By Marcelle Dibrell
A tragic accident that occurred at the start of this summer has forever changed the lives of industry professional Russel Burke, his beloved two young children, and others close to him. On Memorial Day, 37 year old Russel dove into shallow water at Lake Havasu, and now finds himself paralyzed from the neck down.
A member of the pool and spa industry for almost 20 years, Burke is well known and cared for in the Los Angeles area.
“Russ has always been an honest person, a good friend, and a great father,” Jason Bustios, of Hayward Pool Products, said. “The people in our industry love him, and so do I.”
Prior to the accident, Russel worked as a territory sales representative for Zodiac. Earlier in his career, he worked for Hayward Pool Products and was also a Construction Superintendent for California Pools. He made his start in the industry at age 18, working for SCP and Superior Pool Products.
Good friend and colleague Jill Digiovanni met him at this job 20 years ago. “He put himself out there all the time,” she said. “He never let you down.”
On the day of the accident, Burke, his girlfriend, Jennifer Hills, and other close friends, were enjoying a beautiful day at Park Moabi. Burke dove into the water off the back of his boat and hit the bottom.
Because there was no cell phone reception, his friend Jason Nichols ran to the Sheriff’s Office. It was over 30 minutes before an ambulance arrived, while Jen and others wisely supported him in the water, not moving him.
“I kept asking him to hold my hand while we waited, and he couldn’t,” Jen remembers. “That’s when I started to understand how serious it might be.”
Following the accident, Burke was air lifted to Las Vegas Trauma Hospital, 155 miles away. During his months’ stay in the Las Vegas ICU, Russel became sick with pneumonia twice and had multiple complications.
Meanwhile, his friends and family went to work on his behalf, attempting to raise money for operations and procedures that insurance would not cover.
To get Burke air-lifted to Craig Hospital in Denver, Colo., they planned a “Love for Russ” fundraiser on June 22.
Craig Hospital is a not-for-profit rehabilitation hospital that specializes exclusively in spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.
Burke’s friends and family learned that “graduates” from Craig Hospital have higher-than-average functionality following treatment, with greater independence and community reintegration as well as life satisfaction.
They were desperate to get him there, but insurance wouldn’t cover the transportation.
The “Love for Russ” event managed to raise $20,000 from raffle tickets and donated auction items as well as independent contributions. Immediately, $13,000 was put to use to air-lift Burke to Denver.
There, he was diagnosed with a complete spinal cord injury, category A. The scale ranges from A to E, with A describing the most serious case. Burke is a quadriplegic and ventilator dependent.
Burke has been in Denver since early July and is expected to be released on Oct. 17, depending on his progress.
Presently, he has full brain function and he is learning to talk while on the ventilator. He cannot breathe on his own, and unless his diaphragm regains some function, will probably be on a ventilator for life.
When Burke is released from the hospital, he will return to California and live with his father and sister in Simi Valley.
There, he will almost certainly require 24-hour nursing assistance, although this prognosis may change.
The house will require renovations and modifications to allow Burke to live there. For example, a new wheelchair accessible shower will need to be installed. An entry will need to be cut into the wall so that he can gain access to his bedroom.
Insurance does not cover these modifications. Much of the equipment necessary for physical therapy is not covered by insurance. And insurance covers only a certain amount of the needed medical supplies.
The necessary 24-hour care is also not covered.
One of the biggest hurdles the family still faces is purchasing a wheelchair accessible van, which insurance does not cover at all. The particular van that Burke will need costs around $60,000.
Despite all of these obstacles, Burke, his family and friends remain in remarkably good spirits.
“Russ can make anyone fall in love with him, within moments of meeting him,” his girlfriend Jen said. “He’s always been an inspiration to me, even more so now with the strength and determination he still has despite everything he has been through. I will continue to always be there for this very special man.”
Matthew Fuller, of Fuller Pools, said, “After 25 years of friendship, I’ve seen Russel overcome the most challenging of obstacles. Stay tuned, he will amaze you!”
His family wants to thank everyone in the pool industry for all of their support. “The pool industry has been like family to him,” they said. “We are humbled by the outpouring of love and support that they have given.”
Anyone wishing to donate can mail checks to: RockstarRuss SCI, 4245 Juneau Circle, Simi Valley, CA, 93063. All contributions are tax deductible 46-0913208.