It Turned Out All Right

This article was written for the Mount Sinai School of Medicine spinal cord injury newsletter. A PDF of the full article will appear on the website in the next few weeks.     

"Jim!" I could hear my sister yelling at me. "Jim," she was saying, "are you fooling around?"  "No!" I said to her inside my head, unable to speak because I was underwater -- and unable to lift myself out. "Lift my head up, for God's sake!" I felt her hands on me. As she lifted my head out of the water, I gasped for air. Don't let me go," I told her. "I think I broke my back. Call for some help, and be careful when you move me."

We were just off the shore of Condado Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was Dec. 31, 1980 -- New Year's Eve. I had gone to Puerto Rico with the City College of New York swimming team during winter recess. I was 25 years old, and was an assistant to head swimming coach Marcelino Rodriguez, a fellow Rockland County, Clarkstown resident.  It was supposed to be my first vacation with my fiancee, Anna. Our wedding day was only a week off. We planned to be married right there. My sisters Lisa and Debbie were along, their first trip to Puerto Rico.

Now I was lying there in the surf, gasping. I couldn't believe this was happening to me. After all, I had been a lifeguard at Riis Beach in New York City I had saved the lives of others. A few moments before, I had been body-surfing. Suddenly a big wave jolted me, throwing me to the sand on the ocean bottom. Then I felt a sharp pain at the top of my shoulder, and I couldn't move any part of my body. I couldn't even raise myself out of the water to get a breath of beautiful air.

I couldn't move. That's when I knew I was going to die. My mom once said that when you're going to die, your whole life passes right before your eyes. I waited, but I didn't see anything and didn't feel any pain. I was about to faint.

"I guess this is it," I thought, "Mom was wrong." I started to see little gray circles in my mind -- the kind that appear after someone takes your picture and the bulb flashes in your eyes. My mind wandered: I knew Lisa and Debbie would be all right. I did my best as a brother. But I didn't know how Anna would handle this. Damn, I let her down!

I was getting fainter. This is it, I thought. Dying is not that scary or painful, after all, once you settle down.  I waited on the beach for an hour before an ambulance came. The medical crew put me on a wooden stretcher and loaded me in. I called to my sister, “Debbie, thanks for saving my life.” She fell to her knees and began to cry.

At the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Center in San Juan, I was told I had broken my neck. Although I didn’t understand the significance of that, I knew I was paralyzed from my neck to my feet. I hoped it was temporary. As we waited for the nurses to move me from X-ray into the intensive care unit, my left arm slipped off the stretcher and dangled along the side. As Marcelino put my arm back on the stretcher, a young doctor walked over to talk to me. “Jim, the X-rays show severe damage at the cervical, C5-C6 level of your spinal cord. In effect, you’ve broken your neck and will probably never walk again.”

I looked at him, not really believing what I had heard. “OK,” I said. “OK. I think I can handle not walking. But will I get the use of my hands or my fingers back?” The doctor looked away from me and stared at the floor. He then looked up at me and almost in a whisper, said, “Probably not. You’re quadriplegic and the indications are that your legs, hands and most of your upper body will be paralyzed.” I blinked hard, trying to hold back tears. As the nurses began to move me into intensive care, I looked at Marcelino and we both started to cry.

Before I underwent surgery on my spinal cord, Anna and I decided to marry. We did, in the San Juan hospital on January 5, 1981, despite suggestions by our families, friends and hospital staff to wait until I recovered. The ceremony was in my hospital room. Friends arranged to have flowers sent, and my IBM manager, John Perissi, agreed to be my best man. As nurses, family members and friends gathered around my bed, in a small room in the hospital’s intensive care unit, a civil judge married us quietly.

 I underwent spinal surgery twice, on Jan. 3 and Jan. 15, to repair the fifth cervical vertebrae. The vertebrae had been destroyed when my head crashed against the sand on the ocean floor. The resulting bone fragments tore into my spinal cord canal to cause most of the damage. In the two operations, the surgeons removed the bone fragments from the cord and performed a bone graft in the space left by the destroyed vertebrae.
Part 2 will be posted on May 30, 2011 at noon EST.


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