Lunch period buzzed with school spirit at Bella Vista High School on Friday as swarms of students traversed the quad, danced to the DJ, or dipped into cups of ice cream in honor of homecoming weekend. At their usual spot toward the back of the lawn, one cluster of teens was occupied with something else entirely – Andy Wu.
Wu had rolled up seconds earlier – wheeling through crowds and between schoolbags, down a ramp and over grass – to greet about a dozen enthusiastic schoolmates. Since the senior fractured his spinal cord in June, losing function below his chest and in his hands and forearms, he’s worked hard to return to his usual self.
Formerly a track and cross country runner and now co-president of the student body, Wu has always been social. He had two friends with him – girlfriend Natalie Caraway and schoolmate Hanna Johnson – this summer when he headed to the Granite Bay side of Folsom Lake. They had just spent a day at the Sacramento Zoo and thought they’d enjoy a sunset swim.
Wu took a dive off of a rock not far above the water line. He thought the lake bed was deeper than it was.
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“I remember the whole thing,” he said. “I didn’t go unconscious. I hit my head and I realized I couldn’t move anything.”
Both Caraway and Johnson jumped in after Wu and pulled him out of the water before calling 911. His head was bleeding from a hard hit on a rock, and Caraway was too panicked to talk to the operators, she said. Johnson, who had recently received lifeguard training, took the phone and guided the paramedics in.
“I think about it, and it’s just so overwhelming,” Johnson said of the accident. “When I see him doing something some days, I’m so heartbroken and some days I’m like, ‘Wow, he’s so strong.’ I know ultimately he’s a trooper and he has such a great attitude. We love him so much.”
Wu was taken via helicopter to Sutter Roseville Medical Center, where he was told he had fractured a critical vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord, he said.
Headfirst diving injuries tend to be among the most severe in terms of nerve damage because of the compression to the spinal cord, said Dr. Loren Davidson, medical director of spinal cord injury at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California, who has treated several cases like Wu’s. While recovery can happen quickly within the first six months to a year after an injury, it usually slows after that.
The doctor warns swimmers, especially youths, to avoid diving headfirst into areas where the water’s depth may be unclear.
Diving is prohibited in all areas of Folsom Lake, said Richard Preston, superintendent for the Gold Fields district of California State Parks. He said he can’t remember the last time there was a serious diving injury at Folsom, although they happen once or twice a year at Lake Natoma.
The diving prohibition exists because Folsom Lake is fairly shallow, he said, and there are often rocks, tree stumps and other obstacles lurking beneath the surface.
“You’re much better going in feet first,” Davidson said. “It terrifies all of us to think about the risk of diving that’s out there all the time. Kids dive in without a second thought, and in a split second it can change their lives entirely.”
Wu underwent surgery that replaced the fractured vertebrae with a cadaver vertebrae to keep the spinal cord from further shifting, but the nerve damage couldn’t be reversed. Three days later, he was transferred to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, south Sacramento, and then to Kaiser Vallejo, where he received five weeks of physical and occupational therapy.
Wu returned home in early August and was able to start school the first day of senior year. A multispeed electronic wheelchair, which he began using three weeks ago, allows him to get around campus without much help. To eat, he places a utensil in a special wrist cuff and uses his functional upper arm muscles to lift it. To text and do homework, he puts a stylus in that spot.
“The hardest part was learning how to do things by yourself, and getting used to having to do it a different way,” Wu said. “You brush your teeth the same way for 16 years and then all of a sudden you have to find a way to do it a different way. It’s sort of rough.”
Shortly after lunch, in student government class, Wu directed classmates in setting up for this Saturday night’s dance, “A Pixar Perfect Night.” He’ll be going with Caraway, a senior at Granite Bay High School, whom he invited via a large poster with the phrase, “Wheel you roll to homecoming with me?”
Wu is one of six boys in his roughly 400-person class to be nominated for homecoming king.
Jinee Sargent, adviser to student government and Wu’s calculus teacher, said the teen has worked hard to stay in his Advanced Placement classes, though he takes his general education courses as independent study. Wu still plays a distinct role in the government, despite being unable to perform some of the more labor-intensive tasks.
“It’s switched Andy from the worker bee to the teacher, because he right now is not able to be the worker bee,” Sargent said. “But he has the right disposition and the right school spirit to be very passionate about leadership.”
Wu works four hours each day with a caretaker to stretch out his limbs in the hope that he can restore some function to the muscles. He’s applying to a handful of universities, including UC Berkeley and Stanford, where he plans to study business or computer science. He hopes to eventually learn to drive an adaptive car.
“I’m generally a positive guy who likes to keep on living life, but then there’s the question of will I ever get back to where I was,” he said. “And all the doctors can say is they really don’t know.”
Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916)321-1636.