By Jacie Scott | LSU Student
Around the age of 11, Chico Garcia and his friends decided it would be fun to pole vault with a stick over the hedges in his yard. After a failed attempt, Garcia landed in the hospital with a broken wrist. Doctors had to give him enough medication for a 300-pound man, and he still felt the pain.
That wasn't enough to keep young Chico down.
"Through the whole thing he just laughed and laughed and cracked jokes," recalls Garcia's mom, Syrjala Garcia. "He just said 'don't worry about it, it'll be okay! I'll be able to jump over that hedge when I get back home.'"
Today, Garcia's determination is more visible as a 29-year-old quadriplegic fighting to regain sensation and, perhaps, movement below his chest.
Garcia is a former LSU Cheerleader and current cheerleading coach there. He was involved in a boating accident on the Amite River Diversion Canal on Aug. 27, suffering a C4 and C5 vertebral dislocation and severe damage to the spinal cord.
Syrjala Garcia and her husband, Ubaldo, made the necessary adjustments to be with and take care of their son, leaving their home in New Orleans to be with Garcia in Baton Rouge.
"In the five months since the accident, I've only been to my house three times," his mother. "You hurry up and do what you've got to do, get what you have to get, and be gone because he has to have someone with him 24/7."
The traumatic change is not an easy pill to swallow for Garcia. He daily used his body and hands for his career, executing extraordinary things, and articulates his situation:
"Being a college athlete, your body is your tool. Athletes know how to push their bodies to limits and you have high senses about your body that you're used to using. Knowing that I've lost that was a very hard thing for me to grasp and I'm still not comfortable with it. I still believe this isn't how my life is supposed to be"
On the afternoon of Aug. 27, Garcia was with friends. The day consisted of food and drinks, wakeboarding, tubing and other water activities. On the ride home, he was facing the stern of the boat, talking to a friend. Garcia noticed the boat getting close to the shoreline near the docks.
"Before I could say, ‘Hey, Jack!' to warn the driver we were getting to close, there was a loud bang and I blacked out."
When he came to, he was near the bow of the boat, which had lodged under a pier. Above him was a child hanging from the pier by her clothes.
"I waited for them to grab her, then I tried to get up. When I tried three times and the only thing that moved was my neck, I knew that I was paralyzed."
He was taken by a helicopter to Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in Baton Rouge where he began the first of several procedures to realign his vertebrae.
Garcia's parents were at home in New Orleans when the accident occurred. The Garcias had completed a day of yard work when they saw missed calls from two of their son's friends.
"Seeing those was a signal to me that something was up," said Syrjala Garcia. "I immediately returned the calls and they both gave the story that Chico had been in an accident, but they didn't know what the injuries were or anything."
A circulating text read that Garcia had broken only his wrist. This message was relayed to Garcia's parents, who were preparing to head to Baton Rouge. As the two debated whether a broken wrist was worth the drive, they received another call saying it was something more serious, but they didn't know what.
A short time later, the Garcias received yet another call saying their son was paralyzed and had been airlifted to the hospital.
"I thought it was a bad dream," said Syrjala Garcia. "You know, questioning if he was really paralyzed and praying to God that he wasn't."
Three weeks later, Garcia was transferred to the Shepherd Center located in Atlanta, a hospital specializing in research, treatment and rehabilitation for those with spinal cord or brain injuries. He was told that he would be on a ventilator for the rest of his life and would never walk again.
Although he remained hopeful and positive, he struggled with accepting this traumatic change in lifestyle.
"There were times when I would cry myself to sleep thinking about the life I had before compared to the life I had now. Just wondering if I'm going to be like this forever? Am I ever going to have a girlfriend? Am I ever going to get married? Will I be a ‘quad' for the rest of my life or will I be a paraplegic when my arms come back?"
Garcia currently is back in Baton Rouge. Some sensation has returned to his arms and legs. He is no longer on a ventilator, still good-humored and positive. Doctors told him the spinal cord doesn't begin to heal or improve until about six months to a year after the injury.
"I'm staying positive because it is happening, just in small baby steps. Every day and every way I get better and better. I'm just happy to be here and fortunate that I'm still me."
"He's the one that's going to prove them all wrong," said Syrjala Garcia. "Things that they told him he wouldn't do, he's doing."
A fund, Cheering for Chico, and a website, CheeringforChico.com, has been established to raise money for Chico's cause, keep people updated on his condition, spread awareness and help others in similar situations.
The extended Garcia family received awards from Our Lady of the Lake on Jan. 27 for the most blood donated in 2011 and in the history of the blood bank. This was accomplished in a four-month span by family and friends who supported the cause.
"A thank you isn't enough for what people have done for me," said Garcia. "But I would tell everyone to keep praying for me and I will get better someday.
"Then let's crack some jokes or something."