Denny Granata – (Re)Voicing Inspiration

Writing By Natasha Majewski

“I think that most people in his shoes would not be able to overcome that kind of adversity and be able to go on to find new things that they enjoy, and so everyday I’m completely amazed,” says Marc Granata, Denny Granata’s son.

The shoes Marc is talking about are the upsized twelves (size tens sans a foot brace) that rest on the raised pedals of Denny’s wheelchair.  More than that, he is talking about his father’s past 31 years living as a partially paralyzed, spinal-injury survivor.

Denny Granata

Denny Granata

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Denny and a colleague of the Northern Nevada Council for Independent Living

“Every single day is a struggle for him but he never gives up,” says Marc.  “That’s what I, and most people who know him, are in awe of.”

In spite of his challenges, Denny keeps life in perspective and his philosophy simple.

“What has happened to me is really no big deal and that there are endless good things that can happen because of it,” says Denny.

A Life Path Diverges

Denny was born Dennis William Granata on Dec. 24, 1946 in Renown Hospital, then called Washoe County Hospital, to William Granata and Helen Clarice Huecker.  His father, an Italian immigrant, owned Martin Steel Works, and was a Reno city councilman.  He is the oldest of four children and grew up in a house close to where the Veteran’s Hospital is now located in Reno.  He was part of the first graduating class from Wooster High School in 1964 and graduated with a degree in pre-medicine in 1969 from UNR when it was called the University of Nevada.

Denny's parents, William and Helen Granata.

Denny’s parents, William and Helen Granata.

During the spring semester of his senior year, he married Nancy Greenspan.  The newlyweds moved to Memphis, Tenn., where Denny attended the Southern College of Optometry.  After graduating in 1973, the couple moved back to Reno where Denny began practicing optometry.  Soon his daughter Monica was born and two years later his family grew to include his son Marc.  After working with a partner for four years, Denny went into practice for himself, which he describes as one of the most successful optometry offices in Reno at the time.  He also was very involved in Reno community life.“Before I got hurt, I was very actively involved in 13 different organizations, committees, etc., and I was the president or president elect of every one of them, including the Nevada State Optometric Association,” says Denny.

Denny with his daughter Monica

Denny with his daughter Monica

Then, as his daughter Monica Greenfield puts it, “One Saturday in October just changed our lives.”

On October 10, 1981, Denny went deer hunting with his father and brothers.

While separated from everyone else, he slipped and hit the right side of his head on a rock.  When his father and brothers found him, they brought him back to their vehicle as quickly as possible and rushed him to the closest hospital in Elko, about 100 miles away.

“About halfway there I went into a coma,” says Denny.  “When they got me to Elko, they said that this was a serious head injury, so they flew me to Reno.  I was operated on the next day, but remained in a coma for two months.  They told my family that I had a 1 percent chance to live.”

Six weeks later, Denny started showing signs of recovery.  The doctor said that if he survived, he would spend his life as a vegetable.  But two weeks later, Denny emerged to full consciousness and started into what would be a long healing process.  After nine months of intensive therapy at Craig’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado, he returned to Reno still unable to walk or talk.

Marc was only six at the time, but vividly remembers the episode that changed everything.

“I remember very clearly. Every day was a struggle, and there was a lot of frustration,” says Marc.  “But he never ever succumbed to that; he never gave up.  He really just made a recovery that no one thought possible.”

Denny on his front porch

Denny on his front porch

Back to Basics

Unwilling to admit bodily defeat, Denny decided to change his prognosis.

“After almost one year they sent me home in a wheelchair and said that I may never be able to walk or talk again,” says Denny, “and that didn’t sit well with me.  After two days I said that I know that I can walk, so I tried it, and I did it.”

In a week, Denny went from holding onto furniture to keep himself upright to being able to move around on his own.  Still, his loss of function on the right side of his body was permanent.  Being right-handed all his life, he had to relearn basic tasks and motor functions with the left side of his body.  While he did learn to write left-handed, he eventually re-taught himself basic writing skills with his right hand, a process he likens to learning to write in elementary school, drawing big swoops and lines.

Denny’s daughter Monica, in second grade at the time of the accident, also clearly remembers the recovery process.

“The first few years after the accident there was just a tremendous progress, watching him go from a coma state and not being able to respond to anything, to slowly being able to respond to stimuli, to learning how to walk, talk, eat, lift a fork from the table to his mouth and take his first steps on the parallel bars,” says Monica.  “The progression from no movement in your legs to assisted movement to parallel bars to a walker to a cane.  There was a period in time in his life that he didn’t even walk with a cane or anything.”

Past the physical obstacles, Denny’s biggest challenge was in recreating the active life he had lived.  Still more challenging would be the eventual break in his marriage six years later.

“It was apparent that I could not return to my practice or provide for my family,” Denny says.

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Denny’s sport trophies

Marc also remembers his father’s difficult transition from being very physically active to struggling with basic motor skills.

“He played racquetball every single day, often twice a day,” said Marc.  “He was an avid water skier, snow skier, and hunter and he enjoyed being outdoors.  He couldn’t do those things anymore, and he couldn’t practice optometry anymore, which he’d loved.”

The 1989 Reno Gazette Journal article Miracle Doctor chronicled Denny’s recovery process working with Stephen Farlane, then a professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine.

The story quoted Farlane as saying, “He (Denny) came here, and his speech was unintelligible, just garbled.  He had trouble walking.  He couldn’t control his hand.  He was drooling.  He was choking.  He couldn’t swallow.”  Farlane concluded that although Denny’s mental capacities were “sound,” his vocal cords, tongue, and palate were partially or totally paralyzed.  Later Denny would work with specialist Robert Ahistrom, who made a prosthetic palatal lift that helped Denny regain speech abilities.

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Denny using his iPad to communicate

In 1989, Denny was able to work again as a limited licensed optometrist, where he was able to examine and diagnose patients but could not write prescriptions.  He began to practice with his new partner James Ward, which lasted until Ward’s death in 1995.  He also volunteered as an optometrist for incoming athletes at UNR for 20 years and in exchange, received two season passes to all football, basketball, and baseball events and a new team jersey every year.

But in 2005, Denny had another fall impacting his spinal cord, this time putting him in a wheelchair permanently.

Despite his life challenges, Denny describes himself as a happy person and attributes much of who he is to his humor, his faith, and an overall acceptance of his life as a whole.

“My personality now has changed somewhat because now I laugh a lot at almost anything, which can be a problem to some people,” says Denny.  “But for the most part, by far, most people really enjoy that I am so happy and that I can laugh at the drop of a hat at anything.  They also seem to like the fact that I really care very much for the wellbeing of people and that I never get upset with the way that God has decided to make me now.  I will say that my faith is even stronger now.” 

Denny volunteering at a Northern Nevada Center for Independent Living Council event

Denny volunteering at a Northern Nevada Center for Independent Living Council event