Overland Park & Leawood

April 8, 2014

Blue Valley swimmer’s paralyzing accident brings out the best in him, others

Blue Valley High swimmer was in Mexico on spring break when a wave knocked him to the ocean floor, breaking his neck at the C-5 vertebrae

They don’t come much stronger than 18-year-old Blue Valley High School senior Alex Fraser.

Alex was body surfing with friends and family on spring break last month in Mexico when a wave pushed him to the ocean floor, where he hit his head. The blow broke his neck at the C-5 vertebrae, paralyzing him.

“The wave just caught him the wrong way around the shoulders and drove him about three feet down,” said his dad, Mike Fraser. “To say that it’s a nightmare would be fair.”

A varsity swimmer and a trained lifeguard, Alex knew what had happened to him immediately and began directing friends around him on how to get him safely out of the water.

“He was barking out commands, saying, ‘Go get the backboard, and make sure you get my neck stabilized,’ ” Mike Fraser said.

Body surfing wasn’t new to him — his dad said that the family had done it hundreds of times.

The resort’s doctor treated Alex briefly before the Mexican emergency services took him to a local emergency room in Playa del Carmen. CAT scans revealed how serious Alex’s injury was, and they transferred him to another hospital in Cancun.

That’s where things got even more complicated. The first hospital wanted Mike Fraser to pay for the emergency room visit and the new hospital wanted money upfront for medical services before they’d admit Alex to the intensive care unit. He described the process as “aggravating and maddening.”

Mike Fraser charged $20,000 on one credit card and more on others, because the hospital wouldn’t accept his Cigna health insurance. Later, he was able to work with Staples, his employer, and with Cigna’s international branch to get an international guarantee of payment certificate.

Friends from the Blue Valley community were on the trip and did their best to assist — one helping translate the words of the hospital staff, and another, who is a radiologist, giving medical guidance.

Ultimately, Alex had to have emergency surgery in Mexico, which was nerve-wracking for his parents. Mike Fraser sent cellphone pictures of Alex’s X-rays to local Kansas City neurosurgeon John Clough as well as an orthopedic surgeon friend. Both encouraged the surgery.

The problem was that the surgeon didn’t speak English well, so he communicated with the Frasers by drawing pictures of the procedure on a piece of paper. The surgery went well, and Mike Fraser said it was as good a job as they’d have gotten anywhere back home.

Once the surgery stabilized Alex, they were able to airlift him back home to Menorah Medical Center, where he was admitted to the ICU and underwent a second surgery.

Once at Menorah, Alex was able to receive visitors — and they came by the hundreds. Even fellow swimming competitors came to wish him well.

Friends had already been hard at work, making him a video that praised his positive attitude and let him know they missed him.

His swimming coach, Adam Bien, appeared on the video, recounting how Alex’s work ethic helped him put on 20 pounds of muscle in a year and a half. He said he expected Alex to channel that same energy toward his recovery.

Another friend recalled watching Alex break the school record in the 100-meter breast stroke — quite a feat for someone who never had swum competitively before he tried out for the team his freshman year.

One of Alex’s other favorite things at school was playing on the drumline in the marching band.

Alex received so many visitors at the Menorah ICU that the staff had to keep cutting back visiting hours so he could get the proper amount of rest to help him heal from his second surgery. The toughest times for Alex were at night, after all the visitors were gone, Mike Fraser said.

One of the more memorable visits came from his girlfriend, Emily Todd. The two were supposed to attend his senior prom together, but after Alex’s accident, they both knew that couldn’t happen.

With the help of an ICU nurse and the Fraser family, Emily put together a prom night to remember for Alex, bringing dinner from The Bristol on real china to the ICU waiting room at the hospital, while dressed in her prom finery. Alex’s parents got him into the tuxedo he’d planned to wear, and the two had their very own prom.

Right now, the prognosis for Alex is uncertain. He has sensation in his upper arms, but no dexterity yet in his lower arms and hands.

Doctors won’t commit to a permanent damage assessment, because Alex is still in spinal cord shock, a condition that affects movement and sensation. It will be weeks or even months before they’re certain how much damage will remain.

“Through the whole process, he’s been an absolute champion,” Mike Fraser said. “We know he’s going to have some very difficult moments as he comes to grips with the injury.”

After about two weeks at Menorah, Alex moved to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., a rehab facility specializing in spinal cord injuries. He’ll be there for three to four months. A large contingent from Blue Valley High School turned out to see him off at the Johnson County Executive Airport.

“There’s going to be some permanent disability, but we have high hopes for what might come back,” Mike Fraser said. “He’s a young man who will set a goal and work as hard or harder than anyone you know to achieve that goal.”

Meanwhile, his father has returned to the area to make adjustments, like finding a new house. The Frasers have to sell their current home and find one that’s more accessible for Alex.

Alex’s mother, Chris Fraser, has been staying with him in Colorado, and his older brother, who studies kinesiology at Kansas State University, has been visiting him as well. His younger brother, a freshman at Blue Valley High School, also has been supportive.

“I’ve shed as many tears of joy and appreciation from the kind things that people have done as I have anything else,” Mike Fraser said.

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