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Brentwood brings graduation ceremony to paralyzed student

Carlos Hernandez is surrounded by friends and family

Carlos Hernandez is surrounded by friends and family after receiving his graduation diploma from Brentwood High School. (June 25, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

As hundreds of students graduated from Brentwood High School in a ceremony last weekend, one was missing.

Carlos Hernandez, 18, had passed his Regents, faithfully turned in his homework, met all requirements to don a cap and gown. All that, despite spending his senior year in the hospital -- paralyzed from the neck down.

Because he was unable to attend Saturday's graduation, administrators, teachers and family brought the ceremony to him Tuesday. "I'm excited; this feels good," Hernandez said afterward. "Through thick and thin, I made it."

Well-wishers arrived with cake, flowers and gifts, packing the lobby of South Shore Healthcare in Freeport. Cousins carried helium balloons reading "Congrats Grad."

"I love him so much, and it's so remarkable to see him come so far," said his mother, Ada Hernandez, of Brentwood.

On Sept. 9, 2012, Carlos Hernandez went swimming with a few buddies off the Bay Shore marina. Just a week before, he had started his final year of high school.

Joining friends jumping off rocks, Hernandez dove into a shallow area, breaking vertebrae in his back, the family said. His friends pulled him to the shore. As they called 911, a Good Samaritan rushed over to perform lifesaving CPR.

Hernandez was rushed to Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, where he nearly died. His mother said her son had to be revived seven times by doctors.

When superstorm Sandy struck, he had to be evacuated to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He has been at South Shore Healthcare, which specializes in rehabilitation, since March.

Today, Hernandez, a quadriplegic, relies on a wheelchair someone else has to push and needs help from a ventilator to breathe. There is no prognosis for when he'll be able to come home. But the teen's family said his humor and determination never waned.

"He's still an energetic and happy little kid that likes to have fun," said his aunt, Mattie Council, of Bay Shore. "He didn't change even though he is disabled."

Hernandez was determined to graduate on time. With the help of the Brentwood school district, he continued his studies at South Shore Healthcare.

"The district has a practice of accommodating students with ailments to help them complete the requirements for graduation," said district spokesman Felix Adeyeye.

At Tuesday's singular graduation, two dozen people, including school board president Helen Moss and superintendent Joseph Bond, turned a rear patio into a stage. As they waited for the graduate to make his entrance, many fondly recalled the popular student, known for his big smile and inexhaustible supply of jokes.

"Here he comes," someone yelled, prompting a rustle of cellphones and cameras.

Beaming, Hernandez arrived in his wheelchair, wearing a forest-green cap and gown.

His teachers delighted in seeing that big smile again. "I hope this shows how special you are and what you mean to all of us," said Brentwood High principal Richard Loeschner, who presented the diploma.

During his remarks, Hernandez brought some to tears, saying he hopes he can be an inspiration not only to his four siblings but to all students facing adversity. Then he joked with teachers and celebrated with family members, his diploma on his lap.

Hernandez said he's determined to go on to college, taking online classes at first, perhaps. He wants to study cybersecurity. "A lot of people in my shoes would have gave up," he said. "I'm not that type. My parents didn't raise me that way."

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