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Previous story: Accident can't take away photographer's spirit (11/11/07)

Editors note: This story on Gerry Frierdich ran in the BND Magazine on Nov. 11, 2007.

Thursday morning, Gerry Frierdich left by ambulance for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "It's supposed to be the best place," said Gerry, 44, of Belleville.

The award-winning portrait photographer and avid bicyclist had been at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur, Mo., since Aug. 19. About 6:10 that morning, he was riding his bicycle on the shoulder of Green Mount Road when a pickup veered off and slammed into him.

He doesn't remember the accident.

He woke about five weeks later, a quadraplegic. Cervical discs 6 and 7 in his spine suffered severe damage from the impact. Every ligament and tendon near the discs was torn.

"The first thing he said to me was he couldn't feel his legs," said Robyn Weilbacher, Gerry's younger sister and a nurse-manager in the critical care area at St. John's.

"I was kind of shocked I guess," Gerry said from his hospital bed last week. "Sharon, Mary and Robyn (his sisters) were in the room. They told me right away what happened."

It was hard to digest.

"They had to tell me three or four times. I would forget and go to move or do something ... I am on a lot of antidepressants and stuff."

He has paralysis from the chest down. He can move his forearms, but has no fine motor movement in his hands. His diaphram is weak, but building his strength back will help him breathe easier, Robyn said.

Before the accident, Gerry exercised every day.

"He and I ran a couple races together," said Robyn, 41, who lives in Millstadt with her husband, Mike, and five children. "He liked to cycle; I liked to run. He encouraged me and I encouraged him. It was a great combination."

It still is.

Robyn accompanied Gerry to Chicago and will stay with him until he gets settled. He could be there a month or a year, depending on his progress.

"It's also a research hospital," she said. "There are a dozen research projects going on. He will likely qualify for some of those. It's one of the reasons we picked that hospital."

Day by day Over the last couple of months, Gerry dealt with four broken ribs, a blood infection, pleursy, pneumonia, a collapsed lung, a traecheotomy, multiple infections, peripheral vision loss in his right eye, constant pain in his back and left arm, and a lot of wondering about the future.

"It's scary," he said. "You wake up and you just can't move.

"I'm taking it day by day. If I think about it too much, I get depressed."

Family and friends do what they can.

"My sister Mary (Skees and her husband, Jack) moved back from New York," Gerry said. "She moved into my house to help take care of me when I move back."

His sister, Sharon Frierdich, will make trips to Chicago from her home in Madison, Wis.

Friends Bud and Sandy Gore, of Belleville --- with help from Grant Wuller and Ron Sax --- maintain a Web site on his progress, www.chiefgetwell.com, and are selling T-shirts to help with his care.

"Sandy and Bud have been unreal," he said, "visiting twice a week, three times a week, trying to keep my spirits up. Me and Bud grew up together. We went to (Cathedral) grade school together."

That's when dark-eyed Gerry got his nickname "Chief."

"I am part Indian. Some of my friends started calling me that in grade school." A passion for photography

Gerry, who is single, is the fifth youngest of Alice and Eugene Frierdich's six children. Both parents died in the last couple of years.

"Mom and Dad had four kids, waited 10 years and had two more," he said. "It was like two sets of families. They were more like my aunts and uncles than brothers and sisters growing up. They were so much older."

Gerry attended Althoff Catholic High School, graduating in 1981. There, he got interested in photography through a class with John "Jack" Guciardo. Gerry eventually worked for Jack, who owned Crafty Eye in Belleville. Jack died of a heart attack in 2005.

"It was me and the owner," said Gerry. "Just me for the last two years.

"We were the first studio to go digital, the first to do everything. We had the first Web site. We tried to be pretty progressive."

Gerry has a passion for photography --- and it shows. He earned a master of photography degree, a non-academic designation, from the Professional Photographers of America, and has received professional honors, including first-place awards from the Association of Professional Photographers of Illinois and Senior Photographers International.

"One of the things that made him a good photographer was that he is interested in everything," said Maggie Peck, who works with him. "He'd ask them their interests and it would likely be something he knew about."

She noted Gerry is a prankster, hiding lunches, jumping out j to surprise co-workers, that he'd cycle up at work in his "bike get-up" that included a helmet with flashing lights, goggles and Spandex outfits in crazy colors.

"He has such a great inner life. He listens to books on tape. He liked to write. He wrote poetry. He was into superheros."

No wonder he was excited when someone brought him the latest Spider-Man film to watch at the hospital. He also liked all the cards and e-mails he received, many from people he photographed.

Gerry loved his job.

"I was always around people celebrating something. Birthdays. Engagements. Anniversaries. I was usually around happy people."

A variety of settings --- many that he helped build --- and a lot of open space allowed customers to be photographed with anything from dogs and horses to a fire truck. He wasn't surprised when a couple brought a cow along.

"They were getting engaged and he was a farmer. He gave her a calf for their engagement. They wanted the calf in the picture." Fond memories

What does Gerry miss most?

"Fall. It's my favorite time of year."

The golden light of early morning and late afternoon. The changing colors. A crispness in the air.

He misses the birdfeeder-mobile contraption he built in his backyard. He'll ask his sister Mary, "Are you taking care of my birds?"

He misses biking --- he averaged 100 miles a week on his Bachetta (which means "stick" in Italian) recumbent bike.

"I rode everywhere --- out to Millstadt a thousand times to visit my sister. My girlfriend lives in Lebanon. I ride out to her house. Just everywhere."

He misses golfing. He'd play nine holes with friends once a week.

"I was on my way to go golfing when I got hit ... I rode my bike to every golf course within 30 miles. I even rode out to Carlyle Lake. Fifty miles. It took me all day. I was in no hurry. I've been a bicyclist forever."

Gerry looks forward to rehab.

"Every neurological patient is different," his sister Robyn said. "One thing Gerry has, he has a strong drive ... He never refused therapy, even when he didn't feel good. So he will get the best of the best and will take full advantage of it. When he sees improvement, it will drive him more."

Friends and family wish him the best.

"Chief just doesn't realize how truly amazing he is," his friend Sandy Gore wrote on the Web site. "Chief is Chief ... he is not a stranger to hard work. He's the bike riding, squirrel shooting, bird feeding, `that deer was this close,' health nut, gym goer, golfing guy that we've all grown to love and care about over the years.

"No accident will ever change who he is or our feelings for him."

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