A Day I’ll Never Forget
Forward- I am not much of a writer, but thought it was time to get my story out there. Maybe it could help other families going through what mine went through. Maybe it could help my friends understand where I came from. This is written for everyone with whom I have crossed paths with as well as shared experiences!
Growing up, everybody around me had goals of winning a state title, going D1, and just competing at a high level. I played consistently in 5 different sports as a kid coming up. At 11 years of age, all that froze and my goals shifted and/ or became unattainable (or so it seemed at the time).
Never really told anyone my full story of what happened to me at a young age. Most people know I got sick, had a stroke, a brain AVM, or something in between. But I never actually gave a full in-depth story or really had not tried. When people see my grades or see me at the gym, they might say I’m in good shape and pretty smart. But they don’t know how you got there. People see me walk with a limp and wonder why a twenty-something year old student athlete would do that.
Well here’s why... July 21st, 2007. A day I’ll never forget. It was my sisters birthday and my father took my mother and I with him on a business trip to San Francisco. I had a bad headache the morning of the flight. Migraines were pretty common for me at the time. Anyway I threw up outside the airport in Newark and we were on our way. Sorry jerz!
Arrived in Cali and dropped our bags in the hotel and we wanted to walk around the city for a bit. “Up fisherman’s warf” my father said. I complained the whole time of a headache. I also didn’t like long walks.
One second we’re walking up a big hill and the next I’m face first on the concrete. They thought maybe I was joking around (I was/ maybe still am bit of a clown). Luckily a fire truck was near and picked me up and rushed me to the hospital.
The doctors told my father “do you believe in God”. Because only he could save me now! How could a kid of tremendous health and athletic genes be cursed with such a devastating disability?
In my father’s words, “I remember it like it was yesterday. The doctor said he did all he could- said the only one who could help him now was God. After two days I got a call from my region's VP saying that he stopped our convention and had 300 financial advisors pray for DJ- some were Muslems, some were Jewish, some were Christians, and 3 were Hindu's from India. He said we all pray to the same God, we just do it differently. 15 minutes later got a call from my Mom saying the Catholic Daughters at St Paul's and some friends from the Korean church were also praying for DJ. About 10 minutes later the doctor came in and said DJ would be OK. God is Good!!!”
My entire left side was paralyzed from my eyes all the way down to my toes. I spent 2 months in an ICU in California. One of the best hospitals, if not the best in the country. They actually specialized in brain AVM. Coincidence? I think not. God had a plan.
Took my first steps out there with assisted bars and a walker. Eventually made it back to a rehab facility in Westchester. Blythedale would be my home for the next twelve months.
Definitely the best place we could have asked for. They had a school so I could work through sixth grade and still do my therapies (speech, ot, and pt). I could not wait to get out of that wheelchair!
Started with a walker then to a cane, I was getting ready to walk on my own! Through countless therapies and struggles, I was able to walk again with a brace, my short term memory was improving, and my arm/ hand was coming back to normal.
I still go back every year and try to inspire the current students there. Alumni Day is just as rewarding and helpful for them as it is for me to tell my story.
So from the time I went back to my old middle school, I was in mostly intensive, self contained classes. It took me twice as long to do homework and I couldn’t enjoy any physical activity which for a kid who was once a wrestler, and quarterback in football, quite a challenge.
The next year going into 8th grade, I got the best news I heard in a long time. “DJ can wrestle again”. My ma asked the doctor, “Are you sure??” “Do you really know what wrestling is?” He said yes and I almost jumped right out of my seat!
Having beat future all state and college bound wrestlers, I thought it would be an easy transition. Back into the sport I loved. Based on my previous experience, I would jump right into it like nothing had changed. But it was the hardest thing I had to do. I am lucky if I won half my matches that year.
Throughout high school, I still went to some therapies and used a brace for awhile. Again wrestling was tough as I didn’t get a varsity match til sophomore year and didn’t finish so great. But honestly the hardest part was being the youngest of 2 successful brothers in the sport of wrestling. One was a division champ and the other a 2x division, 2x county, section champ with almost 150 wins. Coming up, I was next in line to shatter all their records and win a coveted state title. But fate had other plans.
Kids that I beat, and competed with, when I was younger were winning county titles and section titles (won’t name names but one guy from Ossining even won a state title). I had more wrestling knowledge then anyone I competed against, but my strength was not all there due to the AVM.
I graduated in 2014 and went to community college for couple years. I switched majors halfway through and had to drop the honors program I was in.
Next step brings me to present day!! SUNY New Paltz was one of the best decisions I ever made. And specifically joining the rugby team my first semester another great decision. I remember telling my family I joined rugby and they were not happy. “It’s not safe, what if you get hurt, I won’t come watch you get hurt”.
So I called my doctor in NYC and asked his thoughts on this hooligan sport. All I wanted to know was if I was on a level playing field. Same risk as everyone else? He said “Yes, rugby is dangerous but you’re no more likely to get hurt than anyone else”. That’s all I needed to hear. The next week I played my first game against Oneonta, and did halfway decent. But I competed for the first time in 3 years. It was awesome.
It took me almost 10 years to figure out the answer “why me, why me”? I’ve come to the conclusion that God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers. He knew that I would endure and overcome and grow even stronger from my (dis)ability. I even got a tattoo across my chest emphasizing my beliefs... Jeremiah 29:11; “For I know the plans I have for you says the lord, plans to prosper and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future!”
Today I am a strong advocate for AVM awareness. I currently have a 3.6 GPA and am a semester away from graduating from SUNY New Paltz and becoming a teacher and coach someday!!
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