WALLINGFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — Joe Graham loved being active and having fun fishing, camping and being with his girlfriend, Tanya Banning.
Then, a moment at a party in July 2016 changed his life forever.
Graham was grilling burgers, drinking beer and swimming when he decided to dive into an above-ground pool. But, he dove in with so much force that he went head-first into the other side of the pool.
“When I opened my eyes, everything just went out real quick,” he said. “And then the lights turned back on, and I’m just staring at the bottom of the swimming pool.”
He couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything except think.
“I knew right then, somebody needs to come over here and somebody needs to save me,” Graham said.
The group pulled him out, called 911 and began CPR. He woke up later in the hospital, thinking it was all a dream.
“I was hooked up to a ventilator,” Graham said. “I wasn’t able to breathe, still wasn’t able to move.”
He spent the next four months undergoing intense rehabilitation at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford to regain some mobility. Eventually, he was weaned off a ventilator and recovered some use of his arms. Now, he can hug again– and is spreading a safety message to others.
Diving accidents are the fifth-leading cause of spinal cord injuries that cause paralysis. Gaylord Specialty Healthcare helps treat it, and is hoping to spread the word to think before you dive.
Graham travels across Connecticut spreading the “think first” message to children.
“Literally, the rest of my life, I’ll be in a chair because I made one bad choice,” he said.
Not all diving accidents happen in pools.
“[It’s also] people body surfing and coming in on a wave, and hitting the sandbar or the beach, and getting a spinal cord injury,” said Katie Zimmerli, an occupational therapist at Gaylord.
If you can’t see the bottom, don’t guess where it is. Go feet-first into the water. Never swim or dive alone, and remember that substance abuse leads to bad decisions.
Don’t dive where you haven’t been before, and always check before you go in. Bottom debris and conditions can change from when you were there last.