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    Family's heartbreak leads to hope

    By JOYCE S. SLATER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000


    Almost every day we see stories about bad things happening to good people. All it takes is a handgun left loaded, a defective furnace or a drunken driver on the freeway. In one unguarded moment, a family's life is forever altered. Rarely do we find out what happened to the victims afterward.

    Just such a moment happened to the Gallis in the summer of 1998. "I believe in a world of chance, of good luck and bad luck," Richard Galli writes. "But sometimes chance hits so hard, it takes our breath away."

    Richard, his wife, Toby, and their two kids were celebrating the Fourth of July with a pool party at the home of friends in their Rhode Island hometown. Suddenly someone rushed into the house, screaming that 17-year-old Jeffrey Galli was on the bottom of the pool and wasn't moving. Galli acted quickly, breathing for Jeffrey until paramedics arrived. Before the day was over, the Gallis had to wonder if their son's survival was really a cause for celebration.

    The diagnosis the Gallis are given leaves little room for either gratitude or hope. In what must have been a dive gone horribly wrong, Jeffrey has broken his cervical spine, somewhere up in Christopher Reeve territory. The boy is paralyzed from the neck down, a condition that is not likely to change, absent a miracle. Like the lawyer he is, Galli tries to leave emotion out of it and assess the facts on their face: Leaving the hospital a head on a neck on a vent in a chair is not a good outcome.

    Rescuing Jeffrey is Richard's painfully candid journal of the emotional roller coaster the family rides in the 10 days that follow. "Like a driver in a skid on a high-speed highway," Galli writes, "I knew an accident was happening and hoped only to steer for the best collision."

    The distressed father calls a mechanically assisted existence Option One. He may alienate many readers when he admits, as early as July 5, that he had begun to consider the merits of Option Two -- ending Jeffrey's life by removing his respirator and ventilator. Galli saw it as another kind of rescue. "I had brought my son back to life," he writes, "and then I had to find a way to kill him."

    The author is unsparing when he describes himself as a relentless man on an unpopular mission. When he confides in his wife, Toby, about Option Two, she agrees to entertain the idea only because she believes it to be the unselfish thing to do; Richard knows himself better than that, knows that his motivation is quite the opposite, and the knowledge torments him.

    Galli's no-nonsense style renders the family's agony palpable in a way purple prose never could. Jeffrey is not in a coma, but he is heavily sedated. Every time he awakens, his condition must be explained to him again. Each time he cries. He mouths the question, "No driveway basketball?" But even mouthing words is too difficult for Jeffrey, given his cumbersome breathing apparatus. He and his father work out a system: Richard recites the alphabet, and his son blinks at the letter he wants. The boy's first complete sentence is "I want to die." Jeffrey's declaration, oddly enough, made Richard re-think Option Two: "I was being an advocate, all right. But out there in the real world, a defendant's lawyer doesn't argue for the death penalty."

    From Day 3 to Day 10, the author walks readers through a living nightmare. (It's not overstating the case to say that some may be unable to finish this slender volume. Richard Galli will understand.) Every time a corner is turned, a decision made, another factor changes the picture. The Gallis are told that if they choose Option One, it would be virtually impossible, physically and financially, to care for Jeffrey at home. Now we're talking about institutions and relying on the kindness of strangers.

    In the end, the decision is taken out of the Gallis' hands by a simple chronological fact: In a few weeks, Jeffrey will be 18. His primary physician explains that medically, legally and morally speaking, the decision is Jeffrey's to make. His alone. In one of the most heart-lifting moments in this critic's reading experience, young Mr. Galli opts for life. On July 14, Day 10, he said to his father, "I'm glad I didn't die."

    Jeffrey Galli did much more than not die. He managed to graduate from high school and this fall will enroll as a freshman at the University of Rhode Island, his father's alma mater.

    No parent, no man or woman who's ever been through a life-or-death medical crisis with a loved one will come away from Rescuing Jeffrey dry-eyed.

    Joyce S. Slater is a writer who lives in Kennesaw, Ga.

    Rescuing Jeffrey

    By Richard Galli

    Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $19.95

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