The accident

What happened

A regular day, July 20th, 2005, Albufeira in Portugal: I’m going out for a “quick” swim.... I’m a 21-year-old college student, the future is wide open for me and I will undoubtedly become a top executive somewhere. It’s what I’m working hard to achieve. That day, I walk into the ocean until the water is just above my waist. A nice wave comes rolling in and I decide to dive right into it. I hear a snap as my neck strikes a sandbank underwater. I immediately feel that it’s bad. I have no control over my body anymore and am unable to move my limbs. I’m floating face down in the water and realize I just broke my neck.

Washed ashore

Initially, I’m confident that someone will come and help me. Then I see what I think is the arm of someone who’s about to rescue me. It takes me a couple of seconds to realize that it’s my own arm floating next to me in an impossible position. If there’s no change soon, it’s end of story for me. Luckily, right after water begins to fill my lungs, a big wave flips me over and I get a chance to gasp for air.

Bobbing on the waves, I slowly get closer to the beach. I try to call out for help, but nothing comes out of my mouth. A boy runs past, sees me lying there, and stops in his tracks. He gestures if I need help. I forcefully squeeze my eyes shut twice. He drags me onto the beach. From that moment, everything happens very fast. In no time, everyone on that beach has gathered around me and several lifeguards are standing over me. I hear my friends call out: “Come on Jaap, hang in there” and “We got you.”

High spinal cord injury

The ambulance arrives, they put me on a stretcher. I have to stay awake, but all I want to do is sleep. At the hospital, they quickly take X-rays and scans. The diagnosis: a high spinal cord injury. I’m paralyzed from the chest down and my hands don’t work anymore. So, there I am, in a foreign country where I don’t understand the language, in an unfamiliar hospital, in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar body.

The only thing I can still feel is blind panic. I scream, but no one comes. They’re used to it; they get a lot of diving accident victims here. As I keep screaming and shouting, I ultimately hear footsteps entering the room. From the corner of my eye, I see a nurse neatly checking the monitors. She then turns around and walks out again. Standard procedure.

Nurse carlos

And then suddenly, during the night shift, when I’m having another panic attack, there’s nurse Carlos. He reads the situation well, walks over to me, puts his hand on my shoulder – where I’ve not lost feeling – and says: “It’s okay.” He instructs the other nurses on how best to approach me. He sees me, Jaap, and not just another diving accident victim. For me, he really makes a difference. “Simply” by genuinely taking my perspective, he gives me the push I need to realize that I’m still alive.

When I tell him this later, he replies that he was just doing his job. But I also see the pride in his eyes. At that moment, it dawns on him that by doing something that is very normal to him, something that is “just” part of his job, he adds enormous value for someone else.