|By John Morton|
A return to Florida was something the Brewer family wanted nothing to do with, and understandably so.
But as fate would have it, a specialized piece of equipment that gives them more hope than ever only exists on American soil in Jacksonville. So, beginning in early July, they’ll make the trip from Texas and begin another chapter of their saga at the Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital with something called a “HAL” machine.
This time, they hope what has been a terrifying tale takes a turn toward a miracle ending.
Thanks to the perseverance of their son Jacob, now 15, plus the support of hundreds of well-wishers and some new cutting-edge technology, Florida actually may become the family’s salvation.
But a year ago, Florida was the home to a lightning strike that paralyzed their son from the waist down. And it occurred right here on Siesta Key.
“We have a Sarasota TV reporter who is following Jacob’s recovery. We also get cards, letters and messages from people on Siesta Key. Many of them have also contributed to Jacob’s GoFundMe account (now at more than $50,000 in donations),” said Barbara Brewer, Jacob’s mother. “It makes a tough day a lot better.”
She paused and took a deep breath.
“There are so many incredible, special people there. Some of them have even said, ‘I hope you don’t dislike Siesta Key because of this.’ It’s like they are apologizing. Many of them say they were there that day, in the same storm. It could have happened to them.”
The family of four was visiting Florida for the first time, preparing to leave the beach last July 16 as a storm approached. It was still off in the distance.
Then, a bolt out of the blue found them, and they all found themselves on the ground.
“My ear was ringing. I had no idea what had happened,” Barbara Brewer said. “I look over and Jacob was foaming at the mouth. I started screaming ‘Please, we need CPR! Call 911!’
Then I screamed to God, ‘Please, please don’t take Jacob!’”
A pre-med student ran over and started CPR as the storm arrived with pouring rain and howling winds.
That’s when Deputy Mark Eve answered the call.
“When I arrived at the scene, I ran down the beach access and saw two people carrying a young boy toward me,” said Eve, a veteran of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department. “I told them to place him on the ground so I could check for vital signs. When I could not locate a pulse or breathing, I immediately started CPR by giving chest compressions and rescue breaths. The thunderstorm was over us the entire time with heavy rain and frequent lightning. Jacob’s parents stayed beside me, praying and assisting as needed. I continued CPR for several minutes until paramedics arrived and moved Jacob from the beach access to the rescue vehicle where they could safely provide aid.”
Did Eve, who has seen a lot of daunting scenarios in his career, think it was a lost cause?
“At no point did I think the situation was hopeless,” said Eve, who in December received a distinguished Life Saving Award from his department for his bravery that day. “I believe in the ability of the Sarasota County Fire Department to provide excellent care. I was worried of course, but I also believe in the strength of youth and the body’s desire to survive.”
Hours later, up in a Tampa hospital, Barbara Brewer heard one negative report after another. She learned that lightning had struck Jacob’s chest and exited through his big toe. His blood vessels throughout his body had nearly all exploded and they’d be cutting him open from top to bottom to increase circulation. His spinal cord had been severely damaged. Worst yet, he’d likely be brain dead.
“But Jacob kept on fighting,” Barbara Brewer said. “He wouldn’t give up. And neither could we.”
And that would become a theme for the courageous young man and his family.
“We were calling everywhere, not knowing what to do. We called lightning experts at Yale and Harvard. We took him to a specialist in Chicago,” Barbara Brewer said. “Finally, last October, a wearable robotic leg was brought to Texas. It is meant to stimulate nerve activation by giving bio feedback to the brain, telling the brain that it can use the leg. Once the brain realizes it can’t, it stops trying.
“We asked Jacob to focus, and that’s just what he did. And then, there was a positive result. There were signals. It’s then we thought, ‘This could happen.’
“We were told about the Cyberdyne HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) technology and that there were only four machines for it in the world. One was in Germany, but they won’t take on a pediatric case. So, it’s off to Jacksonville. We have to try this, we thought.”
(Regarding HAL, according to Brooks’ website: When the brain/muscle connection is disrupted because of a spinal cord injury, the HAL exoskeleton detects any faint bio-electric signals between the brain and the skin surface above the muscles and converts that signal into muscle movement. HAL is the world’s first advanced robotic treatment device shown to improve a patient’s ability to walk.)
Eve is one of many who isn’t surprised by Jacob’s determination and hope.
“I have been following Jacob’s recovery over the past year and can only describe it as amazing,” he said. “It is a testament to modern medicine as well as Jacob’s will to improve. I am confident he will continue to improve and truly hope for a full recovery.
“I think of him often and the small part I played in his survival.”
Jim Alfieri just happened to be visiting a childhood friend here in Sarasota on that stormy July day last summer. The news of the tragedy involving Jacob truly rattled him.
“All you can think is, ‘This could have been my own son,’” he said. “I wanted to help.”
Alfieri, a public relations executive in New York, has returned this year and is spending a few months in The Landings. He reached out to the Brewer family members and got their blessing to help create an education campaign regarding the risks associated with lightning, where in Florida it’s more prevalent than anywhere else.
“It’s a miracle he’s even alive,” Alfieri said of Jacob. “So, it’s a message that has to get out.”
Alfieri plans to erect a tent on July 16 near the pavilion on Siesta Beach and hand out literature that outlines the dangers of lightning strikes. He hopes to also get support from local emergency personnel and generate interest in the media.
Meanwhile, Barbara Brewer said she has seen TikTok videos that reference her son’s incident, as well as posts by Siesta Key lifeguard Scot Ruberg, known as “Scooter of the Beach,” that discuss lightning’s danger as a result of the tragedy.
“What Jim is doing is also great. People need to know Jacob’s story – and think twice before you go to the beach with a storm in the forecast. It could save another family. We didn’t know enough about it. It’s not safe.”
And Alfieri’s interest, out of the clear blue like that fateful lightning bolt, is another example of a people reaching out to the Brewers from places they never would expect.
“Did you know we received a $2,000 check anonymously? And dinner delivered? From a complete stranger,” Barbara Brewer said. “Who would ever imagine such a thing. When something happens like this, you enter a world you never knew existed.”