Miami-Dade County

After a drunk driver took his legs, a beloved principal vows to walk into school again

South Dade principal Javier Perez resilient after accident

South Dade principal Javier Perez speaks at a press conference at Baptist Hospital on Sept. 15, 2016.
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South Dade principal Javier Perez speaks at a press conference at Baptist Hospital on Sept. 15, 2016.

When principal Javier Perez finally returns to South Dade High School, he wants to enter the way he last left: walking through the door on two legs.

But for Perez, struck by a drunk driver on April 26, that goal is still a few months away. Perez, 43, had to have both legs amputated after the driver veered off the road and plowed her SUV into the principal as he was coaching his son’s Little League game.

Since then, life has been a daily struggle to regain strength and recover mobility, Perez said on Thursday at Baptist Hospital, where he is recovering. He spent a month in a coma after the accident, and has gone through grueling therapies. He hasn’t been able to go home to his children yet, although he hopes to be released from rehabilitation in a few days.

It would be enough to make most people lose hope, but Perez doesn’t see it that way.

“I thank God,” he said, with wife Maytee smiling by his side. “I thank the Lord for giving me a second chance at life and allowing me the opportunity to one day be able to help others.”

The couple gave a recent interview to WSVN Channel 7, but until the media gathering Thursday, they had not spoken publicly about the ordeal. Both were upbeat, with Perez thanking his wife, who has stayed by his side throughout his ongoing recovery, and his friends, colleagues and students, who have organized a benefit, hosted a 5K race and created a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for Perez’s medical bills and raise the more than $100,000 needed for prosthetic legs.

Perez’s story, and his resolve to remain positive, has inspired people in South Florida and across the country. Perez said he has gotten hundreds of emails and received books in the mail from people who have gone through similar experiences. His students and staff have taken photos of themselves wearing bow ties, Perez’s signature attire, and have coined the hashtag “Javi Strong” in a show of support.

The outpouring of love and generosity from the community has been truly humbling.

Javier Perez, injured South Dade High principal

“As you all know my journey has been a long and difficult one. It is nowhere near being over, but I'm blessed to be here today and grateful to express my sincerest gratitude to the heroes and angels who have been a part of my healing process," Perez said. “The outpouring of love and generosity from the community has been truly humbling.”

It’s this positive attitude that made Perez a popular principal at South Dade High, where he has been credited by students with making the school safer and calmer. In his three years at the helm, Perez was constantly on the go, visiting classrooms, talking to students, and cheering on the school’s sports teams.

Perez told the Herald that he looks forward to stepping back into the role of principal. “We've come a long way in the last three years and the goals will be the same, continue with student achievement, but at the same time looking out for our number one always, which is the kids.”

At a school with high levels of poverty, the “Javi Strong” message has resonated with students. “A lot of them that I've spoken to, it means that they can overcome anything, whether it's troubles at school or at home, in their communities, but that they can overcome all those things and be successful,” Perez said.

In spite of Perez’s outlook, the road to recovery has not been an easy one.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Maytee Perez thought she was going to lose her husband, she says. “The first three days were touch and go,” she recalled. Her husband was unconscious, and it fell to Maytee to make decisions about his medical care and explain what was going on to their two children, ages 5 and 12.

When Perez finally woke up from the coma, he had no idea that a month had gone by. He still has no memory of the accident, including yelling at the Little League players to run as the car veered toward them, or pushing a 74-year-old friend out of the way to save his life.

Perez did not answer questions about the driver of the SUV, who has been arrested and charged in connection with the crash, saying he preferred to focus on his plans for the future.

Those plans include training for a marathon once he gets his prosthetic legs, and going back to coaching his son’s Little League team.

Perez also will be throwing the first pitch at the Marlins baseball game on Sept. 23 to help raise money for the prosthetics. He said he has been practicing his throw at the hospital. “It wasn't as easy as I thought,” Perez said. “But I'm almost where I need to be.”