MS teen paralyzed during diving accident returns to the pool

DESOTO COUNTY, MS (WMC) - Hernando High School senior Lawton O'Brien is back in the water after a life-altering injury.

His speeds were lightning fast and excitement about his potential was building at each swim meet.

"As soon as you hit that water, it's just release. You're just focusing on getting to the other side of the pool and back as fast as you can," said O'Brien.

The 17-year-old took his first plunge at age 4. By the 8th grade, he was swimming competitively.

Now simply jumping in the water at the DeSoto Athletic Club is a feat in and of itself, after a diving accident two years ago.

"Like mid-dive, it was either the left or the right foot that slipped on a raft that was in the way. I didn't notice it. I didn't realize it until my head hit the bottom of the water," said O'Brien. "And then I'm just floating there, trying to bring my head up, trying to turn over, trying to make my arms move, my legs move. And I'm holding my breath as long as I can."

His stepmother was able to pull him to the surface. He was in and out of consciousness as paramedics rushed him to the hospital. At the hospital, doctors delivered devastating news.

"They told me I was in a spinal cord injury. And that I probably won't be able to walk ever again." said O'Brien.

O'Brien's mom, Jody Woody, recalls the diagnosis: three shattered, fractured, and herniated discs resulting in paralysis from the neck down.

"He was in pediatric intensive care for about two and half weeks. He was having some blood pressure issues," said Woody. "They were talking about putting in a pacemaker because he just kept crashing. He did that about two or three times.  And just seeing that your son just go down--it was scary."

Woody said O'Brien spent weeks in ICU, before moving to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy. But his mother believed her son's competitive spirit pushed him through.

"He never quit. He would say he couldn't do it, but he did it!" she said.

"I had to prove them wrong."  said O'Brien.

After months of rehabilitation, he mustered the strength to stand on his own.

"And to see him stand for the first time. It was tugging on mom's heart strings here and it was just like when he was a baby. Just going through all that again," said Woody.

Standing led to walking. Then nearly two years after the accident her son was back doing what he loved the most--swimming.

"I did get nervous, but as soon as the water hit me, it just felt normal. Like, I was back with my team, with my family that was at school. I loved every second and every minute that I was in that water." said O'Brien.

He has gone back to competing, though his time was not what it used to be. He still struggles moving one of his legs and his hands. But just being in the water is a victory.

"Just keep fighting just know that you lived another day. Count your blessings." said O'Brien.

He's planning to accomplish his next goal next summer, when he walks across the stage to receive his high school diploma.

He and his mom are in the beginning stages of creating an online support group for teens with spinal cord injuries. O'Brien hopes someday he'll compete in the Paralympic Games.

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