In the final moments of life as he once knew it, Ryan Jaglal was confused but also exhilarated. I’m flying! he thought. Then he landed, a large rock under his back and a four-wheel ATV on his head and his legs wouldn’t move, and now he was thinking, I’m paralyzed, what about my marriage, what about my fiancée, what about my job. And finally: It hurts, oh my God, it HURTS HURTS HURTS.
The reporter listening to this story is pale and perilously near crying, but to Jaglal, who has told it too many times to count in the past two months, it’s just a tale of the insane surprises life can toss your way and how you have to cope with them, because otherwise ... well, there is no otherwise.
“You’ve heard people say, tomorrow is promised to no one?” he says. “I have really learned the truth of that. One minute you are starting a business and getting married and you’re on top of life. And the next you are in a wheelchair and it’s hard to see your future.”
Not so long ago, the 37-year-old Jaglal’s future seemed inexorably bright. After coming to Miami from Trinidad and Tobago with his family at age 11, he thrived: salutatorian at Miami Southridge High, two pharmacy degrees (including a doctorate) from the University of Florida, running his own pharmacy in Hallandale Beach before the age of 30.
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This year had every appearance of being the best yet. Jaglal was setting up a new pharmacy consulting business that had the potential to be extraordinarily lucrative. And, with marriage just a few weeks off, he had moved in with his fiancée, Shaiya Roy, a newly minted dentist. They planned a dazzling two-day-long wedding on Nov. 17 and 18, with two ceremonies, one Christian for his family, one Hindu for hers.
Even his bachelor party was to be spectacular: a three-day weekend with nine friends at the Punta Cana resort on the eastern edge of the Dominican Republic.
“We wanted to do something really guy, something hands-on,” Jaglal says. “Hiking, volleyball on the beach, that kind of stuff. And to eat! I’m a big foodie, and the resort is full of gourmet restaurants.”
The bachelor boys flew to the Dominican Republic on Friday, Oct. 13. “Which, in hindsight, was maybe a hint that this wasn’t a good idea,” says Jaglal dryly, rolling his eyes. “In hindsight, I would have been better off staying home and watching a movie about a bachelor party.”
For the next two days, they alternated between do-or-die volleyball on the beach and inflicting maximal damage on the resort buffet tables.
On Sunday, they decided to do something different: rent ATVs and head for a more remote beach about an hour from the main resort. Jaglal didn’t think it was a big deal; he’d driven ATVs four or five times without any problems.
“I never knew how dangerous ATVs were,” he says ruefully. “Now I put ‘ATV’ into Google and up pops death and paralysis. But I didn’t think it was much more than riding a bicycle. And the terrain we were traveling on was nothing. Like a country dirt road. Some potholes, yeah, but no hills or valleys or anything like that.”
There were, however, some large rocks here and there, and in the cloud of dust raised by 10 ATVs, they weren’t easy to see. Jaglal never saw the one that sent him careening through the air.
“All I knew was that I was flipping over,” he recalls. “The ATV went maybe four or five feet into the air, and traveled about 15 feet before it came down. My instinct was to hang onto the vehicle. But all that did was pull it to me. It landed on top of me. I got sandwiched between the ATV and a small boulder.
“What luck! It was the only rock in the area where I landed — a foot to the right or a foot to the left and I would have been scratched and bruised but basically OK.”
His horrified buddies quickly pulled the ATV off Jaglal. But what they saw underneath made some of the men sob and others vomit. Jaglal lay in the dirt, his shattered limbs twisted into a chaotic mess. “I think I’m paralyzed,” he gasped. Cried out his brother: “No, don’t say that!” But it was true.
The next several hours were a parade through hell. The nearest hospital was 45 minutes away, 45 minutes of potholes and rocks, Jaglal shrieking in agony at every one. His friends kept begging him to try to move his legs, and the legs kept staying motionless. A full, suffocating sense of the situation took hold. “This is really happening!” he sobbed.
