2 years later, Siesta Key lightning-strike victim Jacob Brewer keeps on with the tough journey toward recovery
By Jane Bartnett
Jacob Brewer, a 16-year-old Texas teenager, is preparing to start his junior year in high school.
But instead of taking classes at his school, he’ll be fighting to regain his ability to walk. The future, for the young man who was struck by lightning on Siesta Beach two years ago, looks promising.
On July 16, 2020, as Jacob and his family members were enjoying their Siesta Key vacation, his young life was changed forever. On that day, the Florida sky suddenly turned an ominous shade of dark, menacing gray.
As the family began to leave the beach, a bolt of lightning came from the sky. All four members of the family were hit. They found themselves on the sand. When his mother Barbara opened her eyes, she saw that 14-year-old Jacob was foaming from the mouth.
“I had no idea what had happened,” she said.
Pleading to God to save her son, she yelled out “Please, please don’t take Jacob!”
The lightning had struck the boy in his chest. After traveling through his body, the lightning exited through his big toe on his right foot. The family would later discover that his spinal cord was severely damaged and all of the blood vessels had been affected.
That day, despite dangerous flashes of lightning, rain and thunder, and the fact that it was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a pre-med student ran to Jacob and began to perform CPR.
Within minutes, Sarasota County Sheriff’s officer Mark Eve answered the emergency call. When Eve checked for vital signs and found none, he began chest compressions and rescue breaths through CPR.
Paramedics arrived quickly and once on the scene, they took the boy to their ambulance and then to Children’s Hospital in Tampa. Paralyzed from the waist down, Jacob spent two weeks in intensive care and then another three months in the hospital.
The family began reaching out to doctors around the world searching desperately for help. His parents discovered that lightning injuries are so rare that most physicians are not trained in treating lightning victims.
Months after the accident, they learned of a breakthrough treatment. It came in the form of a wearable robotic leg that works by stimulating the nerves. Biofeedback travels to the brain,
“Telling the brain that it can use the leg,” Barbara Brewer explained.
While Jacob had some muscle loss in his quads and hamstrings, the robotic leg helped him to make great progress.
Another ray of hope came last summer when Jacob entered the Brooks RehabilitationHospital in Jacksonville. Doctors at Brooks, the second-largest state-of-the-art rehabilitation hospital in the nation, began to treat the boy with the Cyberdyne Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) machine. In the United States, the HAL machine is only found at Brooks. There are only four such machines in the world.
A wearable device, the HAL sensors read when Jacob tries to move his legs and alerts the brain to act. The manufacturer reports that the HAL machine can improve and regenerate the patient’s damaged functions. For Jacob, the HAL machine has given him a part of his life and his hope back.
The Siesta Sand last July chronicled Brewer’s story as he was about to enter the Jacksonville facility.
In March of this year, Barbara Brewer posted a Facebook update on her son’s progress.
“He has been in a harness for physical therapy since September 2020,” she wrote. “Some days are really hard — it’s been rough seeing all of his friends moving through major teenage milestones.”
But, she said, “He went harness-free this week and we don’t plan on going back. He’s still fighting and he told me that he wants to keep doing the treatments.”
The treatments that she referred to meant a return to Jacksonville and the Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital for treatments on the HAL machine.
This summer, Brewer will begin intensive treatments there.
“It will be about a six-month stay,” said his mother, noting that her husband, Jeremiah, will stay with their son in Jacksonville.
She will remain in Keller, Texas with their daughter.
“Our family is pretty strong,” she said. “I have faith that Jacob’s nerves will grow back.”
A GoFundMe page with a video that chronicles Brewer’s progress can be seen at gofundme.com/f/jacob-brewer.
In addition to supporting her son and her family, Barbara Brewer has made it her mission to tell everyone about the dangers of lighting.
“I want to make sure that everyone knows what lighting can do,” she said.
Looking ahead to a year a little more than from now when, in the fall of 2023, Jacob will enter his senior year of high school. His mother believes that he will return to school in person.
“He will be back to school with his friends,” Barbara Brewer said, with confidence. “Jacob will walk again.”