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Seaford teen making remarkable recovery from neck injury in diving accident, surgeon says

Nico Fiorello, of Seaford, walks at Nassau University

Nico Fiorello, of Seaford, walks at Nassau University Medical Center with CEO Dr. Victor Politi on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Nico Fiorello's goal is to play defense this spring on the Seaford High School lacrosse team.

His neurosurgeon thinks it's remarkable that the 17-year-old senior is even able to walk.

On May 17, Fiorello dived into a sandbar at Jones Beach and broke a bone in his neck that put him in danger of being paralyzed for life.

He was rushed to Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, where Dr. Elizabeth Fontana, director of neurosurgery, performed two operations. The first, done that day, helped relieve pressure on the spinal cord. The second, completed the next day, removed any additional pressure on the spinal cord and helped to stabilize the neck.

On Wednesday, 31/2 months later, he was standing in front a multitude of clicking cameras at a news conference at NUMC to talk about his recovery and his goals for the future.

All of which, Fontana made clear, was remarkable, given Fiorello's fracture of the C5 vertebra. She said the hospital sees several such neck fractures every month, mostly from motorcycle accidents. The odds of recovering as much as he has in so short a time, she said, "are slim to none."

"For every Nico, there are 100 who don't make this recovery," she said.

After 11 days in NUMC's pediatric intensive care unit, Fiorello went to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. There, he underwent physical therapy seven days a week.

Now he can walk with a walker and take some steps unassisted.

Fiorello said that on the day of the accident he was supposed to be working on an English project when friends talked him into going to Jones Beach. He dived into the water but he immediately knew something was wrong when he hit a sandbar and was unable to move, lying facedown in the water. A friend pulled him from the ocean and, luckily for him, a nurse happened to be nearby who stabilized his neck while he waited for an ambulance.

His mother, Lorraine, said the call telling her of the accident to her only child changed her life forever.

"I grabbed my pocketbook and holy water," she said. "I had no idea what to expect."

She attributed her son's recovery in part to his determination.

"Nico doesn't take no for an answer," she said.

Fiorello said the recovery was frustrating and painful, especially at first. But as he began to be able to move more and more body parts, he was spurred to work harder.

Now he is looking forward to starting his senior year on Thursday and hopes to rejoin his lacrosse team in spring.

He's also eager to begin the search for college, put on hold because of the accident.

Asked what he wanted to study, he said: "After the accident, occupational or physical therapy."