Metro-East Living

Father paralyzed in fall from tree hopes to attend benefit in his honor

Karen Reyes helps her husband Eric with stretching exercises to help maintain muscle tone. Because of a 12- to 15-foot fall from a tree on March 26, Eric is paralyzed from the waist down. Son Zachary, 12, sits behind them.
Karen Reyes helps her husband Eric with stretching exercises to help maintain muscle tone. Because of a 12- to 15-foot fall from a tree on March 26, Eric is paralyzed from the waist down. Son Zachary, 12, sits behind them. mhouston@bnd.com

Eric Reyes fell out of a tree the Saturday before Easter.

He fractured four ribs and is paralyzed from the waist down. The Fairview Heights father of three has a goal of attending a May 14 benefit in his honor.

On March 26, Eric was up on the roof of a treehouse he was taking apart. As he grabbed for a screw, he started to slip.

“I thought I could reach a branch and lost my balance,” said the 44-year-old market researcher. “I landed on the small of my back. It was 12 to 15 feet max.”

“People have fallen from farther, gotten up and been sore,” said his wife, Karen. “It was simply the way he fell.”

“It knocked the wind out of me,” Eric said. “As soon as I landed, I couldn’t feel my legs.”

“All of us were home working in the yard,” Karen said. “The kids have probably seen more than they needed to see.”

“I went straight to SLU for surgery,” said Eric. “They were amazing, a great medical staff all around. I did work with physical therapists, occupatonal therapists.”

“What happened is part of the T 12 (vertebra) broke off and shattered and (four pieces) floated into the spinal column and pressed on the cord,” Karen said. “They cleaned all of that out ... They put in rods and screws. When the surgeon came out, he was not overly optimistic about Eric walking, but said, ‘We don’t know what will happen.’”

The Thursday after the accident, Eric was moved to The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis.

Last Sunday morning, the Reyeses sat at a table on a third-floor deck there recounting the day that changed their lives. Their children, E.J., 14, Zachary, 12, and Maya, 8, sat nearby.

Their hope that morning?

That Eric would go home on Wednesday to their two story in Fox Creek subdivision that they share with a schnoodle named Max and a cat named Tiger. He got his wish a day early.

“The kids just want to spend time with him,” said Karen.

How are the kids doing?

“They have their moments,” said Karen. “They try very hard to stay strong. ... They ask about things when getting ready for bed. They ask, ‘Is he going to be in wheelchair for the rest of his life?’ They struggle with the concept of having to move ... They have seen a counselor. They defintely recommend counseling to talk it through.”

“They ask if I can feel my legs,” said Eric. “Feel this, Dad. Feel this, Dad.”

“Mainly they ask me,” said Karen. “They are not really sure if they are bringing Dad down by asking him.”

The kids definitely want to bring him up. Zachary just wants to “mess around” with Dad. E.J. wants to take him to the zoo.

“And push me down the long hill,” said Eric.

“We always used to go to the zoo when they were young,” said Karen.

“I want to go to the daddy and daughter dance,” said Maya.

“What did we say?” said Karen.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s handicapped accessible and no stairs. Yeah.”

A benefit for a Cubs fan

Eric’s friend, Matt Foster, is behind the May 14 Reyes Family Wings & Beer Benefit Dance at McCormick Center in Belleville. Doors open at 6.

“It was kind of my idea,” said Matt, a father of three who owns a carpet cleaning business. “I have a cousin who has a band. It was a Saturday (when I came up with the idea). By Tuesday, we had rented the McCormick Center. Within three days, we had a band and a venue, the Cathedral gym.

“Eric has been such a pillar in the parish. He would read at Mass. If someone wasn’t serving at Mass, his kids would volunteer to serve. He’s a member of the athletic committee, coached soccer outside of school at Belle Clair. He was my son’s soccer coach for years.”

Most recently, Eric coached 6th-grade and 8th-grade boys volleyball.

“The best way I heard him described: ‘He’s a guy who does everything right,’” Matt said. “We came up with a term, ‘You got this,’ That’s the theme of our benefit. If anybody is going to overcome any sort of obstacle, it’s him.”

They had the slogan screenprinted along with an outline of Eric’s face on orange T-shirts they’re selling for $16. Matt and his family presented Eric and his family with the shirts when they visited the rehab center.

“Oh my gosh, you have these feelings,” Matt said. “You feel bad for the guy and you show up and he makes you feel better. That’s the type of guy he is.

“The only bad thing about him is he’s a Cubs fan.”

