The paralysis struck nearly the instant Carson Pforsich’s head hit the ocean floor that Sunday afternoon in Bodega Bay.
He felt no pain. But as he lay face down in the water, unable to move or beckon help, he was thinking, “Please, come get me. Otherwise, I’m done.”
His friend Anthony Lepori quickly noticed the 17-year-old Analy High senior was not moving and strode toward him and lifted him from the water. Two other friends helped carry Pforsich back to the beach and set him down gently. He had fractured a vertebra in his neck and badly bruised his spinal cord.
His friends had gotten to him so fast he was able to hold his breath the whole time he was in the water.
It would be the first of many circumstances that turned in Pforsich’s favor over the ensuing hours and days since the Sept. 24 accident, bolstering the Sebastopol teen’s faith in the prospect of a full recovery as he faces rehabilitation and the challenges ahead.
He is buoyed, as well, by an outpouring of love, support and gestures of solidarity from a community that has grown wider and deeper with each passing day, as word of his accident spread and gave rise to the hashtag #pforsichstrong13, in reference to his Analy High football jersey.
He’s received cards, messages and phone calls nonstop visitors bearing baked goods, balloons and sport-related keepsakes, as well as testimonials from others who have sustained similar injuries and recovered.
Under the Friday night lights that brighten high school football stadiums this time of year, the Tigers’ wide receiver was honored at rival campuses and others around the region with huge banners, posters and messages of encouragement. Images were posted online for him to see.
At Analy, where Pforsich ordinarily would have been suited up for the game, his 16-year-old sister, Kelsey, a junior at the school, wore the blue-and-white No. 13.
Striding onto the field arm-in-arm with her brother’s teammates, she stood in for him as honorary captain during the pre-kickoff coin toss against Marin Catholic.
The No. 13 Wildcats jersey presented to her by the opposing team and signed by all of its players hangs now in Pforsich’s room in intensive care, a reminder of the hundreds of people who on a single night took time to wish him well.
Asked about it a few days later, unabashed gratitude washed across his face.
“It made me feel so good,” Pforsich said.
Part of a longtime Sebastopol family active in community — both parents are Analy alumni — Carson Pforsich has spent his life in west Sonoma County, playing sports and roaming the scenic landscape. In addition to football, he plays baseball for the Tigers and has played basketball and soccer as a youth, as well.
After high school, he’s been planning to complete his general education requirements at Santa Rosa Junior College, with hopes of becoming a physical therapist or professional trainer some day and maybe opening a gym — maybe a gym by day/bar by night operation, to keep it interesting and profitable, he jokes, revealing a cheeky sense of humor.
On the day of his injury, Pforsich and three friends, Lepori, Jaylynn Serpa and Merritt Taggart, drove to Bodega Bay to have lunch at the Boat House restaurant and visit a friend who works there.
It was a sunny, warm day, and they decided afterward to stop at Pinnacle Gulch and hike down to the beach below the Bodega Harbour subdivision for a quick swim.
Pforsich ran into the water, dove into an incoming wave as he has “dozens of times” before, and his life abruptly changed.
“It didn’t hurt at all,” he recalled this week. “I just was instantly paralyzed.”
Lepori, who had jumped in first, said he thought his motionless friend was “messing with me.” Then he grabbed him by the shoulders and saw his face.
Pforsich is “a glass half-full kind of kid,” according to his mother, Andrea. He stayed calm in the terrifying moments that followed, thinking about his football team, he said, and that he had to remain strong for his teammates. His friends helped by keeping emotions in check, though Lepori, 16, concedes “it was scary to see my best friend like that.”
A neighbor was getting ready to call 911 when Lepori ran up the trail to Bodega Harbour to get cellphone reception.
Meanwhile, Mike Weihman, a battalion chief with Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, was walking his dog on the beach nearby when he heard a call on his two-way radio about a cliff rescue at Pinnacle Gulch. While Bodega Bay fire medics were still en route, Weihman stabilized Pforsich’s neck, “trying to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse,” he said later. As he evaluated the teen and filled in the paramedics, a helicopter evacuation was requested be called.
Weihman wouldn’t find out until later that his young patient was the son of a fellow firefighter. Andy Pforsich, an assistant chief at Gold Ridge Fire Protection District, has spent 45 years in local fire service, including stints as chief at Gold Ridge and Bennett Valley fire protection districts, and as a longtime battalion chief at Santa Rosa Fire.
He first heard about his son from after Lepori phoned Carson’s mother, who relayed a brief message to her former husband: Carson’s at the beach, and he’s hurt.
Turning on his own two-way radio, Pforsich confronted grim news. A 17-year-old who dove into a wave was paralyzed from the neck down.
“You just go numb, because we know what all those things mean,” Pforsich said.
He could hear people he knew exchanging information over the radio, the Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter responding and landing on the beach, and the pilot discussing where Henry 1 would be taking the patient.
As soon as it was clear Carson was going to Memorial Hospital, Andy Pforsich and his daughter headed that way, pulling into the parking lot just as the helicopter was landing.
The aircraft’s availability and favorable weather conditions were key, Andy Pforsich said. Carson was able to quickly get a steroid injection to minimize swelling that could impact movement and his breathing.
But “the topper,” the elder Pforsich said, was that a highly regarded, off-duty spinal surgeon happened to be at the hospital with his ailing young daughter and scrubbed for the three-hour surgery as soon as it was evident what was needed. He stabilized the vertebrae and reduced compression on the spinal cord.
Carson, said his father, “had a lot of things line up for him that day.”
His spinal cord was not severed so it remains capable of healing. He was intubated for the first two days and, thus, unable to communicate without an alphabet chart, a limitation he said he “could not stand.”
He also had no feeling or movement below his chest.
But by the second day, he began recovering sensation in his forearms and fingers. He has continued to gain strength in his biceps, allowing him to bend at his elbows.
More recently, he has developed feeling on his stomach and lower back.
He is headed next, perhaps today, to a specialized spinal cord rehabilitation center in San Jose, where he expects to spend at least three weeks. His mother will stay with him.
Andrea Pforsich reluctantly allowed her son to trade in the flag football of his middle school years for the real thing. Life since his injury “is so surreal,” she said. “Sometimes, I am just watching it,” as if from some outside perspective, she said.
But her son, with his positive attitude, “has made it bearable.”
For his part, Carson Pforsich understands he’s going to have train harder than ever if he’s going to walk again.
He has warned his younger sister that the car she’s been driving since he was hurt is still his, and he plans to reclaim it.
His impatience is palpable, his body, even in stillness, exuding energy and eagerness.
“It will be hard work,” Pforsich said, “but I’m ready for it.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.