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College Student Injured in Diving Accident Reflects on Loss of Independence, Urges Others Not to Dive

Clemson University student sustains spinal cord injury during spring break visit to South Carolina lake.

Twenty-year-old Joseph (“Joe”) Bailey Jr. of Andrews, S.C., was boating with friends during spring break in March and broke his neck in a way he would never have imagined possible.

Their pontoon boat was approaching the shore at Lake Keowee, S.C., too fast. Someone had to get into the lake and slow it down. Joe, a sophomore at Clemson University, had been a high school competitive swimmer who set records in the freestyle and butterfly events. He’d been diving into water most of his life, and he did so again.

But the water was only three feet deep.

“I remember hitting my head in the sand,” Joe says. “It didn’t really hurt, but when I tried to swim I had no feeling in my extremities. I was drowning.”

Joe was pulled from the water by his roommate and rushed to Greenville Memorial Hospital, where he had surgery for a C-5 fracture and spinal cord injury. Two weeks later, he arrived at Shepherd Center for rehabilitation.

Preventing diving injuries like Joe’s has become a passion for Herndon Murray, M.D., a consulting orthopedist and longtime Shepherd Center physician. At one point during the summer of 2011, 11 young men were being treated at the same time for diving injuries.

“I saw all those kids and, frankly, I saw in them as my grandchildren,” Dr. Murray says. “If one of my grandsons broke his neck diving, and I know what I know and had not transferred that information to him, I’d never get over it.”

Statistics compiled by Shepherd Center indicate that diving is the fourth leading cause of paralyzing spinal cord injuries. Eighty-nine percent of those injured are males, and 92 percent of them are between the ages of 10 and 39.

Diving injuries increase in March and April, peak in July and taper off in the fall. And, as Dr. Murray says, "They are 100 percent preventable. Don’t dive!"

But changing perceptions about diving isn’t easy. Children learning to swim learn to dive, and the media abound with images of people diving, an activity that symbolizes fun, celebration and freedom.

“That freedom can be gone in a nanosecond,” Dr. Murray says. “One mother told me her son was just beginning to assert his independence, and now, he’s totally dependent on her for his daily care.”

Dr. Murray says parents should tell their children, “‘Buckle your seatbelt in the car, wear a helmet when you ride a bike and when you swim, go in feet first.’ Break a leg, not your neck. A single dive can change your life forever.”

Joe Bailey’s injury forced him to withdraw from Clemson, where he had a 3.56 grade point average in chemical engineering. He undergoes intense rehabilitation therapy several hours daily at Shepherd Center with the goal of becoming as independent as possible. He is determined to walk again and to finish his degree. Still, he is dealing with the grief from his loss of function.

“I’m not going to sugar-coat it,” Joe says. “Sometimes, I’m distraught from fear of the unknown. I’ll look out the window and wish I could walk out of the room. I can’t feed myself. I can’t brush my teeth, and I can’t use the bathroom unassisted. I can’t move my legs or arms or wrists. The freedom I had to do what I wanted and took for granted – I don’t have that now. That eats away at me. I’m so young. There’s so much I want to do, and I can’t do it because of a diving injury.”

As for warning others about diving, he says: “Kids my age tend not to listen. When they see someone in a wheelchair, they don't think it can happen to them. I honestly think the most convincing thing would be for them to see me in therapy. Life can change in a split second. I urge them to listen."

For more information about Shepherd Center’s Injury Prevention Program, visit

Written by John Christensen
Photos and Video by Gary Meek
Video Editing by Cameron McBride

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.