‘A walking miracle’
STRASBURG — Jason “Jay” Gomez said his friends have nicknamed him Jay Strong, and it’s little wonder.
After the 18-year-old fell 75 feet from a cliff into a water-filled quarry on June 29, no one thought he would walk again.
There to swim and cliff jump with friends, the Strasburg resident slipped and fell into the quarry off Creek Road near U.S. 11 in Toms Brook. He landed on his back on a rock near the bottom, before tipping face first into the water.
He couldn’t move his legs, could barely move his arms and recalled having trouble breathing. But after surgery on a thoracic compression fracture at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, he immediately knew the procedure had worked.
“I’m literally a walking miracle,” he said.
His words echoed those of his mother, Elizabeth Stickley.
“It’s just remarkable,” she said. “Basically [he] survived something that’s shocking all the doctors.”
After nine days in the hospital, Gomez returned home to Strasburg on Tuesday, where he plans for home care and eventual outpatient therapy in Winchester. Friends and neighbors have been supportive, visiting often and so far raising more than $2,000 for medical bills through a bake sale and car wash last week and about $400 through a GoFundMe campaign at http://www.gofundme.com/y853a2g.
“I’m truly blessed,” Gomez said.
This autumn, he’ll return to Strasburg High School as a senior, but although he can walk, he hasn’t healed.
“I’m in a lot of pain and I have a bunch of screws and rods in my back,” Gomez said. He also broke his rectum and said he isn’t sure how long he’ll have to wear a catheter.
“There’s really not much they can do for that,” he said.
A former defensive lineman for his varsity football team and a member of the wrestling team, Gomez said he will not return to contact sports.
“It’s just with the damage to my spine,” he said. “And how violent football and wrestling are.”
It’s a painful reality, he said. “It’s my senior year. [But] I’ll still be there to support the team.”
If not for the quick responses of his friends on the football and wrestling teams, he said he probably wouldn’t be here to tell his story.
Rock face surrounds most of the quarry, but a lower access point allows swimmers easy entrance to the water. Gomez and his friends had already tried shorter jumps, but then felt the challenge of what they guessed was a 75- to 80-foot drop.
“I slipped and I couldn’t catch myself in time,” Gomez recalled. “I collapsed into the water. Of course I was in massive pain.”
“I was conscious during the whole thing,” he said.
His friend Justin Carr, 17, had already made the jump and recalled watching from a nearby rock island as Gomez fell.
“He got a hold of a tree, but it wasn’t enough,” Justin said. “It scared the crap out of all of us.”
He said about eight other friends were with them, among them Christian Neff of Strasburg, a member of the school swim team, who swam Gomez across the quarry, and Dylan Campbell, a lifeguard, who advised his friends on how to best carry Gomez from the water to a waiting pickup truck.
“It helped a lot having a lifeguard and a swimmer,” Justin recalled.
They drove him to the Toms Brook Fire Department where they had parked their cars earlier and called 911. From there he was airlifted to Charlottesville.
“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be there,” Gomez said. “I’m so thankful to have friends like that.”
Gomez said the experience has left him with a different perspective.
“I personally think you shouldn’t jump off anything there higher than 40 feet,” he said. “If you slip, it’s not like you can fall and hit the water. You can have a life-threatening experience.”
But Justin, a high school linebacker and running back, said he wouldn’t do it again.
“Don’t push your luck,” he said. “Don’t go anything probably higher than 25. I would say, stay safe.”
Two quarries in the area are filled with water, and Maj. Scott Proctor, of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office, said signs prohibiting access to the quarry are normally posted. But from time to time the Sheriff’s Office has received complaints from the quarry owner that the signs have been removed.
He said the quarry owner called again on Tuesday to report the missing “No Trespassing” signs. The owner gave no identification, but Shenandoah County property records list that Riverton Properties LLC in McLean has owned both quarries since 2002.
“The property is going to be reposted in the next couple days,” Proctor said. “In other words, the no trespassing signs are going to be reaffixed.”
“Apparently it was posted at one time, and those signs were either not maintained or removed, and the owner is going to repost it.”
The Sheriff’s Office checks the area periodically, and Proctor said the area is fenced in, but the condition of the fence is unknown.
“I would add it’s dangerous to swim in quarries, especially when they’re abandoned,” Proctor said. “There’s unknown dangers in the water and on the property itself. I would strongly advise against such activities.”
Justin said he and his friends didn’t see any signs, and that in spite of a barbed wire fence around the property, trashcans near where they entered the site made the area seem more welcoming.
“It was just open,” he said.
Gomez’s injuries were extensive, and he said his doctors also considered abdominal surgery before a CAT scan ruled out internal bleeding.
But his mother is hopeful of his full recovery.
“It’s going to be a little rough,” she said. But he is strong-willed. “I foresee my son fooling them all.”
Staff writer Joe Beck also contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com