A California high school chemistry teacher narrowly escaped death after a diving accident during a vacation in Guatemala left him with a shattered vertebrae.
Alexander Austin, 28, from Modesto, was visiting the Central American country with five friends for a New Year’s trip.
On January 3, the group decided to run into the ocean when Austin took a dive – unknowingly into shallow water.
Seven-and-a-half hours later, he was in the country’s top hospital, where doctors said he could have potentially been paralyzed or have died.
While Austin’s friends say he is slowly recovering, the hospital will not release him until a bill exceeding $30,000 is paid in full.
Alexander Austin, 28, from Modesto, California, was on vacation in Guatemala when he dove into shallow water, shattering a vertebrae. Pictured: Austin in the hospital with his best friend Dillon Nicholson
Austin (pictured) underwent a five-hour operation where his C5 was removed and two titanium rods and a mesh cylinder were inserted to support his spinal column
Dillon Nicholson, Austin’s best friend who was on the trip, told DailyMail.com that the group had just finished playing a game of volleyball on the beach when it happened.
‘We ran into the water to cool down. I was about 7,500 feet ahead of him and he misjudged the wave-to-sand ratio and dove into about a foot of water,’ he said.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, diving is the fourth leading cause of spinal cord injury among males and the fifth leading cause among females.
When a diver’s head hits the bottom of a shallow body of water, the vertebrae often collapse in the spinal column, which can lead to severe injury.
‘We thought he was playing around but turned out he was drowning,’ Nicholson said.
‘Waves were crashing on top of him, and he was yelling: “I can’t breathe! I can’t move anything below my neck!”‘
Fortunately, one of the people they were playing volleyball with happened to be a physician’s assistant. He told Austin’s friends to stabilize him as eight people struggled to carry him out of the water.
Nicholson said Austin lay on a surfboard for two hours while two locals broke into a medical center in the next town over to get a neck brace.
Austin will need to wear a brace for up to 12 weeks to reduce pain and prevent any further spinal cord deformity. He has begun walking and talking again and is in physical therapy. Pictured: Austin following his surgery, left, and an X-ray showing the titanium rods in his spinal cord, right
The surgery costs upwards of $30,000 and insurance won’t cover it – meaning Austin (pictured) has to pay out of pocket
From there it was a five-and-a-half hour ambulance to Centro Medico, a hospital in Guatemala City.
The group arrived at the hospital at midnight, where a neurosurgeon told them that Austin had shattered his C5 vertebrae, which was pinching the spinal cord in two places.
The C5 controls the wrist extensors. An injury higher up in the spinal column could have meant paralysis or death.
The next morning, at 10am, Austin underwent a five-hour operation where his C5 was removed and two titanium rods and a mesh cylinder were inserted to support his spinal column,
Additionally, he will need to wear a brace for up to 12 weeks to reduce pain and prevent any further spinal cord deformity.
Austin will have to be monitored for at least a week to ensure that the swelling in his spinal cord dissipates.
The hospital won’t let him leave until the bill is paid in full. Pictured: Austin walking two days after surgery with Nicholson (left) and a nurse
Austin says he wants to recover as quickly as possible so he can return to his job as a high school chemistry teacher. Pictured: Austin being fed in the hospital by one of his friends
Doctors say as long as it does, Austin will not need any additional surgeries.
Nicholson said Austin has been making steady progress. He can sit up, walk, is eating again and is in regular physical therapy.
But the surgery costs upwards of $30,000 and insurance won’t cover it – meaning Austin has to pay out of pocket.
What’s more, the hospital won’t release him until the bill is paid in full.
‘He had no idea how to pay. He thought he was going to have to sell his house,’ Nicholson said.
‘But I’ve spent the last four years in crowdfunding, raising money for art projects.’
So Nicholson has set up a GoFundMe account to help cover the medical expenses. So far, more than $20,800 has been raise out of a $25,000 goal.
‘After calling his parents, the first thing he had me do was write an email to his principal because he was so sad that his student would have a long-term substitute teacher,’ Nicholson said.
‘He just wants to get back to his kids.’