It was going to be a dream vacation for two Winnipeg paramedics as they set out last month for a lengthy trek through Central America.
But an accident just four days into their two-month journey resulted in a life-changing nightmare for the young couple.
Alex Petric, 28, was paralyzed from the ribs down after diving head-first into what he thought was deep water on an island in Panama. Doctors say he will never walk again as a result of the March 4 accident.
Petric's girlfriend, Meagan Minaker, was forced to put aside the emotions of witnessing the trauma and calmly use her medical training to get Petric out of the water and stabilized.
"I just remember him saying 'Meagan, I can't feel my legs,' " Minaker told the Free Press Wednesday. "I jumped into the water to keep his spine straight. I could feel the fracture, I could feel the bulge."
The couple had been staying at a hostel and had walked out on a pier that was about 30 metres from shore. The owners had told them the area at the end of the pier was popular with swimmers, and Minaker said the water was dark and cloudy, which hid the fact it was only about a metre deep.
"It doesn't drop off as much as you'd think. The paralysis was instantaneous when he hit," said Minaker. "I just remember seeing his face, staring up, trying to process everything."
The aftermath remains a blur: Petric was rushed to a local hospital, flown to a more modern facility for emergency spinal surgery and brought back to Winnipeg March 13 by a chartered air ambulance to begin a long journey toward rehabilitation.
"He's not going to go down without a fight," said Minaker.
Petric is receiving care at Health Sciences Centre but is hoping to soon be transferred to a specialized private clinic in California for intensive treatment they hope might be able to eventually bring back sensation and movement in his lower body.
"Every hour of every day is sort of lost time because when it's a new injury, time is important," said Minaker.
The tragedy has spurred many of their colleagues into action. A volunteer committee was quickly struck this month to plan numerous fundraising activities, including a golf tournament and social. A Facebook page, titled Prayers for Alex's Road To Recovery, already has more than 1,200 members. A website has also been set up at www.helpalexheal.com for those who wish to contribute to the cause.
"They had been so excited, had all these travel plans. And then boom, this happened," said Jonathan Torchia, a fellow paramedic and friend of the couple, who has been spearheading the charity drive. "It's difficult. Being a paramedic you get used to dealing with spinal injuries, but you usually don't take it home with you because you don't know them. This is different."
Colleagues have set a lofty goal of raising $100,000 for Petric, which would go a long way toward covering the California rehabilitation and future costs expected with his disability. Insurance covered his medical and transportation costs.
Petric, who has worked as a paramedic for three years, is maintaining a positive attitude while entertaining visitors and reaching out to supporters through the Facebook page.
"I want everyone to know that I am eager to start intensive rehab, pushing my body to the very max and prove these doctors wrong," Petric wrote last week from his hospital bed.
Minaker said they have been overwhelmed by the support, which includes everyone they dealt with in Panama and has now extended to the city. She believes Petric will make good on his vow.
"It's blown me away to see the sparkle in his eyes. He's so prepared to work hard. His tenacity is like no other," she said. "We're so focused on him getting better."