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LI dentist bounces back after wave nearly took his life

Dr. Joseph Brofsky, head of pediatric dentistry at Cohen Children's Medical Center, spoke Thursday about his recovery and return to work after a spinal injury while vacationing in the Dominican Republic that left him temporarily paralyzed.   Credit: Danielle Silverman

"Please God, don't take me."

Dr. Joseph Brofsky sent up that prayer after a big wave struck him from behind, leaving him floating face down in the water, unable to move and desperately holding his breath.

On Thursday, five months to the day after that vacation accident left the dentist largely unable to move his arms, hands and legs, the 62-year-old Lynbrook resident spoke at a news conference at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.

Brofsky returned to work in June as section head of pediatric dentistry at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park. He's walking the hospital hallways, seeing patients and even tapping out messages on his smartphone.

The news conference brought together the friend who saved him from drowning and the surgeon who operated on his damaged neck. 

"These two men made my life whole again," said Brofsky, turning his head, a little stiffly, to each man and saying, "Thank you."

The pediatric dentist shared his story as a cautionary tale for swimmers.

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"When you go out into the ocean, you need to be very careful," he said. "Watch your kids, know where the waves are, know where your children are."

Back in March, Brofsky was on a four-day vacation to the Dominican Republic with his neighbor James Lawler and a half dozen other golfing buddies.

On the second day, March 1, the men went for a swim in the ocean and, while Brofsky was standing in 3 feet of water, a tall wave struck him hard from behind. The force threw him face-first to the sandy bottom where he struck his head. 

"I was wide awake and it was very quiet, floating in the water," he said. "I realized I was probably going to die."

He said he desperately wanted to live so he could see the birth of his first grandson, due in June. 

Lawler, also 62, spotted his friend floating face down and swam as fast as he could to help him. The retired high school wood shop teacher called out for help, and did his best to keep Brofsky's neck stable as people pulled him out of the water.

Brofsky was flown via medevac to North Shore University Hospital, where he underwent surgery by Dr. Michael Lefkowitz, a neurosurgeon. 

"This happened in the Dominican Republic, but it could just as easily happen at Jones Beach," Lefkowitz said.

He sees at least one such case a summer, in which a swimmer hits their head and their neck is extended backward so much that the spinal cord is compressed and damaged, Lefkowitz said. The injury profoundly weakened Brofsky's arms, hands and legs.

During the 2½-hour surgery, Lefkowitz removed portions of Brofsky's vertebrae to relieve pressure on the spinal cord, and inserted two rods to stabilize his neck.

Brofsky underwent five weeks of intensive rehabilitation. At the start, he was in a wheelchair, unable to walk or feed himself. 

His grandson's impending birth served as a strong motivator. His goal was to be able to hold the baby. So as his recovery advanced, he started practicing by holding an eight-pound weight in his arms.

The baby, named Isaac, was born June 2 and Brofsky's dream came true when he embraced the boy.

"I saw that baby and I cried like a baby," he said. "When I held him … as good as it gets."

Brofsky still has some limitations. Although he can teach dental residents and perform oral exams on children, he lacks the hand strength to do the intricate work of drilling cavities and other procedures.

 He's hopeful he'll continue to improve, but that remains unknown, Brofsky said.

Lefkowitz said Brofsky's recovery has exceeded that of an average patient, in part due to Brofsky being a longtime runner in good physical condition.

Beyond that, Brofsky said his near-death experience had changed his outlook on living.

"Every day I wake up is a good day," he said. "Little things don't bother me. Traffic doesn't bother me."

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