Joseph Brofsky, DMD, calls it his “unlucky 13th.”
For 12 years, he and several close friends get away from the rat race of New York for a “Mancation.” Known as the ring leader, Dr. Brofsky prints t-shirts to commemorate these valued trips.
“We’re very close and love being together,” said Dr. Brofsky, section head of pediatric dentistry at Cohen Children's Medical Center. “We have a great time.”
This time, though, was different.
On the second day of the trip to the Dominican Republic, Dr. Brofsky suffered a serious neck injury that left him temporarily paralyzed. The subsequent whirlwind of events included several miracle moments that left him feeling lucky to be alive and walking again.
On the morning of Friday, March 1, Dr. Brofsky and seven other friends sat by the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana. It was relatively calm, except for the sound of Caribbean music and waves crashing in the background.
They had breakfast before he recruited some of his mates to go in the ocean.
“Everybody’s happy, and I say, ‘come on, let’s go to the ocean,” he said. “Four of us go and one went on the golf course. The other three stayed at the pool.”
Athletic and a runner by nature, Dr. Brofsky has completed an impressive list of long-distance races that includes seven marathons and 25 half-marathons. Still, as athletic as he is, he isn’t much of a swimmer. So, he primarily stayed in four-foot waters in the ocean.
“I usually don’t go too far out,” he said. “One of my friends was out a little further and another was just getting his feet wet. The last was sitting on the beach. I turned to look at the beach and that was my mistake.”
That’s when an 8-to-10-foot wave crashed down on him, hyperextending his neck and knocking him completely under water. His head smashed into the ocean floor. He doesn’t think he hit a rock, but the grainy terrain delivered a traumatic blow.
Dr. Brofsky was conscious as he lay face down in the water. He couldn’t move his arms or legs.
He thought the end was near.
“The next thing I know I’m floating,” he said. “My brain is working. It’s quiet and I’m floating. And I can’t move my arms or legs.
“I thought it was over, that’s it. How could you take me? I’m a young guy. I’ve got so much to do. Plus, I have my grandbaby coming. I said I have to stay alive to see this grandbaby.”
Dr. Brofsky held his breath as long as he could. He thinks he was under water at least 30-40 seconds. He was more upset than scared.
“I was angry and frustrated and negotiating with God,” he said. “Get me out of here.”
Dr. Brofsky’s friend, Jim Lawler, was deeper in the water and was first to see him floating. Mr. Lawler had safely jumped through the wave that caused the accident and was surprised to see his friend floating.
“He pulled me up. I was happy to see him, but my body is dead,” Dr. Brofsky said. “No arms, no legs moving. My face is bleeding. I look at his face, and I go, ‘oh, I’m in big trouble.’
“He screams for help and within a few seconds, there are a lot of people pulling me out.”
The rescue team pulled Dr. Brofsky ashore, but his arms and legs remained motionless. As he looked at their faces, he thought, “This must be really bad,” but he had the wherewithal to tell them he needed steroids.
“I said I have a spinal cord injury and I need steroids,” he said. “[My friend] Joey D. asked how I know that. I told them I work at a hospital and read a lot.”
Lifeguards stabilized Dr. Brofsky’s neck with a cervical collar. They transferred him to a spine board and into an ambulance. While traveling to the nearest hospital, he asked his friend to call his wife — Laurie Stone Brofsky, who then headed to the Dominican Republic.
Ms. Brofsky met her husband the next day after he was transported to a hospital in Santo Domingo. While in transit, he said he could feel his toe twitch, providing a glimmer of hope that he would be able to walk again. He had an MRI, which revealed significant inflammation and damage to his C3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 in his spine. The results were emailed to Steven Schneider, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon and colleague at Cohen Children’s.
Dr. Schneider told Ms. Stone Brofsky to return him home as fast as possible. He needed surgery and advanced care. So, both he and his wife took an emergency evacuation jet back to the US and were transported to North Shore University Hospital (NSUH).
At NSUH, Dr. Brofsky rested for a week to allow the inflammation to lessen. A week later neurosurgeon Michael Lefkowitz, MD, performed a laminectomy, spinal fusion and inserted two rods.
