Paralyzed Grand Rapids man home for Thanksgiving

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Nestor Guzman ran into Lake Michigan on the first Sunday in July, in awe of its beauty on that warm summer evening.

It was the 24-year-old’s first trip to the big lake. Just a month earlier, he’d moved to Grand Rapids from Mexico to be with family.

He flipped into the waves near Holland, eager to immerse himself in the water and get an evening with friends at the beach underway.

Then it happened.

The waves pulled back just as Guzman hit the sand. He knew in an instant something had gone terribly wrong.

He remembered how icy the water had seemed. Was that why he couldn’t move his arms, why his legs wouldn’t work?

People were coming toward him, moving into the water from the Tunnel Park beach. They were speaking fast, telling him to get up. He couldn’t. They began to scream. No matter how hard he tried, his body wouldn’t respond.

“I said in Spanish, ‘Help me,'” Guzman recalled recently to The Grand Rapids Press ( ). “I never felt pain. I never felt afraid. I was just thinking, ‘Why can’t I move my body?'”

A family friend picked him up and lifted him onto the beach. Guzman’s breaths were fast and shallow. But still, he never lost consciousness.

Four months later, Guzman is not afraid to speak of July 7, 2013 — the day his life changed. He is paralyzed from the shoulders down, his life forever altered in a single moment. He knows that reality.

“I came to this country looking for a job, a better life, a future,” said Guzman, who had plans to propose to his longtime girlfriend in Mexico in December.

“I found this,” he said from his wheelchair, his hands unmoving on the armrests. Every once in a while, his mother, Silvia, leans in close to push his glasses a little farther up on his nose. She’s always with him.

But Guzman’s story is not one of sorrow, of sadness. He doesn’t want your pity. That’s not the kind of guy he is, or the kind of family he comes from.

Guzman’s family wants to share his story because of his fierce determination to overcome. And because of the many people he has already inspired.

“We brought him here (to the U.S.) for him to know this culture,” said Guzman’s older brother, Roberto Guzman, who made a life for himself in this country about 13 years ago. “This is the plan of each immigrant that comes to the United States, to change the course of his dreams.”

Nestor Guzman secured a manufacturing job the first week in June, just three days after coming to Grand Rapids from Mexico and moving in with his brother and parents. He worked in the same place his parents did, packaging medicine, and worked hard, his brother said.

Nestor showed an interest in mechanical and maintenance work and soon earned a new job at the company in that line of work. He had taken college classes in mechanics back in Mexico and was eager to find a way to apply the skills. He was to start this job the day after his accident.

Roberto Guzman, 38, has worked as a truck driver for Spartan Stores for nearly 13 years. He was the first in his family to come to the United States, when Nestor was just 2.

“I was so excited for him,” said Roberto Guzman said of his little brother. “I told him, ‘If you work hard and you don’t get yourself into trouble, you’re going to be successful.'”

Roberto Guzman was driving a truck near Flint when he got the call from a friend that Nestor had been injured. By the time he arrived in Grand Rapids, his younger brother was in surgery at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

A doctor later brought Roberto Guzman the news: Nestor had a spinal fracture between his fourth and fifth vertebrae. He could no longer move. He was on a breathing machine.

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was going to pass out,” Roberto Guzman recalled.

Nestor Guzman spent five weeks at Butterworth Hospital and several more at a long-term care facility. Finally, he began to breathe on his own. Family saw that recovery may be a possibility. Nestor wouldn’t be hooked up to machines for the remainder of his life.

He found a new, temporary home at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital on Aug. 29. In many ways, that’s when his new life really began.

Guzman’s doctor, Sam Ho, director of Mary Free Bed’s Spinal Cord Injury Program, began seeing him when he was still on a ventilator, unable to breathe. Ho began working with him more intensely once the 24-year-old moved in to the facility in August.

The young man’s spinal injuries are among the worst there are for survivors of an accident, Ho said, but his attitude in no way reflects that. Ho spoke of Guzman on a recent day at Mary Free Bed, after working with him for more than five weeks. They developed a friendship.

