All James Ness wanted for Christmas was to meet the police officer who rushed to his rescue after a car wreck a year ago in Bay Shore left him clinging to life.
Ness, who is gradually recovering from severe head injuries, expressed his enduring gratitude Tuesday at a Southside Hospital news conference.
"The biggest hope I have for this Christmas," the 20-year-old college student said, "is to meet the police officer who saved my life that day, and I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart."
On cue, two uniformed Suffolk County police officers, John McAuley and Michael Tenety, entered the room to tell him they were the ones who responded to the scene.
Ness gasped, not knowing what to say. His mother, Lisa Ficarra, hugged the officers, calling the moment "definitely a Christmas miracle."
"It's amazing what you guys do every day," she told them.
"We were honored that this is what you wanted," Officer Tenety told Ness of his Christmas wish.
"Without you," Ness replied, "I wouldn't even be here."
The reunion was the culmination of what doctors and police called a team effort.
The wreck occurred about 10 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2013, as Ness, then enrolled at Suffolk County Community College, was headed to work at a GameStop store in Westfield South Shore mall, a short drive from his Bay Shore home.
Ness doesn't remember all the details but said he was on the Sunrise Highway service road when another driver suddenly changed lanes and hit the back of his black Pontiac, sending the sedan spinning into a utility pole.
Ness said he was thrown into the passenger seat after his seat belt came undone, but he managed to survive the mangled mess.
Tenety and McAuley, both assigned to the Third Precinct, worked with firefighters to get Ness ready for paramedics. McAuley, 38, and a 14-year veteran of the force, said "his airway was closed, so we cleared it out with suction and then ventilated him."
Their quick thinking contributed to Ness' comeback, said attending Southside Hospital physician Rosanna Sabini, who is trained in brain injury rehabilitation.
"It's actually the early CPR and the early breathing that certainly maximized his ability to recover, because there is a critical time where the brain, if within 10 minutes you don't provide it adequate oxygen, brain tissue starts dying," Sabini said.
Ness, who also had injuries to his lungs, liver, a kidney and other internal organs, underwent brain surgery at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. He received follow-up care and therapy at Southside. He's come a long way from his days on a feeding tube and plans to become a teacher, saying he hopes to inspire others.
Kristen H. Demertzis, chief of Southside's neuropsychology unit, said the case "shows the beauty of modern medicine coming together with a soul that never gives up."
The officers said Ness wasn't the only one getting an early Christmas gift.
"It definitely brings my spirits up," said Tenety, 38, a nine-year veteran. "We are never going to stop doing our job, no matter what's around us or what we run into . . . This is our job -- helping people."