Man survives near fatal diving accident
Following a catastrophic diving accident that left a man nearly paralyzed, Spencer Brown and his wife, Ellis, are on a mission to promote pool safety.
On July 29, 2021, the couple and their children were attending a pool party at Ellis’ parents house to celebrate Spencer’s recent graduation from New York University.
Everyone was taking turns jumping off the diving board. When Spencer, 30, took his turn, he put his arms to the sides of his tall body to do a “penguin” dive into the pool. It was a dive he’d done hundreds of times before. But this time, his 6-foot-7-inch body slammed into the bottom off the 10-foot-deep pool, where the concrete begins to slope into the shallow end, with his head and neck absorbing the brunt of the impact. Suddenly, he couldn’t move.
'I can remember hitting my head and thinking, 'Okay, it's time to swim to get out,'' Spencer said. 'My brain was sending the signals, but nothing moved.'
Holding his breath underwater, he could only hope someone would see him. He was worried people would think he was just joking around.
It was Jason Chaffetz, Ellis’ father, who noticed Spencer was not coming up for air and began yelling his name. Ellis jumped into the pool and began to drag him to the surface. A cousin who was studying to become a neurosurgeon told the group to keep Spencer floating on his back in the water to prevent further injury while they waited for paramedics to arrive.
Ellis said that keeping him floating was not something she would have thought to do.
“But I'm so glad we listened,” she said. “Otherwise we probably would have done further damage to Spencer's neck.'
Spencer was rushed to the hospital where an MRI confirmed a C3-C6 spinal cord injury that doctors said was usually immediately fatal. No one was certain whether he would regain the use of his arms and legs at all, let alone walk.
Nearly a year later, however, after months of physical therapy and relentless determination, Spencer is walking with the help of a crutch.
Dr. Kevin Park, who treated him at the University of Utah Health's Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, said he has “central cord syndrome,” which typically leaves the hands and arms weaker than the legs, as in Spencer's case. Spencer also experiences spasticity or involuntary muscle movement.
Park said the prognosis is usually 'pretty favorable' and that he hopes Spencer will be able to walk without assistance some day.
Dr. Don Van Boerum, who treated Spencer his first week in the intensive care unit at Intermountain Medical Center, said his progress is unbelievable.
'Going from where he was those first few days and first few weeks where he was doing almost absolutely zero to the point where he's doing what he's doing now, that's not normal,” Van Boerum said. “That's exceedingly rare. He's the one-in-amillion guy.' But it has taken a lot of work. The Brown family has moved into Ellis’ parents house, who remodeled parts of the upstairs, put a lift in the garage, and moved themselves into the basement. For Spencer and Ellis, the day begins in the bathroom. Spencer can mostly get himself out of bed and into the shower, initially by using a wheelchair but now with a walker or forearm crutches. Ellis helps get him undressed and seated on the shower chair. When their daughters, 4-yearold Isla and 2-year-old Aurora, wake up, Ellis brings them into the bathroom and gives them breakfast. As she helps her husband shower, the children play with books or dolls.
'I'll have a bar of soap in one hand and a Barbie in another hand,' Ellis said.
The whole process takes two hours.
But Ellis is entirely grateful for the time she has with her husband, aware that the accident could have resulted in a much worse outcome.
Ellis was pregnant with their third child at the time the accident occurred. Before baby Guinevere was born in February 2022, Ellis said, “This is hard being pregnant and caring for him as much as I do but I would way rather have it be this way than to have planned his funeral and had to have his baby by myself.'
Today, Spencer and Ellis have become advocates for pool safety. They encourage anyone swimming this summer to assign designated lifeguards from among those attending family pool parties.
'You can rotate someone every 20 minutes,” Ellis said. “Have them wear a bright-colored piece of clothing so that people know not to distract them when they are on shift. Also, have a basket nearby with a fully charged phone in case someone needs to call 911.'
They also suggest that there should always be at least two adults in or near the water in case of an emergency. That way, if one adult gets into trouble, there is another adult who can help. They say that you can’t count on kids to rescue you.
They hope that their message can prevent injuries like Spencer’s from happening to others.