‘I was just a kid trying to stay alive’ – The Herald-News

By daniellenierenberg

Sometimes when hes asleep, Nick Hernandez has this dream.

The 54-year-old Homer Glen man is playing baseball for a professional team. He hits a ball down the line. He smells the grass. Everything is normal, vividly normal.

And then

Hernandez wakes up in a body that had a C-6 spinal injury 37 years ago.

Before the accident, Hernandez played basketball and baseball for the former Joliet Catholic High School (now Joliet Catholic Academy). He was a college prospect for both sports and was to serve as team captain for both sports his senior year.

Hernandez also was a scholar, ranking 30th out of 205 students. His grade-point average was 4.03

I loved Joliet Catholic, Hernandez said, even though I felt like a fish out of water freshman year because all my friends went to Lockport.

Hernandez has remained close to his Catholic High family through the years. And like a good family, this close group of his friends is raising $75,000 to buy Hernandez a new special needs van, which will keep him mobile and independent.

His current van is 19 years old, and Hernandezs mechanic said it soon will be unsafe to drive, Hernandez said.

Hernandez appreciates their friendship and expressed it more than once.

Im the luckiest guy on the face of the earth, he said, despite the injury.

The injury that changed his life happened Aug. 4, 1982.

It was 9:30 p.m. and Hernandez was driving home from a friends house. He was on 143rd Street, less than a mile from home, when two horses jumped out. He remembers the impact, the horses coming down on top of my vehicle before slipping into unconsciousness.

I woke up a few minutes later in the vehicle, Hernandez said. My rearview mirror was bent and facing me, and I had blood streaming down my face. I could not move, and I was in a great deal of pain, neck pain Id never felt before. I kind of knew immediately. I just knew I had a spinal cord injury.

Oddly enough, he said, a friend of the family recently had a neck injury while swimming, an incident Hernandez had only vaguely noted at the time, but something he recalled in that moment, with his vehicle on the opposite side of the road and the nice cut in the top of my head, which would leave a permanent scar.

But a scar was not Hernandezs concern at the time.

My job was just to fight, to try to stay alive, quite honestly, Hernandez said.

His parents, Nick Sr. and Madeleine, soon arrived on the scene; a priest gave last rites on the spot. Hernandez recalled thinking, Well, this is how it ends.

Hernandez said he was taken to Silver Cross to be stabilized and was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital that night, his home until December. He spent three days in the intensive care unit, where he was given morphine to help him sleep, Hernandez said.

He wore a brace that was drilled into his temples to stabilize his spine You feel like Frankenstein, Hernandez said, and he was periodically rotated every two hours, as if he was on a rotisserie, he said.

It was a do-or-die situation, Hernandez said. I guess something inside me said, Youre still alive. You have to. Too many people just cared about me, I guess this was long before Christopher Reeve. I was just a kid who fought to stay alive.

Hernandezs weight dropped from 180 to 130 pounds as his muscles atrophied, he said. He learned to breathe through his diaphragm.

The experience forced him to grow up fast, he said, which he did, with the help of family, friends, teammates and coaches (Mike Gillespie coached Hernandez for basketball ,and Jack Schimanski coached Hernandez for baseball) who visited him.

I never wrapped my arms around how it could be so emotional for someone else, Hernandez said. Its the ripple effect I didnt understand at the time.

When physical therapy was completed, Hernandez returned to Catholic High to complete his senior year and graduated with honors. While there, he attended school events prom, as well as baseball and basketball games.

He eventually relearned to drive, using hand controls in a modified van. It was frightening at first, until Hernandez moved past that fear.

I wanted to be on the road again, Hernandez said. Thats the one thing about driving; it gives you that freedom.

He worked for medical supply companies until he wound up with pressure ulcers in 2010 that led to a bone infection and a flap surgery to correct it.

It was not a good time in my life, Hernandez said.

But it gave him time to reevaluate his life. He moved back to his parents house, where he now lives in a basement apartment. He now focuses his energy on taking better care of himself and spending time with loved ones, including going to movies with his girlfriend.

He still deals with nerve pain, although some days are better than others, he said.

Hernandez exercises at home with the use of a standing table (which puts pressure on his bones and reminds people just how tall he is at 6-foot-4) and swims using a modified butterfly stroke all summer in the family pool.

I just drag my legs behind me, Hernandez said. I may do 30 to 40 laps in the pool. Its really, really helpful for one with a spinal cord injury, or anybody really, when rehabbing. The water is a good way to exercise without putting too much pressure on the body.

Watching athletes, especially his nieces and nephews who play sports, from the sidelines has given Hernandez an appreciation of the capabilities of the human body when all parts work in unison.

And he thinks, I used to do that

But Hernandez has learned to deal with it, he said.

Because the other options arent pretty, Hernandez said. So if not for my family and friends, and obviously my belief in God you have doubts here and there, but I still have my faith I can hang in there if you can laugh with this injury, you can make it another day. As long as the good Lord wants you around, youll still be there. Im not preaching to anybody, but this is how I choose to live.

Hernandez still clings to his dream, his dream of walking one day.

Hes extremely excited about a Nov. 27 report from Mayo Clinic about how STEM cells from a patients fat can improve sensory motor function in people with spinal cord injuries.

If I just keep myself in shape, maybe, if Im here in another five years, maybe I can still walk, Hernandez said. It kind of keeps you motivated.

HOW TO HELP

Visit gofundme.com/f/new-wheels-for-nick-in-2020 or make checks payable to Nick Hernandez and mail to Al Petro, 4712 Galway Road, Joliet, IL 60431.

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'I was just a kid trying to stay alive' - The Herald-News

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