By Gabriella Sacidor
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The summer of 2013 was a time the Cavanaugh family of Delaware County will never forget.
Jack Cavanaugh and his wife Anna had just received that fateful telephone call that is a parent’s worst nightmare. It was the telephone call informing them of a tragic accident.
The Cavanaugh’s 21-year-old son, Jack, Jr., had fallen from a railing 12 feet above the ground, inside of their vacation home in the Poconos.
Arriving at Geisinger Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Jack and Anna were immediately met by a priest. At that moment they weren’t sure their son was alive. The date was August 12, 2013.
For the Cavanaugh family the summer of 2013 had started off quietly and uneventful, like most summers. Jack, Jr. was a senior at Bloomsburg University and was staying at the family vacation home while enrolled in summer classes. Both men had spent the early summer months reconnecting as father and son, spending lazy days together, playing golf – times were good.
“He found out that his dad wasn’t such a bad guy after all; in fact he realized that he was just like me, only I’m a little grayer,” Jack, Sr. said with a laugh.
Then it happened. Jack, Jr. fell, hit his head, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He had stopped breathing — but amazingly was still alive. While at the Geisinger Medical Center, he was placed in an induced coma and spent a month in the Intensive Care Unit.
“During that time, he didn’t really move, he just lay there, but we were there every day for him,” his father said.
In September, when he was medically stable, the young man was transferred to Moss Rehabilitation Center in Philadelphia. He was on a feeding tube and could not swallow, walk, or communicate.
For the next three months, Jack underwent intense physical, occupational and speech therapy.
At one point his right arm was in a “frozen pledge of allegiance position,” his father explained. “They put a soft cast on his arm, stretched it a bit, took the cast off, stretched the arm again and again, until eventually he regained its full use.”
He was discharged the Tuesday before Thanksgiving but still continues to go to Moss Rehabilitation as an outpatient.
Growing up, the younger Cavanaugh was an avid runner. He attended Cardinal O’Hara High School and ran track and cross county. “He was in excellent athletic shape, which actually helped him survive the fall,” his father said.
Since the injury, Jack and his son haven’t done many things together like they used to. But for the Cavanaugh family, this Sunday, just 10 short months after that injury, a miracle will take place. Both dad and son will be spending Father’s Day together, this time at the beach – surfing.
The Cavanaugh’s will be joining dozens of others at the “They Will Surf Again” event, a gathering that will bring individuals with spinal cord injuries as well as those challenged by mobility to the Jersey Shore. The participants will be making a splash as they enter the ocean and ride the waves with the help of volunteers and adaptive surf boards.
Jack’s parents learned about this event after their son was admitted to the Drucker Brain Injury Center’s Coma Recovery Stage Program at the Moss Rehabilitation Center. In fact, one of Jack’s therapists will be among the 40 staff members volunteering at the event, which MossRehab will once again proudly sponsor for the second straight year.
“He has come a long way,” said his father. “I think sometimes when they’re teenagers you take things for granted and assume your children will be safe. But your children are always your children, and you always have to worry about them.”
In 1996, another young man on the opposite side of the country, the West Coast, also suffered a serious neck injury.
On the verge of becoming a professional surfer, Jesse Billauer was surfing in California when he broke his neck. He sustained a C-6 complete spinal cord injury, which resulted in quadriplegia.
“Shortly after, I wanted to give back to the community,” Billauer said. With that in mind, he founded the“They Will Surf Again” a flagship program of “Life Rolls On”, a non-profit organization that serves as a resource and advocate for young people whose lives have been impacted by spinal cord injury.
“It’s beautiful; the sense of community and the opportunity and freedom to get out of a wheelchair and feel that joy. It’s beautiful to be able to see that,” Billauer said.
In 2004, with a handful of surfers and volunteers, Life Rolls On’s first They Will Surf Again event was hosted in Newport Beach, CA. Ten years later, that single event has grown to become an award-winning program with event sites in nine cities across seven states — including Wildwood, New Jersey.
“The feeling of freedom and independence is remarkable,” said Kerry Ross O’Connor, Senior Communications Manager at Einstein Healthcare Network of the Moss Rehabilitation Center.
“I surf myself and about five years ago I got involved with They Will Surf Again. I can understand the freedom and independence surfers receive when they hit the waves. I instantly became a devoted fan.”
“I grew up playing a lot of sports and I understand the joy that comes from an activity and competition,” O’Connor added. “I hope this becomes a Father’s Day tradition for me.”
This Father’s Day will be a very special day for the Cavanaugh’s. A day father and son will once again spend together — just like old times, before the injury.
“A great gift for me,” Jack, Sr. said.
The public is invited to attend the event this Sunday, June 15 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Rambler Road in Wildwood Crest.
Registration to participate in the event is closed, but for more information, click here.
For more information about Life Rolls On and how you can get involved, visit: www.liferollson.org.
For more information about Moss Rehabilitation Center and volunteer opportunities, visit: http://www.mossrehab.com/
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