Where There's a Will

By Dave Fessler

There are two kinds of people in this world; those who look at life as a glass-half-full and those who look at life as a glass-half-empty. I fall into the first category, which is a good thing since life, as I knew it, took a hairpin turn almost two years ago, challenging me in ways I never would have imagined.

I’ve always had an analytical mind, so I went to Rochester Institute of Technology where I got a degree in Electrical Engin-eering. I spent 25 years in the semiconductor business and was fortunate to be able to retire at the ripe old age of 47.

I began a second career as a writer and speaker at financial seminars. I’m now 60 and fortunate to be able to work from home most of the time. However, the speaking part of my career has taken me to exotic locations all over the world.

One of those locations is a beautiful hideaway called Rancho Santana. I’ve visited Rancho Santana numerous times as part of my job. It’s located in the southwest corner of Nicaragua, on the Pacific coastline. It has three miles of beautiful U-shaped beaches with giant rock outcroppings separating them. 

I arrived in Rancho on February 1, 2012, for a conference. I had some time to spare, so two of my friends and I decided to go body-surfing. The water was warm and the waves were perfect… all except the last one. It was a little too close to shore and I got ahead of it. It flipped me upside down and slammed the back of my neck into the sand.

It was a hard hit, but the ocean had tumbled me around before. This time, though, I knew something was terribly wrong. I was face down in the water and when I tried to lift myself up, I couldn’t move my arms or legs. I was holding my breath waiting for help.

My friends initially thought I was kidding around. But I kept shaking my head no. My lungs were searing and I had to keep fighting the urge to take a breath. It was terrifying.

I mustered all my focus not to breathe in. Just when I thought I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and was going to inhale saltwater into my lungs, my friends turned me over. “I can’t move my arms or legs,” I said. “Grab me under my armpits and get me out of the water.”

I was dragged up and out of the surf. As it happened, a visiting doctor and nurse from the local health clinic were walking nearby. They saw my friends dragging what appeared to be a lifeless body on the beach. They ran over and asked what happened. I explained my unfortunate encounter with the wave. The doctor was a cardiologist, but he knew exactly what to do. He knelt down and kept my head between his knees to keep me from moving.

The nurse ran to summon the ambulance at the clinic and get a backboard and neck collar. I was transported to the clinic where they started an intravenous line of Prednisone. My boss was standing over me holding my hand and telling me everything was going to be okay. I wasn’t panicking. In fact, I felt a great sense of calm. Perhaps this was because there was nothing I could do to help myself. I was in the complete care of others. Believe it or not, I was also feeling embarrassment at having screwed up the seminar. I could see the tears in my boss’s eyes as she told me that was the last thing I should be worried about.

The next problem was getting me from the remote location of Rancho Santana back to a hospital in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive by car over bumpy roads. Clearly, I had to be airlifted out. About two hours had passed since the accident. There were only two medical evacuation helicopters in the country. Both were out of the country for repair.

Fortunately, Antonio, one of my new Rancho friends had a brother who is the head of the Nicaraguan military. He summoned a military helicopter that arrived in 30 minutes. Eight soldiers dressed in military fatigues loaded me aboard the helicopter. It was a quick flight to a military base in Managua.

After ambulance transport to a brand new hospital, I had a CAT scan. It showed I had no broken bones in my neck. Next was an MRI. Initially, the attending doctor told me that my spinal cord was completely severed. For the next 15 minutes, I was contemplating how this was going to change my life.

Then a little bit of good news came from the head doctor in the neurosurgery department. He said the first MRI diagnosis was incorrect. In fact, my spinal cord was not severed. I had an injury referred to as a "spinal contusion." This is essentially a bad bruise to the spinal cord. The resulting swelling is the cause of my paralysis. While there is no way to gauge how complete my recovery will ultimately be, the potential is there.

From Managua, I was flown by a medical Learjet back to ABE airport in the Lehigh Valley where I was met by my wife, Anne. I was transported to Lehigh Valley Hospital. My diagnosis was confirmed by additional tests. I then underwent surgery to help reduce the pressure on my spinal cord.

I spent nine days in the hospital ICU. The doctors weren’t sure if I had a complete or incomplete spinal cord injury at this point. After four days, all I could move was the big toe on my right foot. It didn’t look good. I was so grateful, though, for the support of my wife, friends, and family. After researching the various options for spinal cord injury recovery, we decided Good Shepherd was the best choice. I was then transferred and admitted to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown where I began rigorous physical and occupational therapy. My therapists and nurses became my new best friends.  I spent between two and four hours every day in therapy. At first, all my therapy sessions occurred in bed. It was at least a month before I could even get into a chair.

At this point, I had regained very little movement in my arms and hands. All my muscles had tightened up since the accident. Therapy was difficult and painful. The first goal was to regain range of motion. Even the simplest task was incredibly hard. My legs moved a little but I had almost no strength in them. It was about this time in my recovery when I began to realize the size of the effort I had ahead of me. 

After a seven-week stay, I was discharged to home care. This was a huge transition. Our house is more than 200 years old and not handicap-friendly. Friends of mine built a ramp and Anne and I turned our bedroom into my “everything” room. It took us several weeks to get used to being at home, but eventually it became the “new normal.”

The next phase of my recovery was outpatient therapy that I began in May 2012. I came three times a week for hand, occupational and physical therapy. I am now more than a year and a half into my recovery. With the help of more than a dozen therapists, I have made significant progress. None of it has been easy. Therapy is more difficult than exercising. It’s not just about making my muscles stronger but about getting them moving in the first place. In some cases, therapists employed electrical stimulation to help “wake up” the nerve paths connecting my brain to my various muscles.

The mental component to therapy is extremely important. You have to want to succeed. If you don’t, you probably won’t. My biggest challenge was, and still is, regaining functional use of my hands. I now come in once a week just for physical therapy and go to Good Shepherd’s Optimal Fitness gym twice a week.

I have regained significant movement in both my arms and legs. I am now relearning how to walk with the Ekso exoskeleton. It’s an amazing piece of bionic equipment. A new version, known as Variable Assist, challenges me to initiate and take as much of each step as I can before the machine takes over. It’s much more of a workout since the therapists push me to make more of an effort to complete a step on my own.

It’s an amazing feeling to be able to walk again and I look forward to my weekly sessions with the Ekso. I can actually feel my legs getting stronger. I hope to eventually transition directly to a walker.

Daily rigorous hand and arm stretching has helped me remain hopeful about gaining greater independence. While a firm grip is still beyond my grasp (pun intended), every day brings me a little bit closer. My sense of feel also continues to slowly recover. I now have partial feeling just about everywhere. I continue to make progress towards my ultimate goal of 100% recovery.

It will likely take several more years for me to reach my goal, but I remain fully focused on doing so. This is where the glass-half-full kind of outlook is a big help. I want to get back to doing the things I enjoy most: cycling, fishing, hunting and most importantly, spending time with those I love. 

Without all the support of my family, friends and my therapy team at Good Shepherd I’m sure I wouldn’t be this far along. My heartfelt thanks goes out to all of them. Keep pushing me! I don’t mind. Really.


Dave Fessler lives in Nazareth with his wife Anne and his two sons, Jared and Noah. He continues to write for professional publications in print and on the web.


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