He broke neck, nearly drowned in Guatemala. Beyer grad fights to recover, get home.

Watch Beyer High grad discuss his recovery process after accident

Alexander Austin, a 2008 graduate of Beyer High in Modesto who teaches in Dinuba, fractured two neck vertebrae when he dove into shallow water at a Guatemalan beach on Jan. 2.
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Alexander Austin, a 2008 graduate of Beyer High in Modesto who teaches in Dinuba, fractured two neck vertebrae when he dove into shallow water at a Guatemalan beach on Jan. 2.

Former Modestan Alexander Austin is stuck in Guatemala, facing physical therapy and medical bills that apparently must be paid off before he can return to California.

It’s a bad situation, but better than being dead in Guatemala, which, for moments that must have seemed an eternity, Austin believed was his fate.

The 2008 Beyer High grad, now a teacher himself at Dinuba High in Tulare County, was enjoying a winter break with friends at a hostel on the Guatemalan coast. While swimming Jan. 2, the 28-year-old dove into the water, not realizing how shallow it was. He broke two neck vertebrae, which pinched his spinal cord, said longtime friend Dillon Nicholson, who was among those with Austin at the time.

Nicholson told that the group had just finished playing a game of volleyball on the beach. “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.

When the accident occurred, it took a bit to register with Austin, who felt no pain. “So I was confused at first, like why am I not swimming?” he said by phone Monday afternoon from Centro Medico hospital in Guatemala City. “Then it set in that I was drowning. I thought, ‘I’m gonna drown right here.’ ”

But his friends saw his head bobbing, raced to him, flipped him face side up and pulled him from the water. Someone made a call for help, but Austin lay on the beach for about two hours before the closest ambulance could get there, he said.

Thankfully, another guy staying at the hostel is an ER physician’s assistant, who made sure nothing was done that could further injure him, Austin said. Some locals drove to a nearby town and cut locks to enter a closed medical facility and get a neck brace.

“I’m very lucky those guys broke in for me,” he said. Because the two vertebrae were fractured and pressing against his spinal cord, “I think my bobbing neck could have severed it.”

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, diving accidents are the fourth leading cause of spinal cord injury among males, and the fifth among females. It warns never to dive in water less than 12 feet deep.

When the ambulance crew arrived, Austin was taken on a five-hour ride — the first 10 miles very bumpy — to a hospital.

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Alexander Austin is recovering from a broken neck suffered when he dove into shallow water on the Guatemalan coast on Jan. 2. This X-ray image of the titanium rods, titanium mesh cylinder and palladium plate implanted during surgery is on the gofundme page set up by friend Dillon Nicholson. BH2C+bgbtTqCNuSw2/jhEFUTAOstsxSu

Nicholson, who’s been posting updates and video clips on his Facebook page and a gofundme page he set up, said Austin underwent surgery Jan. 4. He had his broken vertebrae removed and replaced with two titanium rods and a titanium mesh cylinder, with a palladium plate holding it all together, Nicholson said.

He has on social media called his friend a “rockstar” a couple of times, and wrote in a gofundme update Saturday, “We got to see his X-rays today and he looks like the total cyborg tough guy that he is.”

Both men said they’re surprised at the progress Austin already has made, from at first being completely unable to move to, with assistance, taking his first steps Sunday.

Lying paralyzed on the beach while awaiting help Jan. 2, Austin remembers thinking, “If I get through this, I won’t even be able to pet my dogs.” But within hours, he was able to move his fingers, he said.

He’s now able to pick up a cup and sip water. And though his throat remains sore from intubation, eating has become easier. “He ate a whole piece of chicken!” Nicholson said in a Facebook post Monday.

All this is “quite awesome, considering I still have to be bathed by someone,” Austin said in Monday’s phone call. “Getting little things back is amazing.”

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Dillon Nicholson has been a steady, supportive presence to longtime friend Alexander Austin as he recovers from a broken neck suffered when he dove into shallow water on the Guatemalan coast on Jan. 2. The two are 2008 graduates of Beyer High. Dillon Nicholson

He said he’s never gone through an ordeal anything close to this, and tries to be in good spirits. Adding to that challenge is that beyond needing more physical therapy before he can return to California, Austin said he has climbing health care costs to be paid in Guatemala, and there’s no talk of just sending him a bill.

Right after the accident, his health insurer was contacted, and he was told he’d hear back within five days. He said Monday that he still doesn’t know where his coverage stands.

Nicholson set up the gofundme account with an initial goal of $25,000 to help cover his friend’s care. As of Tuesday morning, nearly $21,000 had been donated. But bills are now more like $35,000, he said.

Best-case scenario, Austin said Monday, he might be back in the U.S. in about 10 days. He said he was expecting his dad, Modesto resident Brian Austin, to join him in Guatemala on Tuesday night.

When he does make it back, “My mom (Kristy Miller Oden of Manteca) already said I’m gonna stay at her house, and my brother (Derek Austin) will care for my animals,” Austin said. His doctors in Guatemala said he’ll need to continue physical therapy when home, and Austin said he hopes he’ll be back in the classroom — he’s taught science at Dinuba High for three years — sometime during the spring semester.

Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.