Casey Ellin is making "the best out of any situation' and is trying to make a difference in the world nearly a decade after a life-altering accident.
On June 1, 2013, Ellin, a former soccer, baseball and basketball athlete at Brentwood High School, suffered a near-fatal accident while diving into the ocean at Jones Beach that left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. Ellin, who had to relearn how to breathe and talk on his own, requires near round-the-clock care and still cannot bathe or use the bathroom on his own.
Nearly a decade after the accident, Ellin, now 35, has not let it consume his life. In fact, he's prospering, working with children with disabilities, learning to feed himself and raising money for spinal care rehabilitation and research.
"I try not to focus on the negative," said Ellin, of Glen Cove. "I try to focus on the positive and just try to make the best out of any situation that gets thrown my way. And I just want to be able to give back to people who are going through similar situations."
Last week, as part of Spinal Cord Awareness Month, Ellin and several friends organized a 10-mile run from the site of his accident to Cedar Creek Park in Wantagh and then back to Jones Beach.
A portion of the money raised from the event — roughly $6,000 — will be donated to Empower Spinal Cord Injury, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that assisted Ellin after the accident. Ellin also worked as a peer mentor for the organization during the summer.
During the run, Ellin was pushed in his wheelchair by fellow St. John's University alumni: Quinn Evans, of California, and Kevin Thompson, a nationally known comedian and entertainer from Brooklyn.
"Casey went through something rather tragic that would have broken anyone else's soul," said Thompson, who wants to make the run an annual event with corporate sponsorships. "We've all gone through our hardships and tough stories, but to be an able-bodied 26-year-old and you end up getting paralyzed and almost drowning down there … No one realizes that your entire life can change in the blink of an eye."
The remaining $5,000 raised from the run, along with about $6,000 from a GoFundMe fundraiser, will go toward helping Ellin find a home or apartment that can help enhance his independence.
Ellin currently lives in Glen Cove in his father's rented home, which he is not permitted to make handicapped accessible, forcing him to eat his meals in his wheelchair with a Velcro table. His bathroom entrance is not wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair.
Rachel Weltmann, 26, of Manhattan spent more than a year as Ellin's personal care worker and organized the online fundraiser.
"Working with Casey honestly changed my life for the better because it was the most rewarding job in the world," said Weltmann, who is now a licensed physical therapist. "But it also taught me the importance of self-love and positivity. That you can't necessarily change things because some things are permanent. But you can keep continue being optimistic."
Ellin was 26 when he dove headfirst into the shallow water near Field 6 at Jones Beach and struck what he believes to be a sandbar.
"I hit my head and … my body kind of shut off. I couldn't really move or feel anything and didn't know where I was," Ellin recalled. " … And then I realized I couldn't move."
Jones Beach lifeguards pulled him to shore and airlifted him to Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow.
Ellin, who at the time was working at Stony Brook University as assistant director for intramurals and sport clubs, fractured the C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae and required emergency spinal fusion surgery and a femoral graft.
He spent months in the hospital, surviving 45 days in the ICU on life support while also battling multiple life-threatening conditions. Ellin would later endure another 13 grueling weeks receiving physical, occupational and speech therapy.
"My whole everything changed," Ellin said. "I need help, basically, with every single activity that I do, even getting dressed and going to the bathroom."
But through hard work, patience and perseverance, Ellin says he has begun to regain a sense of independence. He has regained use of his arms and biceps — although not his hands or fingers — providing him with enough mobility to feed himself.
He recently started a part-time job at Angela's House, a Hauppauge-based nonprofit that supports children who are developmentally disabled and medically fragile.
"I wanted a more meaningful career or job after my accident," Ellin said. "So I felt like this was a great fit."
Ellin said his accident forced him to view life from a new perspective: to focus not on what has been stripped from him but on all that remains and for which he is grateful.
"I've been blessed with a fantastic support system with friends and my family," he said. "I always try to tell people that no matter what you experience, there's always someone who has it worse … So, I always try to look on the brighter side of things. I'm happy. And I'm still here."