|
|
|
MailTribune.com
  • FOOTBALL

    Victor

    Victor Suarez was paralyzed during a semi-pro football game; from trauma emerged the hope of a man, the compassion of a community
  • His hands.
    • email print
    • VICTOR SUAREZ
      WHO: Semi-professional football player for the Roseburg Rampage.
      • WHAT: Suarez was paralyzed from the chest down in a contest in Medford against the Southern Oregon Renegades on April 26...
      » Read more
      X
      VICTOR SUAREZ
      WHO: Semi-professional football player for the Roseburg Rampage.

      • WHAT: Suarez was paralyzed from the chest down in a contest in Medford against the Southern Oregon Renegades on April 26.
      • TO HELP: Donations to help Suarez and his family can be made at any Umpqua Bank branch to the Victor Suarez donation fund or online at www.gofundme.com/forvictor.
  • His hands.
    Victor Suarez looks down at them as sunlight washes over him in the cafeteria at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center.
    After being paralyzed from the chest down in an April football game in Medford, the California native hopes for miracles of the body, starting with his dark, motionless hands.
    He can move his arms but not his legs or his hands. His strong, right wrist navigates his power wheelchair — it's the key to life outside his room on the sixth floor of the hospital.
    More than anything, the 23-year-old Suarez wishes for life to return to his fingers. He wants to pick up his cup and scratch his face.
    And later this summer, when his girlfriend Corina Sustaita has their first child, Suarez wants to hold Isabella.
    Suarez isn't the only one hoping.
    The Roseburg Rampage linebacker has suddenly found himself associated with two teams — and two communities — who want nothing more than to see him do well.
    "You meet the guy and just want the best for him," says Southern Oregon Renegades fullback Mike Robinson II. "You want to see him walk again."
    u
    On April 26, semi-professional Southern Oregon of the Pacific Football League hosted the Rampage in an evening contest at Spiegelberg Stadium.
    The Renegades led 42-0 at halftime and 50-2 with less than seven minutes left on a running clock. Roseburg — a first-year club with an independent schedule — switched up its defense at halftime, moving Suarez to left inside linebacker. He was effective, recording a safety for his team's only points.
    In an effort to drain the clock, Southern Oregon, which had by then cycled through substitutions, ran a dive play about 20 yards from the Rampage end zone.
    "The score is so high you stop passing," says Renegades co-owner and head coach Rockne DeMello. "You don't want to be rude."
    Suarez anticipated the run was coming his way.
    "I tried to stuff it," he recalls.
    While attempting to shed a block and make the tackle, he collided helmet-to-helmet with 5-foot-6 running back Daniel Welcome.
    Robinson, who blocked for Welcome, immediately asked Suarez if he was OK. Suarez's body felt numb down to his toes and he struggled to breathe.
    The clock paused, the men waited and Suarez was assessed by paramedics before being taken to the hospital about 20 minutes later.
    Suarez hoped it was just a nasty stinger. He'd had those before at San Marcos High in Santa Barbara, Calif.
    A CAT scan revealed Suarez — who had never broken a bone — had broken his neck. He underwent surgery.
    The Renegades' videographer turned the camera off moments before impact. The Rampage's videographer captured a distant shot at a poor angle.
    "On film you can hear the crack," Rampage assistant coach Eric Murray says.
    u
    The day of the injury, Suarez and Sustaita enjoyed a relaxing Saturday morning. He eventually put his hands gently on her shoulders and said goodbye.
    "I told him it's hard to let him go," recalls the 22-year-old Sustaita, who is due in August.
    That night, Sustaita received a phone call saying that Suarez was hurt. She rushed to the hospital, where Roseburg staff met her in the parking lot. Suarez was being prepared for surgery inside, his jersey cut off.
    "He just kept telling me sorry," she says. "I told him, 'Why are you sorry?'"
    Suarez credits football with saving his life, keeping him out of gangs and off the streets. He played prep football before studying in Puerto Rico and returning to Santa Barbara City College.
    Sustaita is from Oxnard, Calif. Their mothers, Gloria and Norma, knew each other and thought they might make a cute couple.
    "I just thought he was nice," Sustaita recalls. "I didn't think we would start dating."
    But they did. The pair watched "The Other Guys" at a theater and later strolled on the beach, holding hands.
    The couple moved from Oxnard, Calif., to Roseburg last year, hoping to get away from trouble.
    u
    Renegades co-owner Leona Westdahl, DeMello and Robinson were among those who came to the hospital after the injury.
    Westdahl and DeMello met several members of the Suarez family there.
    "You don't know what to say," DeMello says. "Anything you say at that moment is cliché. You can't rewind time. We listened to Corina and his family talk and we assured them we'd do everything in our power to help them out."
    More Roseburg and Southern Oregon players have since stopped by. They are greeted by a humorous man with a confident smile. Now out of intensive care, he plays tricks. Suarez has feigned pain when he's given shots in places that shouldn't hurt. He joked with a visiting teammate that he'd probably miss the next practice.
    "He is a quiet guy, but a jokester," Murray says.
    Sustaita is always close by. The two watch movies together and sometimes explore the hospital. Last Sunday, Suarez relaxed in a corner of the cafeteria as siblings, uncles, aunts and nephews hovered about, their hands a flurry of motion around him as they talked.
    "She's wonderful," Suarez says of Sustaita. "I wouldn't know what I'd do without her."
