Any parent of a teenager knows it’s not often you’ll find them busy ironing. But that’s just what Isaac Lopez, a 19-year-old patient on the spinal cord injury unit, was doing last Tuesday: getting his U.S. Coast Guard uniform perfectly pressed for a surprise ceremony. Captain Todd Prestidge, the Commanding Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center, was taking a trip up from Cape May, New Jersey to honor Isaac and his dad, David. There was no way Isaac was going to be caught in a wrinkled uniform. After all, the Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus or “Always Ready.”
In November, Isaac flew from his hometown in Southern California all the way to Cape May for eight weeks of basic training with the Coast Guard. He always knew he wanted to join the military and discovered the Coast Guard shortly after high school. He liked the idea of helping people on U.S. soil and protecting the country.
Isaac describes boot camp as “intense,” but everything he expected. “I was ready for it,” Isaac says. And he made some great friends.
On December 18, 2015, with just about a week left until graduation, Isaac started feeling pain in his legs and stiffness in his neck and back. Throughout the day, his legs became heavier, and the pain turned excruciating. Then they went numb. His friends forced him to go to the medical clinic. He had retained 1500 ml of fluid (about 51 ounces) in his bladder. “I looked pregnant!” Isaac recalls. But no one knew what was wrong.
At Cooper University Hospital for two and half weeks, Isaac made some progress but eventually lost all feeling in his legs. Countless CAT scans, MRIs, and two spinal taps finally revealed the cause: transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. He arrived at Magee in early January, a good 40 pounds lighter than his usual 187 lbs. at 6 feet tall. Pushed by his care team led by Dr. Formal, Isaac grew stronger. He calls his PT Rachael Houtman and OT Kaitlin O’Sullivan his “Magee moms.” Isaac’s dad, David, would fly back and forth from his home in California to his hotel room across the street from Magee. When David couldn’t be with his son, the Training Center would send Coast Guardsmen up from Cape May to hang out with Isaac and give him a sense of home.
Last Tuesday marked an extra special visit. Captain Prestidge presented Isaac with three priceless gifts: an American flag that had been flown in his honor (that order has to come from Washington, DC), a plaque inscribed with the Coast Guard ethos, and his challenge coin, presented in recognition of special achievement. “That’s a huge deal,” Isaac says with a grin. His dad got a coin, too.
Isaac will be discharged from Magee this week, then he’s set to report to his Coast Guard base in California on April 15. He could’ve taken 21 days off, but only chose to take a week. He’s active duty and will live in barracks. Isaac’s job right now will be to make all of his appointments at the VA for therapy. He’s looking forward to training in the aquatic therapy center and making new friends.