Though Guzman can no longer move his arms and legs without help, his intelligence and fun-loving personality remain.

“He’s really an incredible individual,” Ho said. “His spinal cord injury is certainly not affecting his spirit.”

Guzman learned to operate a wheelchair controlled by his head movements. Each night at Mary Free Bed, he drove around his floor, stopping in to visit with each patient and say hello.

He arranged for a red cape to be attached to the back of his chair with a large letter “N” — for “Super Nestor.” He liked to see the cape wave in the wind as he drove down the hallway. It brought smiles to patients and staff members alike.

J. Marcos Guerrero, a Spanish/English translator, worked with Guzman from the time he first arrived at Mary Free Bed.

Within five weeks, Guzman picked up enough English to speak conversationally. The two read books together on many evenings to work on Guzman’s language skills.

“You teach him anything and he retains it. Anything,” Guerrero said. “He has a lot of courage.”

Guzman learned to operate a laptop computer and surf the Internet using special technology that adapts to his disability. An adhesive dot, attached to his glasses, contains a sensor that works with a device attached to the top of the laptop screen.

Guzman’s head movements control the cursor and allow him to type slowly. He also can type using a voice-controlled system.

Guerrero arrived at Mary Free Bed on his birthday and found Guzman had used his computer to print off several copies of the words to “Happy Birthday” in Spanish so patients could sing together to him.

The memory brings a smile to his face. “It was so great,” Guerrero said.

Amy Haroff, an occupational therapist who has worked with spinal cord injury patients for years, taught Guzman to write with a pen attached to a stick that fits in his mouth.

Guzman painted a pumpkin the same way, with a paintbrush attached to the stick.

Mary Free Bed opened his eyes to all of the adaptive technology and tools that allow him to do so many things he never thought he would be able to do again.

“I can do whatever I want,” he said.

Guzman plans to continue his education, possibly to become an interpreter himself. He can learn to use a smartphone or tablet computer with a stylus in his mouth.

Staff do not tell spinal cord injury patients how to do things, but rather ask them how they would suggest getting them done. Those problem-solving skills are important once patients leave, Haroff said.

She spoke of Guzman: “He has a really beautiful, positive attitude . he is well aware of his condition, but by the same token, he’s got a lot of determination.”

She, too, laughs with him like a friend

On Nov. 7, Guzman left Mary Free Bed to head home for the first time since his accident — exactly four months earlier.

Nurses gathered around his wheelchair in the hall as Guzman smiled. “Please don’t cry,” he said.

At the same time, he fought back his own emotion. Here, in this place, people understood him. They celebrated his victories and cheered him on through his struggles. They became a second family. One borne of love and pain.

Nursing Tech Rebecca Sarver fondly recalled her memories of working with Guzman as she saw him dressed in a hat and coat, ready for his victory ride home. On Halloween, he dressed as one of the Angry Birds, a popular video game, Sarver recalled.

“But I’m not angry, I’m happy,” he was quick to remind staff.

“It’s bittersweet,” Sarver said of saying good-bye to patients. “You’re so proud at how much they’ve accomplished, but you kind of build a bond.”

Once at home, Guzman drove his wheelchair up a brand new ramp and through widened doorways into a newly-tiled living room in the house that had been modified especially for him.

Roberto Guzman worked with a contractor for months to purchase the materials and get the home ready for his brother. He had the first-floor bathroom completely remodeled.

Nestor Guzman will stay in a bedroom on the first floor. It has been converted from an office area and is exactly what he needs.

He’s home now, just before the holidays. His two sisters, still living in Mexico, plan to visit for Thanksgiving.

It will be the first holiday this family has spent together since Nestor was just 2 years old and back in Mexico.

Things are different, yes. As a family, they know challenges lie ahead. But for now, they will set aside the pressure of spending days at the hospital and simply cherish the time they have together at home.

“The good thing is that we’re all here as a family,” Roberto Guzman said. “We’re content. We’re all here.”


Information from: The Grand Rapids Press,

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Grand Rapids Press.

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