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Memorial Guides Jockey on Ride of His Life
By age 40, Eibar Coa was one of the top jockeys in America. He won 4,080 races and purses in excess of $129 million. He was weeks away from piloting Florida sensation Mucho Macho Man in the Kentucky Derby in pursuit of horseracing's celebrated Triple Crown.
Then, on a sunny Friday afternoon February 18, 2011, Eibar's horse was unable to avoid a mishap and tossed him hard to the Gulfstream Park turf.
"I attempted to get up, but nothing moved," he says.
Rushed to Memorial Regional Hospital, the native Venezuelan had fractured the C-4 vertebrae in his spine along with his wrist and shoulder. With no feeling below his neck, he was diagnosed a complete quadriplegic and told he would probably never walk again.
"I was conscious in the Trauma Center, and I was very scared," says Eibar. "Speaking with the surgeons and staff gave me a lot of confidence. As an athlete, I can tell right away when everyone is on the same team. I knew Memorial was the place I needed to be."
Eibar's fracture was severe, requiring surgical repair in two procedures over two weeks first to the front of the spine, and then to support the back. As he awoke from his second surgery, doctors were amazed to notice slight movement in his arms.
By the time he was moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of South Florida at Memorial Regional Hospital South, Eibar could move his arms a little. "The first thing he said to me was that he would walk out of here," says Sherri Magcalas, Coa's first physical therapist. "He couldn't even sit up or support his head at that point. It was inspiring to see his determination, and I knew we were in for a journey."
Starting with the essential functions like support and balance, Eibar's team worked slowly with him, as with any patient. But soon they became aware that his tenacity and relentless work habits were fueling their own energies, challenging them to new heights. "It's seldom you have a patient who wants to go on through the pain, through the exhaustion," says Magcalas. "He never wanted to quit. It's exciting and motivating for all of us."
"Rehabilitation of the mind, body and spirit is an emotional as well as physical journey that we share with each patient," says Denise Maillet, Director of Rehabilitation Services at the Rehabilitation Institute of South Florida. "We have to adapt to what brings out their best. Some days we tell jokes, the next day, we might be stern. Because some of our physical therapists are marathon runners, they identified with Eibar as athletes and competitors. They were as determined as he was. Soon they were trying to keep up with him."
Eibar's progress shocked everyone but himself. "Every day is a project," he says. "First I worked to sit, then to stand, then to take steps. I forced my mind to send signals to my body. My body was like an old car. It only needed good mechanics to get it rolling again. I had many good mechanics here."
On April 14, less than two months after the accident, Eibar took slow but steady steps with his wife, Rebeca, as they left the hospital.
"My recovery was a team activity," says Coa, now in outpatient rehabilitation at Memorial Hospital West. "My whole life was spent in a very physical, competitive environment where I had to depend on myself. In a single second, all of that was gone. I had to depend on my wife to physically carry me. I had to depend on my therapists at Memorial to teach me to move again. My injury taught me to depend on the team, my team at Memorial."
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