Tristan was 19 years old, in peak physical condition and weeks away from reporting for Navy S.E.A.L. training when he dove off a seven foot pier into knee-deep water.
“It was July 29 and I was in West Hampton with my friends. We had done a bay swim earlier in the day, hung out for a while, and went back to the beach later that night to swim again. It was after midnight and pitch black,” explained Tristan, a self-professed 'Adrenaline Junkie.’
Unfortunately, as he and friends leapt into the water, Tristan failed to anticipate changes in the tide and his head hit the shallow bottom with enough force to explode a disc in his spine.
"It didn’t hurt at first,” he said. “I heard a really loud crunch. It was like cracking my back, times ten. I was face down in the water, conscious but completely paralyzed. I felt like I was straining all my muscles, but I just couldn’t move.”
Tristan was airlifted to a Long Island trauma center and stabilized in the Intensive Care Unit. He arrived at St. Charles for acute rehabilitation a little more than a week later. Before the accident, Tristan was running more than 10 miles a day and working under the guidance of a retired S.E.A.L to develop his fitness and survival skills. Now, he could not lift his arms to feed himself, stand up without a walker or remain standing without fainting.
Despite his new physical limitations, Tristan did not allow his accident to crush his dreams the way it had crushed his spine. He made plans to become a member of the U.S. elite special forces the driving goal behind his rehabilitation work.
“On one of his first days at St. Charles, Tristan said to me, ’I have to leave for NAVY S.E.A.L training October 7th,” said Michelle Galante-Adams, PT, the physical therapist who oversaw his therapy at St. Charles.
Besides having a clear purpose for his recovery, Tristan received emotional and moral support from the friends and family who visited him regularly.
“St. Charles was so much closer than other rehabilitation places and I had a packed room all the time,” he said. “That wouldn’t have been possible if I had been in the city.”
Tristan celebrated his birthday at St. Charles Hospital surrounded by more than 25 loved ones, who watched patiently as he slowly opened his birthday cards using his one working hand. He also sent daily texts to his brother, who was away at college. Tristan said, “I’d tell him what I did that day in rehabilitation, and he’d be like, 'That’s just crazy!’”
Even with what he refers to as the “good vibes” that surrounded him, Tristan admits there were moments of frustration.
“My room had a window and I’d wake up super early in the morning and see all the birds flying around outside and think, “I need to walk. Those things are flying around and I can’t even walk.”
Later, after he regained his ability to walk, Tristan’s description of pacing in his hospital room recalls a tiger in a cage. He said, “I was always trying to walk around my room. I’d close the door and just walk. I felt so trapped lying in that bed.”
He adds, “I had a dream one night that I was running. It just felt so real. I thought, 'Wow. I need to be doing that again.”
And he did.
Tristan was discharged from St. Charles four weeks after he arrived and he took his first post-accident jog days later.
Both Tristan and his St. Charles therapists admit that the care he received immediately following his accident, as well as his age, physical fitness and overall good health all contributed to the impressive speed and extent of Tristan’s recovery.
“With a spinal cord injury, you can have recovery up to a year later,” said Michelle Galante-Adams, PT. “Spinal shock generally lasts about six to twelve weeks, so Tristan was still in spinal shock when he had left St. Charles four weeks later and he had already made all those physical gains.”
Even with multiple physical advantages, Tristan was like so many rehabilitation patients who look for answers to questions that have no easy answer.
“At one point, I went online to see how long it would take me to get back some of my abilities,” he says. “There are so many negative things written online. I just, thought, 'No, I am not going to read this. Everybody is different.”
Besides making a deliberate choice to block out the negativity, Tristan celebrated the small gains he made in his daily rehabilitation sessions.
He laughs as recalls the day he tried jogging with his St. Charles physical therapist, Chris. “I remember I tried running, and I’d look over and see Chris breaking a sweat and I think, “I’m coming back!’, ” said Tristan. “I tried to make everything a challenge.”
Even today, Tristan is still finding ways to test his limits. Before trying swimming again, he warned the lifeguard at the pool about his spinal cord injury. He landed a job for the summer and trains at the gym every day. In the fall, Tristan plans on studying pre-med at Western Colorado State and aims to become a physician’s assistant.
Tristan never made his intended October 7th deadline for S.E.A.L training, but he is hoping that his college education will make him even more appealing when he reapplies for the NAVY in a few years.
When asked what advice he’d give to other people facing the challenge of rehabilitating from serious, and life-changing injuries, he says, “Just stay positive.”
Tristan isn’t just an adrenaline junkie. He is also a 'positivity-junkie.’
For more information about Inpatient Rehabilitation at St. Charles Hospital, please call (631) 474-6797.