Diving accident hurt Denair man's spine; mighty spirit keeps him moving

For James "Jimmy" Oliver, the latest chapter of his life started with a pleasant outing at Don Pedro Reservoir in June.

How it will end not even he knows.

The 36-year-old Denair man and about 15 friends took a double-decker houseboat to a cove one mile from the reservoir's marina, where they waited for other friends to join their excursion on the Tuolumne County lake.

The large houseboat was nearly beached and extended more than 50 feet into the lake. A depth-finder had shown the cove was 15 feet deep and they couldn't see the bottom.

Oliver was talking with friends on the top deck when he crawled over the rail and dove head-first. Knifing into the water, his head hit the lake bottom and everything below his neck went numb.

"I dove 20 feet into four feet of water," he said last week. "Unfortunately, there was one spot with a little bit of a sandbar."

Oliver is known as a jokester, so his buddies didn't react immediately to seeing his body floating face-down on the surface. He could not move his arms and legs; all he could do was hold his breath until someone came to help.

Two of his friends are emergency medical technicians and soon realized it was no joke. They jumped in, turned him over and brought him to shore, while someone called 911.

When the sheriff's boat patrol arrived, responders put a neck collar on Oliver and strapped him to a backboard for transport to the Don Pedro helipad. Medi-Flight took him to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto.

Oliver freely admits the June 26 incident was his fault, a mistake that paralyzed his body from the neck down and put him in hospitals for 6½ weeks.

Still, his efforts to regain the use of his limbs have inspired hundreds of people who have planned or attended events to raise money to help with his medical expenses. His surgeon has said he will never walk again, but Oliver has other ideas.

"When the surgeon told me in the hospital I would be a quadriplegic, I said you don't know me," Oliver said. "I told her I will not be a quadriplegic and I will walk back in here someday."

The diving accident has posed the biggest challenge for the self- employed businessman, who has enjoyed sports, dirt-bike racing, camping with his sons and other hobbies.

The impact crushed a vertebra in the middle of his neck, pushing one of the broken bones into his spinal cord. A surgery at Memorial, two days after the incident, reconstructed the vertebra and fused it with two others to stabilize his neck.

The spinal cord wasn't severed but was badly bruised, causing the paralysis. As the swelling has gone down in the past few months, feeling has gradually returned to his shoulders, arms, thighs, knees and toes.

It's an encouraging sign, but Oliver has also been told that people with spinal cord injuries often get feeling back within the first six months and then it's uncertain how much they will improve.

"There is a good possibility of improvement," said Laurel Swisher, his mother. "Whether or not he will walk again is doubtful. He is very strong willed and determined to walk again."

Oliver, who is divorced, "temporarily closed" his auto repair business in Denair and moved back in with his parents.

He gets around the house in an electric wheelchair; his sons Matt, 17, and Cody, 13, are often there to help him out of bed in the morning and give moral support.

For months he has worn a metal halo, fixed to his head with titanium screws, to keep his spinal column in line as it heals. To cheer up his dad, Matt decorated the halo with flaming "Metal Mulisha" motocross stickers.

His road to recovery started with five weeks of occupational and physical therapy at a rehabilitation hospital in San Jose, where he started to get movement back in his arms. His arms now have full range of motion, and he has been able to turn his wrists for the past three weeks.

He is undergoing therapy to restore the grip in his hands and get his fingers working again. An extension worn on his index finger allows him to hunt and peck on a laptop computer to keep in touch with friends on Facebook.

Oliver said that getting feeling back is painful. It creates a burning sensation as the nerves start firing again.

Three days a week, his parents take him in a van to the Mercy Outpatient Center in Merced.

Among numerous other exercises, physical therapists place him upright in a standing frame to strengthen his trunk and start teaching him balance.

It's an exercise he obviously enjoys. "When I will walk again I don't know," he says. "But I will."

Patients with these injuries often have permanent spinal cord damage. Because of the scar tissue, the signals from the brain never get through to the limbs and the muscles deteriorate from the lack of activity.

Riga Mayoral, a physical therapist at Mercy, said he has seen patients who could barely move a finger improve to the point they could walk with braces. "You have to give it 110 percent," he said, "and Jimmy is one person who gives 110 percent."

One blessing of the ordeal is his relationship with Suzette Barcelos of Turlock. They had dated for all of three weeks before the accident and their love has grown.

Barcelos spent weekends at the San Jose hospital and sometimes drove there after work to see him.

"He is so optimistic and positive about everything, you have to love him," she said. "He made me a stronger person. He definitely is not a quitter. He makes life better despite what he is going through."

He doesn't know how long Medi-Cal will cover the rehab visits in Merced. If conventional therapies fail, he will watch for stem cell treatments and other advances in treating spinal cord injuries.

"I think a lot of people give up," he said last week. "Well, I'm not giving up."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.


The Denair Lions Club will hold a pancake breakfast to benefit Jimmy Oliver's medical fund.

TIME: Nov. 8, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

PLACE: Denair Community Center, 3850 Gratton Road.

COST: Free, with donations taken at the door.

For more information, call 614-1925.