Hope Happens Here: Alan T. Brown Fund

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on October 28, 2020 # Hope Happens Here: 25 Stories

This featured spotlight is proudly supported by a longtime friend of the Brown family.

A week after the accident that paralyzed her from the chest down, Michele Daly woke up to find a stranger beside her hospital bed.

“I opened my eyes and there was this little woman standing there,” Daly says. “She looked at me and said, “I’m Fran Brown and I’m here, and we’re going to get you and your family through this.”

At that moment, Daly was 16 years old, a young woman in shock. While celebrating the end of summer with friends, the car she was riding in was hit by a truck. The accident was mostly a blur, but she remembered the sense of panic in the car and the strangeness of looking at her feet without being able to feel them. At the hospital, she was given last rites.Fran Brown and Michele Daly

Who, Daly wondered, was this woman who believed she could possibly help?

A lifesaver, as it turned out. Fran Brown, founder of the Alan T Brown Foundation, would become a critical part of Daly’s recovery and lifelong friend to the family.

In the weeks that followed, Fran and her husband, Benjy, met Daly’s parents for dinner near the hospital, talking them through the tumultuous days ahead. And during Daly’s grueling and emotional months in rehabilitation, Fran was a regular visitor, fiercely insisting that life would go on.

“You could cry to her, you could vent to her,” Daly says. “She was always there. And she understood all of it.”

In 1988, Fran’s 20-year old son Alan was on vacation in Martinique when a wave flipped him over, causing a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the chest down. When they received the news, the Browns called the father of Alan’s high school friend, Daniel Heumann. He helped arrange for Alan to be airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Benjy and Fran quickly flew south to meet him. Over nearly six months, Benjy would juggle visits with work in New York while Fran spent each day at the hospital with Alan.

Before the accident, Fran’s life had been rooted in family and community, raising three sons and volunteering at their tightly knit synagogue. Alan’s injury prompted an immediate outpouring of support, including a weekly rotation of friends to Miami; as a result, Fran was never alone.

“I was surrounded by people in this tenuous and unsettling time, and that support was critical to getting through the chaos I was experiencing and being engulfed by,” she says.

Even as she managed her own fears for her son and family, Fran began to pay that support forward with a steady stream of spontaneous outreach that would eventually inspire and define the Alan T Brown Foundation.

In hospital hallways and waiting rooms, Fran sought out other new families impacted by spinal cord injuries and began to share what she was learning. Arrive early to see the doctors. Get to know the urologist. Make sure you have a team of doctors that specialize in spinal cord injury. Pay attention to make sure loved ones were being turned regularly enough to prevent pressure sores and details that will make a difference to the road to recovery.

These conversations continued in New York. Fran met doctors and patients at Mount Sinai as Alan continued his recovery. She collected phone numbers and passed out her own. Call anytime, she told people and meant it.

Less than a year after the accident, Fran rented an office on W. 44th Street in Manhattan and, with Benjy and Alan, established the Alan T Brown Foundation. Its mission made official what Fran had been dedicating herself to since Alan was injured: helping families not only survive these injuries but rebuild joyful lives.

The existence of an office implies professional distance and work done during regular hours. But calls came to Fran at all hours of the day and night, and the family often hosted out-of-towners in the city for a loved one’s injury. It was personal; how could it not be?

Over the next three decades, the foundation funded research for a cure but also paid attention to the day-to-day questions that mattered, including how to continue with education, play sports and make homes wheelchair accessible. Benjy tackled byzantine insurance questions for families while Fran’s outreach created a vast network for peer mentoring, advice and friendship.

The Daly family discovered Fran after Michele’s accident in 1993, calling her urgently and out of the blue on the advice of a friend of a friend. Before they knew it, she was at the hospital—literally by their side.

That, says her son Alan, is her legacy.

“She’s always one phone call away, and that one phone call has been a lifeline for thousands of people,” he says. “And once they’re in, they’re in. She never lets anybody go.”

In 2019, two years after Benjy’s death, Fran decided to merge her life’s work with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, joining her son Alan who has served as Reeve’s Director of Public Impact since 2012. Alan has played a central part in the foundation’s efforts to expand outreach across the community, establish fundraising partnerships with Eric LeGrand, Mikey Nichols, and many others while offering support to families recently impacted by paralysis.

“Through the Reeve Foundation and the Alan T. Brown Fund, people will receive information and knowledge coupled with kindness and compassion,” Fran says. “We’ll help them learn how to cross barriers and reach the goals they never thought possible after paralysis changed their lives.”

Today, as part of the Reeve Foundation, Fran’s work continues to grow—and her phone continues to ring. Even as she reaches out to the newly injured, she tends to longtime members of the community, checking in with phone calls and handwritten notes to make sure they know she’s there if they need her.

Daly rejoined her high school classmates for senior year, graduating on time and earning a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. Inspired by the support she received from the foundation, Daly pursued a career that gave back to the community and is now Director of Disability Education for Ramapo College at the Meadowlands Environmental Center.

Throughout, Fran has been there to cheer Daly on and celebrate her every gain, including the recent birth of daughter Lindsey.

“There’s nothing she won’t try to do to help you,” Daly says. “She will always hold a place in my heart.”