Man paralyzed in diving accident shares recovery story to give other patients hope

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A newly-engaged man was paralyzed in a diving accident that almost took his life, and he is sharing his recovery story on National Trauma Survivors Day to give other paralysis patients hope.

Although he is walking tall now, 26-year-old Juan Fernandez was paralyzed from the chest down five months ago.

“I went to the Fort Lauderdale sandbar with some friends, and we were having a good time,” Fernandez said. “I chose to dive off the boat in the shallow sandbar and landed on the crown of my head.”

The impact with the seafloor broke his neck, and he nearly drowned.

“One moment I’m on a boat hanging out with my friends having a good time, and the next thing I know, I’m waking up in a hospital with a bunch of tubes attached to me struggling to breathe,” Fernandez said.

Doctors operated on Fernandez to stabilize his spine. Then, they focused on repairing his lungs. His respiratory system was badly damaged from ingesting saltwater and other organisms.

“The natural reaction that you’re gonna do is to panic, and you’re going to try to breathe,” trauma surgeon Dr. Jose Lozada said. “If you can’t move and you’re underwater, the first thing you’re going to breathe in is going to be the water you’re stuck under.”

Fernandez spent more than a month in intensive care fighting for his life. His fiancee Valeria was right by his side.

“I never thought when you break your neck and you break one little bone, it would change the rest of your life,” she said.

When he was strong enough, Juan began physical therapy, and the struggle to get back on his feet intensified.

His hard work paid off.

“I went from not being able to bear any weight on my legs and needing full assistance to do basic tasks to now, with the proper training, I’m able to be completely independent,” Fernandez said.

“It’s a blessing that he is alive,” Valeria said. “It’s a blessing that he is able to walk and move everything again.”

Fernandez’s doctors said they are blown away by his progress.

“We met up here in the lobby, and I saw him readjust himself in his chair, and I said, ‘Wait, wait a minute, what did you just do there?’” Lozada recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s something I want to show you,’ and he got up out of his chair, and that almost had me on the ground.”

The couple’s optimism never waned, and they are planning their wedding and looking forward to the future.

“We want to start a family and buy a house, so I’m focusing on that,” Fernandez said.

The couple said they plan to marry in 2023.

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