Eric grew up in Chicago. He met his wife Karen, when both attended University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They lived in Oak Park, outside Chicago, then St. Louis, before moving to Fairview Heights in 2006. Matt’s kids and the Reyes kids attend Notre Dame Academy.

A new normal

The Reyeses are touched by the support from the community, school, church, neighbors, Knights of Columbus and other organizations.

“It’s been very amazing and humbling,” Eric said. “We are grateful for everything that people have done.”

“Meal trains,” Karen said. “Friends and family from Chicago coming down, moving furniture, taking down the rest of the treehouse. Working in the yard. Messages: ‘We are praying for you.’ Just the words of encouragement have been amazing. We couldn’t have gotten as far without them.”

Proceeds from the Reyes Family Wings & Beer Benefit Dance will help with expenses.

“I don’t know how much I can recover yet,” Eric said. “Doctors don’t want to give false hope, but don’t want to give no hope. These types of injuries — how people recover — are unpredictable.”

“The swelling of the spine could take six months to a year to come down,” said Karen. “We don’t know what he will recover or not recover.”

Meanwhile, Eric has much to learn.

Last week, therapists took him to lunch.

“It was great,” he said. “It was a beautiful day. The therapists were lots of fun. We rolled around the medical campus for a while.”

Then, he had to navigate busy city streets from a manual wheelchair.

“You think, ‘OK, it’s a crosswalk. You have a certain amount of time. It’s a little more intimidating from a wheelchair. You follow the smooth part of walks, and try not to tip over or get stuck.”

Vendors came in to the rehab center with wheelchair choices. He’ll get his customized chair in a couple months.

“It’s pretty quick to learn,” he said. “Going around corners and things, people don’t see you. You are lower. These gloves prevent calluses. They come in mighty handy.”

The Reyeses also will need a car with hand controls. To be an independent driver, he’ll have to be able to take the wheelchair apart — the wheels come off and the chair folds — and lift it across his body while maintaining his balance.

“One of the biggest challenges will be learning to drive a car and getting back to work,” Eric said, “and in the future, moving from a chair to floor. That’s one of the hardest things to learn. The exercises I do at home will help build upper body strength and stamina.”

“He has to lift his entire body’s weight,” Karen said. “Having just coached volleyball, he was in pretty good shape from working out with the boys.”

They plan to sell their two-story and move into a ranch.

“We’re just trying to get back into what we call ‘the new normal,’” said Karen, who is taking time off from her job as a graduate admissions counselor at McKendree University. (“They’ve been over the top as well.”)

For now, the Reyeses have transformed their dining room into a bedroom, added a grab bar in the bathroom and a ramp outside.

“It’s definitely life changing,” Karen said. “Yes, there are many times I think back at the accident and keep thinking it’s just a really bad dream. It seems that unbelievable. But I can honestly say, it’s been five weeks yesterday, I’m amazed at how far we have come and how strong we have gotten for having something we didn’t want to happen, happen.”

“I’m eventually going back to work in marketing for Millipore Sigma,” Eric said. “They have been wonderful, very supportive of us. I will have worked there five years in June. They have been amazing. I can’t think of another word for amazing.”

He plans to stay positive.

“I have a lot of work to do,” Eric said. “I can’t do it without support. It does energize me. It keeps me going.

“A lot of people comment how such a positive person I have always been. It just comes naturally to me. When something like this happens, it’s hard to remain positive. With the amount of support from everyone around the world literally, it’s made it easier.”

Among the worldwide support? Chocolate-covered wafer cookies from Australia. Eric did quite a bit of traveling for his job.

“He got to go international,” Karen said. “His boss said after he sent out an email about Eric getting hurt, he has heard from almost every continent. They would say, ‘Not Eric, he’s just too good a guy.’ He just received a package from a colleague in Australia. TimTams, a local favorite.”

“They knew I liked them a lot,” Eric said. “They sent a whole box.”

At a glance

Here’s what you need to know about the Reyes Family Wings & Beer Benefit Dance:

  • When: 6 p.m. (doors open) Saturday, May 14
  • Where: McCormick Center, 301 S. First St., Belleville
  • Cost: $20, must be 21 to attend
  • What is included: Wings, fries and soda. A cash bar offers beer and wine.
  • Music: Neon Cadilac and DJ Mark Schifferdecker
  • What else: Silent auction and 50/50 raffle. Items include an Apple watch, a wheelbarrow of booze, a Weber grill, a night at the Collinsville DoubleTree Hotel and a $50 gift certificate to Porters and a Casino Queen package.
  • For tickets and/or T-shirts, contact Shannon Foster at ericreyesbenefit@gmail.com or call Matt at 618-978-7125.
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