Doctors reckoned C-Jay McKenzie should be dead.
The 17-year-old fell from a tree, face first, into shallow water just eight months ago at Lake Ainsworth, Lennox Head.
He still remembers the moment.
‘I was with a few friends and had just ate lunch. I was the first and the last in the water,’ he told Echonetdaily.
‘I was standing on a branch about to jump out when a mate started shaking the tree.
‘I fell once and caught myself and he kept shaking and I fell headfirst into about a foot of water.
‘My best mate was on the bank and he got to me first.
“I was face down in the water, still conscious, but couldn’t move my arms.
‘My mate rolled me over onto him and held me flat on his back until the ambulance arrived.’
What followed was the scariest four weeks of his life.
The fall broke two vertebrae in his neck, and doctors told him he should’ve been dead from the injuries.
Instead, he spent four weeks in traction in Brisbane with a ‘halo’ bolted to his head.
‘They didn’t tell me I was paralyzed. They waited three weeks to see if it would come back to me,’ he recalled.
‘I could only just move my feet a little and couldn’t close a fist or press a button to call the nurses in.’
‘I thought I was screwed.’
For C-Jay, who had begun an apprenticeship after leaving Evans River High aged just 14, it was as if his world had collapsed.
‘It happened just as everything was sorted. I’d got a car, a house and a girlfriend and then bam,’ he said.
After four weeks in traction, doctors at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane set about repairing the damage.
‘One vertebra, the C5, broke in half and the other, C7, exploded. I was also left with permanent scarring on my spinal cord.’
As the bones healed, doctors took a piece of C-Jay’s thighbone to repair his C4 vertebra, which had been pushed out in the fall. They also inserted a plate and screws to hold it all together.
‘I was the only one making jokes’ he said.
‘All I was thinking about when it first happened were my plans for holidays, my birthday, and that I’d never walk again.
‘But I knew that negativity would slow me down so I tried to stay positive and I think that’s what sped up my recovery.’
Eight months on, C-Jay is not only up walking again, he’s getting on with his life.
Yesterday he started back at the Mecca Café, after signing on to complete the second year of his apprenticeship.
‘Going back to work was really good. I’m so happy to be back and everyone was really helpful,’ he said.
As for jumping out of trees at Lake Ainsworth, ‘I’m never going near that place again,’ he said.