Doctors, Austin tetraplegic urge caution when jumping into water


by JIM BERGAMO / KVUE News and photojournalist CHRISTIAN GARCIA

Bio | Email | Follow: @JimB_KVUE

Posted on June 21, 2013 at 6:34 PM

Updated Friday, Jun 21 at 6:47 PM

AUSTIN -- Doctors say more than 1,000 serious spinal cord injuries occur nationwide each year, because people dive into water that's too shallow.

Reece Whitteker, 28, will never forget the night of March 21, 2011. He and friends were at Lady Bird Lake near Deep Eddy Pool.

"A couple of my friends ended up jumping in the water," said Whitteker. But it was not in the middle of the day. "It was at nighttime," he said.

Whitteker admits he couldn't tell how deep the water was, but he dove in anyway. The water was just four feet deep.

"I dove in head first, which put a 12-centimeter gash in my head, which required 14 staples," said Whitteker.

More importantly he fractured three vertebrae in his neck and was now a tetraplegic. Doctors say the vertebral bones serve two purposes -- they help us remain erect while standing, but they also protect the bundle of nerves that make up the spinal cord.

"So when people are diving into shallow water the main risk is they can break the bone," said Juan Latorre, M.D., the medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury and Amputee Program at St. David's Rehabilitation Hospital. "If the bone displaces and it affects the spinal cord then someone can become paralyzed."

"I had a very small, one-day pity party for myself," said Whitteker. "I guess you could say I asked, 'Why, why why?'"

Whitteker says the very next day he decided he wasn't going to let his spinal cord injury negatively impact his life. He began physical and occupational therapy at St. David's Rehabilitation Hospital.  He's now self-sufficient -- living, cooking and driving by himself.  

"I always tell people it's business as usual," said Whitteker.  "There's was no doubt in my mind ever."  

Whitteker is also a member of the Texas Stampede, a wheelchair rugby team that competes nationally.  He says it helps him promote one of his two messages: 1) There is life after a serious spinal cord injury.  2) When it comes to diving, just a little forethought might prevent that injury from ever happening.

"All it takes it one second of not thinking how deep that water is or being able to see the bottom and you can get yourself in trouble," he said.

The Texas Stampede will hold a fundraiser Sunday, June 30.  All the proceeds from the event will help the team by the necessary equipment and help cover travel costs for national competition.