Javier Perez wiped away a tear as his doctor slipped a medal over his head. The gold pendant resting against his chest proclaimed he was a trauma survivor.
Seven months ago, a drunk driver hit Perez, a popular principal at South Dade High. His injuries were so severe both of his legs had to be amputated. On Friday, during an emotional ceremony at Kendall Medical Regional Center, he thanked the fire-rescue paramedics who saved him.
The day he arrived at the hospital, Perez underwent more than 100 blood transfusions, 10 times the amount of blood normally in the human body. He was bleeding so severely the transfusions just flowed through him. Doctors said his blood was dangerously acidic and called his severe pelvic fracture a “non-survivable injury.”
His will to live was off the charts.
Dr. Mark McKenney
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But he did survive. During the next 10 weeks in the hospital he had 21 surgeries, a surprise 44th birthday party (“with a lot of cake”) and endless encouragement from staff, family and friends.
“His will to live was off the charts,” Dr. Mark McKenney said. “You can’t survive this without it — a driving, penetrating will to live.”
Perez said he will never forget the kindness of the people who took care of him at Kendall Regional Medical Center, but he’s glad he forgot the night that sent him there.
In April, the beloved high school principal was coaching his 5-year-old son’s Little League championship game at Tamiami Park when an SUV careened off Southwest 117th Avenue, through a chain-link fence and onto the field. Witnesses remember Perez shouting and sprinting into action, pushing his 74-year-old friend out of the way and falling into the path of the SUV.
The driver, Marilyn Aguilera, had a blood alcohol content three times the legal limit, tests showed.
Perez’s horrified wife, Maytee, watched in shock as Miami-Dade fire-rescue staff bundled up her husband and rushed him to the hospital. On Friday, she was able to thank the rescuers who helped her through it.
“They didn’t say he was going to make it. They didn’t lie. They said, ‘We’re going to get him to the hospital, and we’re going to do our best,’ ” she said.
On Friday, when she retold the story, Maytee pointed to a rescuer and asked, “I’m not sure, was it you who drove?” The woman shook her head and pointed to a man in the front row.
“Oh, well someone put my seat belt on. I guess it was you,” Maytee said with a smile. “Thank you.”
She told the crowd she was grateful for “every single angel that walked into this hospital and those that were on the field.”
“When I needed them most they were there holding my hand, helping Javi, telling me ‘just pray’ or telling me ‘it’s a roller coaster, just move forward,’ ” she said.
Javier Perez said his wife and kids plan to bring a Thanksgiving meal to the fire station and share it with the rescuers.
The couple said they consider everyone who helped them heal family, and they want to spend holidays with their family. Javier said his wife and kids plan to bring a Thanksgiving meal to the fire station and share it with the rescuers. Then, Javier and Maytee are taking their kids to Disney World.
Javier assumed telling his kids about the prosthetic legs he’ll be getting soon would be “a disaster,” but instead, his 5-year-old son was thrilled that his father will soon get “robot legs and be Iron Man.”
“He’s told me he wants to have robotic legs like mine,” Javier said, laughing. “We told him, no, keep yours!”
Seven months after the accident, things aren’t as different as the Perez family had imagined. Their home has been retrofitted and made wheelchair accessible. Javier still goes to the gym almost every day with his brother, which he said gets him a lot of stares and gym members asking, “Hey, are you sure you can do this?”
“I can,” Javier told the crowd.
Even after all this time, Javier said he gets daily emails and messages from loved ones and students, who still light up social media with #JaviStrong. The outpouring of love and support from the community is “humbling,” Maytee said. They get stopped in Costco, she said, by people who say, “Hey! You’re that principal!”
The crowdfunding effort for his treatment and prosthetic legs has raised more than $175,000. The class of 2017 honored Perez by forming 2017 and a bow tie, his signature fashion accessory, on the field. In September, Javier threw the first pitch at a Marlins game.
The “above and beyond” response has deepened his faith and made his family strong, Javier said.
“All I lost was my legs,” he said.