On the road to recovery with a new leg, Staples’ grad thanks town, ‘miracle’ surgeon
WESTPORT — Last March, Greg Strauss landed a job on a yacht in Antigua, fulfilling his dream of working at a Caribbean port.
Just weeks after Strauss, Staples High School class of 2013, graduated from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in December 2017, he headed down to Antigua and for two months, lived in a hostel and walked the Antiguan docks, taking whatever boat work he could find in hopes of gaining a full-time job, which he did, in March, as a deckhand on a private charter yacht.
At the same time Strauss, 23, pampered the yacht’s guests with fine dining meals and water sports excursions, he was pampered by the chef’s three cooked meals a day and free room and board, not to mention the company of the boat’s other young workers.
“I had it made more than anyone knows or could even understand,” Strauss said. He planned to work on the boat for two years.
Strauss’ plans changed on April 5, however, when the boat captain organized a day-off for the crew to a waterfall. While everyone was jumping off the waterfalls, Strauss went higher than he probably should have, and when he landed, sustained serious injury to his back and right leg.
Strauss was taken to a hospital in Grenada, where he was met by the 28-year-old Cuban neurosurgeon Dr. Nillo Alveraz who was in Grenada for hurricane relief. While everyone looked at the bone sticking out of Strauss’s rig
ht foot, Alveraz listened to Strauss while he spoke of pain in his back despite the absence of physical markers of a back injury and Alveraz determined Strauss had fractures and compression in his spinal cord.
“He told me I don’t have the proper equipment and I don’t have the proper people here, but we have to do this. I’m going to make it happen. You need surgery immediately. He knew there was going to be a lot of blood loss so he even went to the blood bank to pick out my blood to make sure there was nothing tainted,” Strauss said of Alveraz.
For nearly 10 hours Alveraz operated on Strauss’ back through the night and stayed awake to greet him in the morning. “Dr. Alveraz told me I’d walk again and I knew from his sincerity and his compassion and confidence that was it, and I never looked back from there. Even on the toughest days laying on my back not being able to move, that’s all I thought about: this isn’t going to happen overnight, but I’m going to walk again and find this surgeon no matter where he is” Strauss said.
From Grenada, Strauss was flown to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he spent one week in the ICU followed by three weeks in a rehab hospital. The Broward doctors were impressed by Alveraz’s surgery on Strauss’s back and said his back was stable enough that the team could turn attention to the compound fractures and soft tissue damage in Strauss’s right foot and ankle.
In order for Strauss to enjoy the most pain-free and active life possible, the doctors determined it was necessary to amputate his right foot below the knee. Later, the doctors replaced the little rods and wire Alveraz found to stabilize Strauss’s back with two titanium rods and eight screws that will remain in Strauss’s back for the rest of his life and hopefully prevent him from having to endure another back surgery.
Strauss returned home to Westport in May to great support from the community, he said. A GoFundMe page has raised over $153,000 for his recovery and although insurance has covered the majority of his medical expenses to date, Strauss said the prosthetic is a lifelong financial burden and insurance only covers the first prosthetic, so he will likely use the GoFundMe money for future replacements.
Through physical therapy, Strauss is gaining back his functionality and strength. He’ll soon take a test for certification to drive with his left foot.
“For me, I grew up always as a competitor whether it was against other people or just with myself, driving myself to do better athletically. It’s been like a new challenge having a prosthetic. That’s how I’ve been approaching it. Every day I wake up and have to do something to make my life better,” Strauss, who played football and lacrosse at Staples, said, adding, “Now that this has happened I’ve been opened to the whole world of Paralympics.”
Paralympians on social media have inspired Strauss through the last few months and one day he’d like to find a sport to pursue in the Paralympics, he said.
Most of all, Strauss said his family, friends, and the broader community have been his greatest inspiration. “It’s really the support and love that helps me every day. My friends reach out to me every day and my family and my parents are awesome,” Strauss said. “It’s just the little things that have started to not go unnoticed because when you feel so helpless, which I did when this first happened, it opens up a whole new perspective on people,” Strauss added.
Strauss has also connected with Alveraz.
“We text and send videos and stuff now and then,” Strauss said, saying given all the support he’s received, he wants to give the same to others.
“Now that I’m feeling like I’m going to make a full recovery, be my normal self again, and lead my most fulfilling life, I’m thinking about how I can give back, because I’m not going to be the last person for whom a terrible accident happens to or who gets sick or goes through any type of struggle in their life,” said Strauss, who recently became involved with Runway of Dreams, an organization that seeks to adapt mainstream clothing for people with disabilities.
“I’m at the point where I feel I’m ready to take the next step, but my back is still healing, my prosthetic is still maturing. It’s just about being patient. You don’t want to push it and screw something up. That’s not worth it. I’ve made it this far so I can take my time,” Strauss said.
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