleton, and stepfather, Kent Pendleton, own Produce Galore.

In December 1989, Gianfagna, a 21-year-old nursing student at the University of Maryland, was driving home after participating in clinical studies at Walter Reed Hospital. A light snow was falling, and patches of the road were covered in ice.

An SUV hit and drove over Gianfagna's car. Gianfagna suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident and has been in a coma for 13 years.

"There was a period after her accident when they weren't sure she would survive at all," said Margaret Pendleton.

Gianfagna was sent to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where she stayed for two months. She then spent six months in a rehabilitation hospital in New Jersey before the Pendletons brought her back to Maryland, where she was admitted to a nursing facility.

Twice each day, Margaret Pendleton leaves her job at Produce Galore to spend time with her daughter at a nursing home in Columbia. Pendleton plays movies for Gianfagna, reads to her and helps with exercises focusing on range of movement. Although Stephanie can't walk, talk or eat, she can open her eyes and responds to stimulus with sounds and facial expressions.

"My goal right now is that she be stimulated and that she get as much out of her life as she can," Pendleton said. "Sometimes I feel like she's just behind a glass wall. The real goal is to get through that wall."

Pendleton said there is a desperate need for more research into traumatic brain injuries.

"Throughout this ordeal, the doctors have never promised anything," she said. "Most doctors feel that they can't help her because there just aren't the tools to do that. When you look at the number of people who have brain injuries, it's just mind-boggling that there's not more that they can do."

Struck, who began visiting Gianfagna last year, says she shares Pendleton's frustration and wanted to do something to help. She decided to raise funds for the Brain Injury Association of America, using Gianfagna as her inspiration.

In August, Struck attended a weeklong course, sponsored by the Appalachian Trail Institute in North Carolina, that teaches hikers how to prepare physically and mentally for the trip, which passes through 14 states.

People who attempt to hike the entire trail are called "thru-hikers." According to the Appalachian Trail Conference's Web site, three of every 20 succeed.

"Most thru-hikers will tell you that completing the trail is 90 percent mental. A lot of people drop off the trail due to boredom, but I just know that I'm going to do it," Struck said.

Struck is counting on packages of dehydrated food and other supplies, sent to designated points along the route by Margaret Pendleton and Struck's brother, Owen Struck, to sustain her. A third-grade class from Glenelg Country School will follow her trip via her Web site, Devonswalk.org.

"That kind of support will really help me with days when I don't feel like hiking. And when you're tired of being somewhere, there's nothing better than an e-mail from home," Struck said.

Struck plans to stop at libraries along the way to check her e-mail. She also hopes to find a sponsor who will provide a cell phone she can use to stay in touch with folks back home, which would be a comfort to her mother, Katherine Struck.

"I have the utmost confidence in Devon. Of course, that doesn't mean that I don't wake up at 4 in the morning worrying about her hike," Katherine Struck said. "She's done a lot of research on safety, and I have a lot of confidence in her research and her ability."

Devon Struck has raised $7,500 toward her goal of $21,000 for this project. All of the money raised will go to the Brain Injury Association of America.

"Devon is a very special person," said Margaret Pendleton. "You always hear that one person can do something to make a difference. Devon is proof of that."

To make a donation, contact Devon Struck at Produce Galore, 5430 Lynx Lane in Columbia, or e-mail her at devons walk@yahoo.com.

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