Rising from the deep
When a lake excursion left Trey Davis paralyzed, a UF Health neurosurgeon set him on the path to recovery
Just moments before, the star soccer player and recent high school graduate dove from a second-story dock at his friend’s lake house. A friend jumped in the lake after him, accidentally landing directly on Davis’ neck. Davis lost consciousness for a few moments, waking to find himself still underwater.
“I thought I was swimming in a deep part of the lake,” Davis recalls from that fateful night in June 2019. “My brain was working fine so I thought I was moving, but my body wasn’t responding. Then I realized I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed from the neck down. I almost had a sense of peace underneath the water. I was coming to the realization I was going to die, but I think God put a peace over me. Right as I started to take in water, my friend came out of nowhere and picked me up.”
His friends carefully laid Davis on the dock, called his parents and before long, an ambulance rushed him to South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta. The staff there recognized the severity of the injury, and he was transferred immediately across the state line to the UF Health Neuromedicine Hospital, where he was met by the neurosurgeon on call, Daniel Hoh, MD.
“Our team quickly confirmed the community hospital’s diagnosis of an acute spinal cord injury and cervical spine fracture — Trey had lost all movement and sensation in his arms and legs,” says Hoh, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the UF College of Medicine who specializes in complex spinal surgery. “We took him immediately to the operating room to perform an emergent decompression of the spinal cord and stabilization of the fracture.”
From early morning into mid-afternoon, Hoh and his team worked to remove bone fragments that were impinging on the injured spinal cord, thereby hoping to preserve and recover neurologic function. Then, Davis’ fractured spinal column was reconstructed and stabilized with metal implants and bone grafts. Hoh says the actions his team took — operating on Davis less than eight hours after his injury, and treating him in the intensive care unit to increase blood flow to the spinal cord with a combination of medications and spinal fluid drainage — all can contribute to neurological recovery.
After the surgery was complete, there was nothing Davis and his family could do but wait.
“For the first few days, we didn’t see any changes or improvement,” Hoh says, noting that Davis initially remained completely unable to move or feel his body from the neck down. “Within about a week, however, we noticed he started to flicker his toe. That was the first sign that there was a chance for recovery. Over the next few days, we started to see some recovery of movement in one leg. We thought that was a very promising sign within a short amount of time.”
Davis spent 11 days at the UF Health Neuromedicine Hospital. He says over that week and a half, his mood transformed from one of despair to one of hope, which he attributed to the quality of care he received.
“I’m a University of Georgia Bulldogs fan for sure, but my experiences at UF Health could change my perspective,” Davis says. “UF Health was extraordinary, and everyone there was well-equipped and intelligent. I felt very taken care of.”
Sylvia Davis of Cumming, Georgia, stayed with her son at UF Health night and day. Her voice breaks as she describes the thoughtfulness of the UF Health staff. She recalls a staff member providing her with all the supplies she needed to take a shower after four days and four nights of sitting at her son’s bedside. When it comes to Hoh, Sylvia Davis calls him “a miracle man.”
“We can’t praise Dr. Hoh enough for being the man and the doctor he is,” Sylvia Davis says. “He is so kind. After the surgery, he explained what had happened. He couldn’t guarantee that Trey would walk again, but he told us he gave him the best possible surgery. And we believed him.”
After Davis left UF Health, he was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for nearly three months of inpatient rehabilitation. There, he reached important milestones in his recovery, like regaining use of his hands and arms, and importantly, being able to walk again on his own. When Davis submerged himself into a body of water for the first time since his injury, he learned recovery is mental as well as physical.
“The first time I got in the deep end of the pool at Shepherd and let myself go to the bottom, pick up some rings from the floor and shoot myself back up was truly extraordinary,” Davis recalls. “To be able to conquer water like that made me feel powerful.”
Seven months after that summer night that changed everything, Davis walked onto the University of Georgia campus as a freshman for the spring 2020 semester. When he’s not studying biology and psychology, he’s working with a physical trainer to regain full movement of his left side and recover the agility that once made him a star on the soccer field. He’s getting better at jumps, he says, but his next goal is to recover the ability to jog.
Davis plans to attend law school after graduating with his bachelor’s degree. He says college is a challenge, but he likes to be challenged. Thinking back on the adversity life presented him, Davis isn’t dispirited or deterred. He’s grateful for each and every moment he is given.
“Live life to the fullest and see what you can do with the day you’re presented — You really do never know when it’s going to be your last,” Davis says. “I know there’s a lot more ahead of me than the present situation I’m in. I’m still growing and changing mentally and physically, and I’m excited for the future.”