The hospital, when they finally reached it, was like a museum piece from the 1950s, with little modern equipment and — on a weekend — nobody capable of operating what little it had. The staff took a series of X-rays, but had no radiologist to read them. Jaglal’s gasped suggestion that they do an ultrasound scan to see if he was bleeding internally was met with blank stares. The most-potent painkiller they had available was a bottle of Motrin.
It took 24 agonizing hours for Jaglal to be transported by medevac back to Miami, where he was rushed into a five-hour surgery. Only then did he get a full box score of his injuries: five fractured vertebrae and four broken ribs.
The reverberations of the insults to his spine are endless and agonizing: a procedure for impacted bowels that you just don’t want to know about. More catheterizations than are conceivable to the male mind. (“I wouldn’t wish those on my worst enemy,” Jaglal says with an audible shudder.) Constant twitches from muscles driven bonkers by rest in the same place for too long — Jaglal’s parents sleep in the same room with him now to shift his position every half hour throughout the night.
He spent a month in Jackson; he was released in November, a couple of days before what was to have been the date of his wedding.
What he found waiting for him at his parents’ home in far west Miami-Dade — the apartment he shared with his fiancée isn’t disability-friendly — were bills, stacks and stacks of them. Jaglal has opened about $50,000 worth so far, but suspects he already owes much more than that.
“Every day I get a new batch for things from the first week or so. They say, here’s a wheelchair! Here’s some medicine! And a month later you get a bill and you say, my God, I’m paying $50 a day for this?” Jaglal says. “The medevac alone was $10,000. The co-pay for the hospital was another $10,000. I’m taking 10 pills a day and I’m afraid to ask how much they cost.”
Experts on spinal injuries have told Jaglal that he can expect to run up $250,000 in bills before his treatment is through, and that’s a conservative estimate; it could be much more. (And it’s on top of $50,000 in lost wedding expenses that were prepaid and won’t be refunded. For obvious reasons, the ceremony had to be pushed back.)
He’s staggered, but not complaining, for what’s at stake in his ability to walk again. In the perverse gradations of the it’s-bad-but-could-be-worse world of spinal injuries, Jaglal is actually a bit on the lucky side. Though he’s paralyzed from the waist down, he can still move the toes on his left foot (though he has no feeling there) and can feel the toes on his right foot (though he can’t move them).
“That means the neural pathways that the brain uses to send messages to the limbs are still there,” says Jaglal’s physical therapist Alfredo Iglesias. “The potential for them to reconnect — for Ryan to walk again — exists. It could happen.”
Experts on spinal injuries have told Jaglal that he can expect to run up $250,000 in bills before his treatment is through, and that’s a conservative estimate; it could be much more. (And it’s on top of $50,000 in lost wedding expenses that were prepaid and won’t be refunded.)
There aren’t any proven treatments yet that will help neural pathways go back to work; they do it on their own, or don’t. But they’ll never get the chance if Jaglal doesn’t do therapy to keep his muscles from atrophying and his bone mass from declining.
“If your bones are too brittle to hold you up, you’re not going to walk, no matter what happens with the neural pathways,” Iglesias says. He believes Jaglal is a good candidate for rehabilitation. “He’s a very motivated, self-driven, extremely intelligent client.
“He’s very positive, which is one of the most important things. The mind can get paralyzed, too. A strong mind is one of the things most necessary to cope with a traumatic event like this.”
Iglesias knows a thing or two about strong minds; he has one himself, which enabled him to make it through an accident eerily similar to Jaglal’s. In 2008, on his honeymoon in Mexico, he dived into the sparkling turquoise waters of Playa del Carmen in Mexico. His head hit a hidden sandbar, his neck snapped, and he was left a quadriplegic.
The next year, Iglesias’ story was reported in Wish Book. He was hoping for money to buy a wheelchair-accessible van and to seek new therapy — the very things Jaglal is asking for. With the money readers sent in, Iglesias traveled to California, learned about new rehabilitation techniques for spinal injuries, and returned to Miami to open I Am Able Fitness, where Jaglal is being treated.
“It’s like everything has come full circle through Wish Book,” marvels Iglesias.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.