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20 years later, family lives with memory of accident

December 21, 1997

20 years later, family lives with memory of accident

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Dec. 21 marks the shortest day of the year.

It is also the longest night, and for Richard and Judy Munch, the day 20 years ago Sunday was even longer.

Gregory Munch, who was 9 at the time, took off on his bicycle just before dark, on his way to visit a friend.

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"He just never made it home," said Richard Munch, 55. "It was a long night for us."

Greg was knocked unconscious when he was hit by a pickup truck and his swelling brain began putting pressure on the brain stem. Judy Munch, 54, said doctors were blunt in their assessment.

"There was no way he would live through the night. He has too many injuries," she recalled being told.

Munch did pull, though, and started on an agonizing road to recovery that continues today.

The memory is still painful, the Munches said. Judy Munch said she drives by the spot of the accident every day and both said their minds drift back to that horrible day every year at this time.

On Sunday, the Munches and about 125 friends and family staged a surprise party at Grace Brethren Church in Hagerstown for Gregory. It is a way to replace that memory with a positive one, they said.

Behind the guitar-shaped cake at Sunday's party was a wall filled with pictures from Greg's childhood, his favorite clothes as a boy, poems and other artifacts. He listened as person after person told the crowd how he has touched their lives.

Long recovery

Before the accident, the Munches say their son was a bright, energetic boy who loved Elvis Presley and Little League.

The accident irrevocably changed their lives.

After surviving the critical first three days, doctors told the couple that Gregory would be in a vegetative state the rest of his life.

At first, that prediction seemed tragically accurate. He lay in a coma for four months, not moving.

Now, Richard Munch said, he muses at television comas.

"I always have to kind of chuckle. They wake up and say, 'Oh, I'm hungry' or something," he said.

It's not like that in real life - at least, that isn't the way it was for Greg, he said.

"The first thing I remember is he reacted one day when I brushed his teeth," Munch said.

Munch said he detected a slight reaction, a tiny pursing of the lips as he pushed the toothbrush toward his mouth.

Munch said he and his wife noticed other little signs as well. Gregory's eyes began to flicker from one ceiling light to another.

"There was nothing magical about it," Richard Munch said.

The next September, Gregory finally spoke his first words since the accident: "God is helping me."

'Inspiration'

Despite the tremendous progress, the effects of the accident are obvious. Greg's left arm is paralyzed and his right arm trembles uncontrollably. He speaks haltingly, struggling to get the words out.

But Greg's parents said their son chooses to view the glass as half-full. At one time, doctors doubted he would ever walk again, they said.

They said Greg delivers The Daily Mail five days a week through the Phoenix program, which offers services to people with head injuries, and volunteers at Ravenwood Lutheran Village. He has taken four English classes at Hagerstown Junior College, where he has a 3.0 grade-point average.

Two years ago, one of his poems won a contest and was published in "Walk Through Paradise," a collection of poetry gathered by The National Library of Poetry.

"I sent it in and waited forever, and my poem was chosen in the top three of all of those received," he said. "So that was a big honor."

Greg said he does not remember the accident and recalls little of the months afterward.

"I don't remember too much. I draw on what I hear and that's the way I learned about myself, about the accident," he said.

Greg also has helped others in need by the force of his sunny disposition. Rebecca Kane, who made the trip Sunday from Annapolis, said she met Greg in 1994 at Camp Greentop, where he was a camper and she was a counselor. The following year, she came down with cancer and turned to Greg, with whom she had exchanged letters.

"He was a big help. He's been through so many things, himself, and I could use the advice," she said.

Kane, 25, who has been in remission for 31/2 years, said she returned to the camp in 1995, where he was her banquet date.

Richard Munch said he went through a period of bitterness but was lifted out of it by his son.

"You can look for whys all the time, searching You can drive yourself crazy doing that," he said. "You come to realize after awhile that you have so much to be thankful for."

Judy Munch recalled asking her son if he could remember when he could play kickball and run.

"He said, 'Mom, don't look back. Let's just go on,'" she said.

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