Walker Dawson huddles up a group of friends around Matt Bellina’s wheelchair on Cocoa Beach. The plan is to paddle out a little further south, where the sandbar is more crumbly.
“OK, we’re gonna push him into the biggest closeout, right off the bat,” Dawson cracks. Matt Bellina laughs.
A group of more than 15 friends gathered on Cocoa Beach on a recent Saturday. The mission? Get 40-year-old Bellina back into the water surfing.
It’s not a simple task. On Memorial Day, 2014, the Cocoa Beach resident broke his neck going head first down an inflatable water slide. Bellina broke his C4 vertebra, and damaged his high cervical nerve.
He’s one of an estimated 17,000 Americans each year suffer a spinal cord injury and live. Bellina can’t walk, and has limited arm movement. But on this Saturday, despite the odds, his friends are taking him surfing again.
They roll Bellina down the beach, and hoist him from the wheelchair to a sailboard modified with a kayak seat. With four people on each side, they paddle Bellina out into the Atlantic.
There are at least 15 people helping out – longtime friends, coworkers, family. Even his mom is in the water. They’re positioned strategically to grab Bellina if he loses his balance and falls off the board. One friend asks what to do if Bellina falls. The advice: Just get him up and try to hold him up.
Even with the life jacket Bellina is wearing, there is an element of danger here: Because of his injury, Bellina can’t hold his breath for long. If he goes down, they have to get his head above water fast.
And that’s exactly what happened on the first wave. As Bellina took off, sitting up in the kayak chair, he loses his balance and tumbles to one side – basically falling into the arms of a friend, but still getting dunked underwater.
With sighs of relief, they get him back up on the board in the water and try again. This time, Bellina lays flat on his back as his friends push him into a wave. They let go – and Bellina is surfing again.
He cruises like a missile in the water, grinning from ear to ear, and waving his arms. He arrives to cheers and applause in the break. Afterwards, he catches two more rides before taking a break.
Back on the sand, Bellina is hoisted back in the wheel chair and gets a drink of water. How does he feel?
“So good, so good,” Bellina said, grinning. “That was killer.”
Bellina got three good rides and spent 40 minutes in the water. But there was that one scare. He said it was actually “kinda fun” to be dunked.
And at this point, you may be thinking: How does he stay so positive?
“Attitude is 95 percent of it,” Bellina says. Mid-sentence, his 3-year-old son Jack runs up and asks him to hold a toy: A bright yellow surfer. He immediately switches to Dad mode.
“Yes, I’ll hold it buddy!” Bellina said. “Of course that was my son that just ran up. He’s the main reason I have to stay positive and always try to do better.”
Things haven’t been easy since the accident. Bellina has battled pneumonia, kidney infections and phantom pains. He’s been fundraising for an aggressive form of physical therapy not covered by insurance.
Bellina lives in a condo on the beach, but being in the water is where he feels most comfortable.
“I feel like I’m home,” Bellina said. “I’ve grown up here, but I’ve lived in several different places. And being in the ocean has always felt like returning to home. That’s what it feels like. It feels like I finally get to be myself, even if for a few seconds.”
Bellina said there are hundreds of thousands of people with spinal cord injuries in the U.S. that deserve the support to do the things they loved doing before they were injured. He said if there’s one thing people should take away from his story, it’s simple.
“Never give up,” Bellina said.
Abe Aboraya is a reporter with WMFE in Orlando. WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.