• Article
  • November 9, 2016

9-year-old Overcomes Spinal Cord, Brain Injury and Becomes Health Advocate

Jacob Lopez, a patient at Wolfson Children's, advocates for car seat and automobile safety.

By Gina Drioane

Jacob Lopez
Jacob Lopez is in a wheelchair after a serious car accident.

When Jacob Lopez was just 7 years old, he and his mom, Maria, were in a serious car accident. Jacob was buckled into a booster seat, but the seatbelt straps weren't positioned properly, and he suffered a severed spinal cord and a traumatic brain injury in the accident. Jacob began his healing journey that day with his first brain surgery at Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. 

His pediatric neurosurgeon broke the news to Maria and his stepfather, Bill, that Jacob would be paralyzed from the waist down. Although his paralysis was a major concern, the family took the news that Jacob would need a wheelchair in stride; Maria told herself, "OK, it doesn't matter—we’ll make it so he can do it." At Jacob's bedside, his family focused on helping him overcome his brain injury. 

Getting the right care

Jacob endured many medical and surgical treatments, but today he's thriving thanks to the care he receives at Bower Lyman Center for Medically Complex Children at Wolfson Children's. He can often be found waiting for a hospital ramp to clear so he can race down it with his arms in the air. "Jacob has no fears," Maria says.

While Jacob may be fearless, his family isn't always able to stop worrying about him. He deals with lingering issues, including bones that can easily break, but he doesn’t let that hold him back from being adventurous. Maria says it's scary to let Jacob speed along in his wheelchair and be an active boy. 

Family members have learned to balance their desire for him to be careful. "He needs to experience life and enjoy it,"she says. "We won't put him in bubble wrap."

Rather than being withdrawn, his story helps him relate to others. "We sometimes notice people divert their eyes as he crosses a hall, not wanting to appear to stare at a young boy in a wheelchair," Bill says. "But Jacob draws these people back in with his personality and positive attitude. When they meet him, they aren’t sad for a child confined to a chair—they are inspired to overcome challenges in their own lives."

Living life to the fullest

Because of ongoing surgical needs, Jacob sometimes needs a gastronasal tube to ensure that he receives ample nutrition. This tube can seem scary to many kids and their parents. During one of Jacob’s recent trips to the hospital, a toddler’s mother worried her child would be uncomfortable with the same form of nutritional support. 

But Jacob comforted her by explaining what the tube felt like and reassuring her that her son may not even know it'[s there. "He's not your typical young man," says Kelly Komatz, M.D., M.P.H., Jacob's pediatrician at the Bower Lyman Center, where she is also medical director.

Jacob is a special kid in many day-to-day ways—math is his favorite subject and he relishes being the funniest one in class. But he’s also special in not-so-everyday ways, too: Jacob is already an advocate at just 9 years old. He and his family have seen the benefits that come from the coordinated care they receive through Wolfson's Children’s, and want other kids to get similar benefits. 

"All the doctors communicate with each other," Maria says. "When we go to the doctor, they don't have to start all over again. They know what he's taking. What tests they're doing already. It makes everything so much easier."

Becoming an advocate

In June, Jacob traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 2016 Speak Now for Kids Family Advocacy Day, where he met with legislators on Capitol Hill to talk to them about the ACE Kids Act. He also attended the 2016 Annual Leadership Conference where they encouraged attendees to get involved with Speak Now for Kids. Jacob shares his message when he speaks, but he also sets an example with his actions. "I want people to know that even if you're paralyzed, you can still do anything," he says.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.