traumatic brain injury
MossRehab

They Will Surf Again Volunteer Pays It Forward

By on 07/24/2018

A 12-foot fall from a balcony left Jack Cavanaugh with a traumatic brain injury and serious disabilities. He has fought his way back, with help from MossRehab in Elkins Park, the renowned physical and cognitive rehabilitation arm of Einstein Healthcare Network. He no longer requires a wheelchair, has regained his driver’s license and returned to college.

Cavanaugh is also a dedicated MossRehab volunteer, and thanks to the MossRehab-sponsored program They Will Surf Again, he has overcome yet another challenge. Now he is paying it forward. Here is his story, in his own words. 

I recall being wheeled down to the beach at Wildwood Crest, N.J., in a wheelchair adapted for sand use, not a cloud in the sky. I was armed only with my flip-flops, a bathing suit, a rash guard T-shirt and what seemed like gallons of sunscreen. That day would be my first day setting foot on a beach, let alone going into an ocean, in more than a year since my traumatic brain injury.

I was there to take part in They Will Surf Again, a free one-day event designed to get persons with disabilities on a surfboard, riding the waves with the help of many dedicated volunteers. MossRehab sponsors They Will Surf Again, the flagship event of Life Rolls On, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for young people with spinal cord injury and other disabilities.

I had spent the night before the event tossing and turning in a bunk bed at my uncle’s vacation home in Cape May. What would tomorrow hold in store, how different would it be since the last time I was on a beach, and would people notice how different I acted? Those thoughts buzzed around in my head. I managed about three hours of sleep.

I woke my parents at 6 o’clock in the morning, even though it only takes about 30 minutes to drive to Wildwood from Cape May. They Will Surf Again was set to kick off at 9 o’clock. We were really early, but I was eager to get there.

I have been going to the shore for as long as I can remember. My grandmother on my mom’s side had purchased a shore house in West Wildwood. I felt like I was coming back to my summer childhood home.

We made our way to Rambler Road, the beach where They Will Surf Again was going to be held. We were incredibly early. As it got closer and closer to 9 o’clock, I was anxious. I kept fidgeting and bouncing up and down in my seat. Being still and patient felt like torture.

Finally, at 7:45 I spied a small group of therapists making their way to the beach and I blurted out, ” Let’s go, I’m going.” I still needed a wheelchair to get around, so my parents almost had a heart attack. Once my parents took my wheelchair out of the trunk, I was met by the volunteers.

I was checked in and given a T-shirt that indicated my team. I was on the yellow team. I then practically dragged my dad over to the wheelchairs provided to take those participants down to the ocean. Once I got to the waterfront, all I cared about was getting in the water.

Soon, it was my turn to surf. The feeling was indescribable. Volunteers helped me onto the specially adapted surfboard and instructed me to paddle and maneuver myself around in the water. That brought such a sense of freedom. This was something completely different from anything I had experienced in the past year of dealing with my rehabilitation.

All my fears and worries were for nothing.

After my first wave, I had the biggest smile on my face. The therapists and volunteers asked me if all that surfing was too tiring or overwhelming for me. I answered, “Can we do that again?”

Toward the end, a volunteer asked me, “Jack, will you do it again next year?” My answer?  “Absolutely.”

My second year, I had become more independent, thanks to all my hard work in rehab. I walked down to the beach instead of taking the wheelchair. I still felt the same sense of freedom when I dipped into the ocean and got on the surfboard.

One thing from that second year stands out. I recall seeing a little boy being wheeled down to the water’s edge. He had to be 5 or 6 years old. My physical therapist from my inpatient days at MossRehab, Carolyn Tassini, told me his name was Carlos.

That day, I witnessed something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. A therapist helped transfer Carlos from his wheelchair to a surfboard. The boy’s face immediately lit up with one of the biggest smiles I have ever witnessed. He raised his arms skyward in triumph. It was at that moment I decided that the following year, if I was able, it would be my goal to help someone else experience that feeling. I wanted to volunteer and give back to an organization that has done so much for me.

I still thank everyone who helped me get to where I am today. That was the only reason I was so passionate or persistent in wanting to volunteer at MossRehab, where I spent three months of my life. These people had worked to give me my life back. I wanted to do anything I could to help them do the same for others, as well as share my experience with other people either going through injuries or especially their caregivers.

They allowed me to not only discover, learn about and eventually participate in a truly amazing event like They Will Surf Again. They showed me a brand-new world of people who aren’t afraid to show such deep forms of care.

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