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8-year-old saves uncle after diving accident near Alexandria lake

Jordyn Patrick

Dan Shea has been counting his blessings for the past week and a half. One of those blessings is his niece, Jordyn Patrick.

Shea, who resides in St. Stephen, was spending time with his family at his father's cabin on Lake Moses near Millerville on Friday, July 16.

After dinner at about 7:30 p.m., Shea went for a swim with his niece, while other family members cleaned up dinner or pulled up lawn chairs to enjoy the evening air.

"He was diving off the dock and I was in the water at the time," said 8-year-old Jordyn, daughter of Brian and Melissa Patrick of St. Stephen. "When he came up, he was calling for help like a million times, so I knew something was wrong. So I grabbed him under the arms and kept holding him until my dad jumped in."

While Shea's first blessing was that Jordyn was there to hear his pleas for help, the second was that she grabbed him under the arms instead of around the neck, which could have injured him more.

Jordyn was alone in caring for her uncle at first, because other family members thought Shea was joking around and didn't realize that a real emergency was happening.

"At first I thought he was playing around too," Jordyn said, "but then I knew something was really wrong."

Then came another blessing - Shea's brother-in-law is a first responder for the St. Stephen Fire Department. He knew it was best to keep Shea in the water to minimize swelling and potential damage to the spinal column.

A 9-1-1 call was made and soon the Millerville First Responders arrived, followed by North Ambulance and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

It was determined that Shea needed to be airlifted, and the LifeLink III helicopter landed nearby and transported Shea to North Memorial Hospital in the Twin Cities. Shea remained conscious during the entire process and, according to his wife, Kelly, had no feeling in his arms or legs.

"My brother kept checking for reflexes asking him, 'Can you feel this?' but he kept saying he couldn't feel anything," she said.

By 9 p.m., 30-year-old Shea was at North Memorial undergoing an MRI, while family members drove down to be with him.

"We knew that it was a bad thing if it was a C5 break," Kelly said. "The majority of people with a C5 will be paralyzed."

So Kelly hoped for anything but a C5 break. However, doctors soon informed her that a vertebra was crushed, and it was the C5 vertebra. Swelling had occurred around the spinal cord and Shea had no feeling from the neck down.

She and her father-in-law drove back home to St. Stephen that night to pick up belongings for an extended stay. At 6 a.m. the next morning, Kelly received a call saying that her husband was starting to move his hands and feet. "I just sat on the bathroom floor and cried for 20 minutes," she said. "At that point I had been thinking he was paralyzed. I had a lot going through my mind - things like, I'm going to have to sell the house and he'll need a wheelchair..."

She also thought about what paralysis would mean for their 2-and-a-half-year-old son and their baby due in December.

The following Monday, Shea underwent a six-hour surgery to replace the 5th vertebra. Two plates were inserted, bolting the 4th, 5th and 6th vertebrae together.

Shea was released Saturday and will undergo physical and occupational therapy three times a week and wear a neck brace for 12 weeks.

While he is expected to make a full recovery, that could take six months to a year. That means he's done for this season with his job as a road construction paver operator.

"We're just very grateful it's turning out the way it is," Kelly said. "He's frustrated that he doesn't have complete strength in his arms and that his hands are numb, plus he has extreme pain in his neck. But that's better than the alternative."

Doctors told the Sheas that the reason Dan isn't paralyzed is because of the care he received at the time of the accident.

"Because he was kept in the water, the swelling was kept to a minimum," Kelly said. "More swelling would have pushed the broken bone into the spinal cord. His spinal cord is not broken, bruised or severed, but is completely intact, which is why he now doesn't have loss of movement."

That's also true of Jordyn's actions.

"If she would have grabbed his neck, the bone could have crushed through the spinal cord," Kelly added.

Jordyn tried to do more:

"I told him not to dive off but he didn't listen to me," she said. "It was really scary."