    Sustaita observes how Suarez's rehabilitation team helps him so she can do those things as his caregiver. Suarez completes 11/2 hours of occupational therapy and 11/2 hours of physical therapy six days a week.
    "It starts from the moment you wake up," Sustaita says. "I have to learn all that. I'm basically in training mode."
    Therapy can be painful, exhausting and frustrating for patients, says Susan Bohn, physical therapist at the inpatient rehabilitation center at Asante. Bohn says the couple "make a great team" and that Sustaita is "doing beautifully."
    Suarez's athletic roots have helped him in the recovery process.
    "He is someone who knows what it takes to get the best result," Bohn says. "He recognizes that and he's dedicated."
    Losing Suarez hurts Roseburg, which was already short-handed. Players play entire games in a schedule sans home contests. Suarez was a linebacker in the club's first two games of the year.
    "They definitely miss him out there on the field, his leadership," Murray says. "He was definitely a player."
    The Rampage club plans to retire Suarez's No. 13 and list him permanently on future rosters. The Renegades placed No. 13 decals on their helmets. Several Roseburg players intend to give him a replacement jersey and trophy case. Suarez was the first to join the club after seeing an advertisement on Craigslist, and the Rampage want to honor him.
    "It's not much, just little things we can do," Murray says. "Everybody is trying to pitch in."
    The man on the other end of the helmet — Welcome — is fine, thankfully, he says. It hasn't always turned out that way for the former South Medford High player, who graduated in 2006 and who has played six seasons of semi-pro ball since. He blew out a knee three seasons ago and required reconstructive surgery. Welcome was a landscaper at the time.
    "As I get a little older maybe I've thought about it a little more, the risks," says Welcome, who now works at Dutch Bros. in White City and rides his bicycle there from Medford each day. "You always know it can happen but you never think it'll happen to you."
    Robinson found out during his visit that Suarez's favorite team is the Chicago Bears. Despite being a fan of the arch-rival Packers, he and a co-worker crafted a letter to the Bears, who in turn mailed a package filled with memorabilia.
    Robinson delivered the gift. Seeing the box, stamped from Chicago, put an instant smile on Suarez's face.
    "He was taken back by that," says Robinson, a burly longtime football player and child welfare social worker.
    A hairdresser in Eagle Point spearheaded a city fundraiser, and Victor and Corina made a point to visit on his first release from the hospital earlier this month. Brewed Awakenings and other businesses have made and collected donations.
    Westdahl is organizing a baby shower for Sustaita and Isabella, the girl her daddy longs to hold.
    u
    Suarez signed up for Oregon Health Plan coverage recently, Sustaita says. They have found, and plan to move to, a wheelchair-accessible home in Ashland when he's ready to be released.
    Sustaita resigned from her job with Oregon Linen in Roseburg, which is nearly 100 miles from Medford, and has only gone back for appointments.
    Suarez, who worked building electric poles in the blue-collar town, misses wielding tools to help create something. His strong right wrist and the wheelchair give him some mobility now.
    "The chair is his way of being free," Sustaita says.
    Medical staff fitted Suarez with custom-made splints for both hands recently. He can extend or flex a wrist so that fingers begin to curl, a movement called the tenodesis grasp, a seed of dexterity.
    "We want to prepare him to be as independent as possible in his personal and professional life," Bohn says. "Just because someone has had an injury of that level doesn't mean they can't have full, enjoyable and active lives."
    Is there reason to believe a body, stricken by such trauma, can heal? It's a question Bohn says is inevitably asked by patients and family members. The answer isn't simple.
    "We don't really know," she says. "He had a significant injury. But we constantly are checking to see if he has additional sensation or any new movement."
    The financial aftermath is a nightmare that Sustaita fears acknowledging and does not like discussing. They'll need equipment including a Hoyer Lift, a wheelchair-accessible vehicle and a wheelchair, which alone could cost $30,000, Suarez says.
    "They'll have hundreds of thousands in medical bills," Murray says.
    It's all very overwhelming, Sustaita says, but Suarez has been strong.
    "He has handled it pretty good," she says. "He's not really the negative type of person."
    u
    Suarez attended Southern Oregon's home contest on June 14. He sat in the wheelchair, not far from where he was hurt. A flashback brought Suarez back to when things suddenly got dark.
    Renegades approached him and offered words of encouragement. The players understand the inherent risks of the game, yet the passion for the sport keeps them coming back.
    "It's the love of the game," says DeMello, an enormous man and a fixture of local semi-professional football. "We can't give it up."
    Adds Robinson: "What happened, it definitely makes you think. For me, I have a wife, kids. You have to pretty much ask yourself: What is it all about?"
    As for Suarez?
    "If I got better, of course I wouldn't play after what happened, but I still love the game," he says.
    Robinson's not sold.
    During his visit with the family, Sustaita joked with Suarez that he'd just have to accept being a spectator.
    "And he had that look of 'We'll see' in his eyes," Robinson says.
    The hope, it's there — in his eyes, in his hands, within grasp.
    Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt
Reader Reaction

      calendar