Aug. 5 is a date Zach Pickett will always remember. It was the day after the Ponderosa High junior class president had finished his Eagle Scout project. A member of the high school water polo and swim teams, he was working as a lifeguard at Cameron Park Lake, when he decided to take a dip.
He dived headfirst into the water and hit a sandbar, breaking his vertebrae and damaging his spinal cord. The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down.
"I can't feel my legs anymore," Zach, 16, recently recalled himself saying after coming up from the lake.
For four weeks, Zach has engaged in daily physical therapy at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California in Sacramento. Though he has regained some sensation in his legs, his doctor said it's unlikely Zach will ever be able to walk again.
"The odds are stacked against him," said Dr. Kee Kim, the neurosurgeon who treated Zach at UC Davis Medical Center. "It'll be a year before we have a good idea where he's going to end up."
The outpouring of support from the El Dorado County community has been incredible, said Judy Pickett, Zach's mother.
A spaghetti feed last Thursday in El Dorado Hills drew 1,400 people and generated more than $37,000 for the family. Fundraising efforts are in full swing again this weekend, with a swim-a-thon planned for Sunday at the Cameron Park community pool. Haley and Alyssa Anderson, the medal-winning Olympic swimmers from Granite Bay, will attend to show support.
"It's a healing process for everybody in the community," said Dino Pellicano, 45, who is spearheading the fundraising efforts.
Local businesses are also chipping in to help with medical and other expenses.
Darcee Rotz, owner of Yoga Berry Frozen Yogurt in El Dorado Hills, is holding a yogurt fundraiser for Zach on Sept. 22. "It's just the right thing to do," she said.
While Judy Pickett watches over Zach at the hospital, husband Tod is busy preparing for their son's eventual return home. The Picketts plan to retrofit their three-story house to accommodate Zach's needs.
"You get a crash course in becoming handicapped," Tod Pickett said. "It's not something you think about until you need it."
At Cameron Park Lake, general manager Mary Cahill said they are still investigating the accident, but she noted that a no-diving policy has always been in place.
"There's very visible signage," she said. "It was unfortunate."
Zach faces a long road to recovery. Describing the conditions as "lifelong," Kim said Zach will have a weaker immune system, making him susceptible to infections. The inability to move or exercise may lead him to develop a host of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, the doctor added.
But on Wednesday, Zach remained unfazed by the gloomy prognosis.
"I'm not angry about what happened," he said. "I'm optimistic about the future and how I can recover."
The Pickett family is no stranger to personal struggles. Judy Pickett, a local physical education teacher, is a three-time breast cancer survivor. Tod Pickett believes the accident will make his son even stronger.
"He's showing courage that I never thought a 16-year-old kid would be able to do," Tod Pickett said.
For more information on how to help, visit www.thepickettfence.org. Donations can be sent to the El Dorado Savings Bank, 4040 El Dorado Road, Placerville, CA 95667, with checks made payable to the "Zach Pickett Fund."