“This accident can happen in Dominican Republic or at Jones Beach," Dr. Lefkowitz said. “I removed bone from the back of his spine to relieve pressure. The rods stabilized his spine to prevent re-injury. I’m optimistic he will make a great recovery.”
After surgery, Dr. Brofsky slowly began to feel with his fingers. He was transferred to Glen Cove Hospital to rehab.
“Things started coming back, just because the inflammation was going down also,” he said. “But after being in bed for almost two weeks and not doing anything, it was hard to walk. Plus, the nerves and everything changed.”
Everything did change. Dr. Brofsky went from being paralyzed to potentially being able to move his limbs again.
He lauded the therapists at Glen Cove.
“They are off-the-charts great,” he said. “They pushed me to work really hard every day for three hours.”
Dr. Brofsky primarily worked with physical therapist Elizabeth Palladino, DPT, and occupational therapist Terence Fung, OTR/L.
“When he first came to us, he needed three or four people, including myself, to help him walk with a platform rolling walker,” Dr. Palladino said. “He did only about 10 feet on the first day. I remember he was really frustrated because he couldn’t use his arms. He couldn’t wipe a tear from his eye.
“We slowly progressed him. At the end, he was walking with just one person at his side in case he needed help. It was amazing to see his progress.”
Dr. Palladino utilized several balancing exercises and Glen Cove’s G-EO System, ideal for patients who have suffered traumatic injuries and require physical therapy to regain the ability to walk. The system realistically simulates floor walking and stair climbing while being operated by a therapist.
As Dr. Palladino focused on movement, Mr. Fung retaught Dr. Brofsky the necessary motions for daily activities.
“His arms weren’t moving and his legs weren’t strong,” Mr. Fung said of his arrival. “He couldn’t brush his teeth and do much by himself. One of my vivid memories of him was — him being a dentist — he coached me how to brush his teeth and gave me tips on how to brush my own.
“I gave him plenty of stuff to do with fine motor coordination. He played cards with his wife. We used putty to strengthen his hands. The key was to have him functioning independently. Everyone heals differently and he did really well.”
Dr. Brofsky stayed at Glen Cove for five weeks, where he relearned how to use the bathroom and get dressed. He says his legs are now at about 90 percent and his arms are around 85 percent of full functionality, and he sees improvement every day as he continues physical and occupational therapy at Northwell Health Stars Rehabilitation.
Being on the opposite side of care strengthened his gratitude toward the physicians, nurses and therapists working in the trenches each day. And he returned to Glen Cove to show his appreciation.
“He came here twice. The first time I was with my family at home in New Jersey,” Dr. Palladino said. “I was so upset I wasn’t here. But he sent me a video of him waving and dancing. I remember bursting into tears. When he came the second time, I looked up, saw him and immediately teared up.”
Dr. Brofsky also traveled to Kansas City to visit his daughter, Jenna, son-in-law, Ethan, and new grandson, Isaac. He trained to cuddle with Isaac while at Glen Cove by holding nine-pound weights.
The moment he asked to live for was realized.
“I cried like a baby,” Dr. Brofsky said. “It was a very emotional moment. Jenna took a picture and sent it to friends and family. Everyone cried.”
Dr. Brofsky is popular at Cohen Children’s. He’s known as Dr. Superman because he dressed up as the superhero a few Halloweens ago. Inside his office in the Department of Pediatric Dentistry hangs a large, vibrant patchwork quilt, which was a collaborative effort from employees of all levels at the children’s hospital.
He returned to work on Friday, June 14, just over three months after the accident. He’s not performing surgery right now, but he spends his days teaching and working with residents. He’s also planning his prized Give Kids a Smile, an annual Nassau County Dental Society-sponsored program he co-chairs that provides underserved and special needs children with free dental screenings and oral hygiene instruction. Nearly 16,000 children have benefitted from Give Kids a Smile since its inception in 2003.
Considering his progress, he aspires to run again (he recently jogged). But for now, he’s enjoying each day.
“Life has been good,” he said. “People call me the miracle man.
“I don’t get upset about little things anymore. Every day is a good day. You know, I mean, my hands are still sore, numb or tingly. I can’t do everything I want to do yet, but I can hold my new grandbaby.”