Boca Raton man overcomes coma and earns degree
When Alexis Vazquez walks across the stage May 9 to accept his Associate in Arts degree from Palm Beach State College, every step will be among the proudest he’s taken since rebounding from a traumatic accident that left him in a coma for three months.
“I’m so excited. I cannot wait,” said Vazquez, 31, of Boca Raton, who is among PBSC’s more than 3,200 graduates who will receive degrees and certificates during two commencement ceremonies at the South Florida Fair Expo Center. He will participate in the second ceremony at 2 p.m. for graduates completing the A.A. transfer degree.
Vazquez and his then-girlfriend both suffered critical injuries after a car struck them Aug. 16, 2007 as they crossed A1A in Boca Raton on the way back from dinner at the beach. Before the accident, Vazquez had applied to PBSC and was pondering his future.
“It delayed my entire life,’’ he said. “Once I woke up from the coma, I had to relearn to do everything like I was an infant, and I was 21 when I woke up. I wasn’t able to walk, talk or eat. I wasn’t able to do anything on my own.”
After about two years of treatment locally and at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, as well as extensive physical and speech therapy, he began to improve. He started talking, walking and then driving again. He enrolled in Palm Beach State College in 2009 after he said a neuropsychological test determined that he had the capacity to learn but he could not overwhelm himself.
“I had to take one or two classes at a time, which is why it took a little longer than normal to get all of this education done,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, the diploma doesn’t say how long it took to earn a degree, it says degree earned. And, when you earn it, you really do earn it. It doesn’t matter if you’re going baby steps. Just don’t quit.”
Vazquez, citing research, said many victims of traumatic brain injuries die within the first year. “I survived. I passed the one-year mark. Once I passed that, I said, ‘OK.’ I pushed. I pushed. Thank God, I pushed,’’ he said.
“My focus was on recovery and walking. I needed to drive. Once I started driving, I wanted to go back to school. God is so good,’’ he continued. “After you live through something so traumatic, the appreciation of just the daily things becomes enormous. When I couldn’t walk, I would do anything to walk. Now that I can walk, I do anything for anybody so I can walk. I don’t need assisted devices for anything. I’m medically independent. I’m working. I’m driving. Thank God.”
For about five years, Vazquez has been working as a full-time paraprofessional at Boca Raton Community High School, where he graduated in 2006. He assists special needs children and provides other support at the school. He said his faith and his support system helped him on his road to recovery. “If it wasn’t for my support system, I don’t know how any of this would be possible. You need constant support. I had the support of my church (Calvary Chapel), my family, the city of Boca Raton and the most amazing mentors,’’ he said.
Vazquez often speaks to PBSC classes, encouraging students to stay focused on their goals despite obstacles. He also supports and has spoken to groups on behalf of Dori Saves Lives, a nonprofit organization dedicated to traffic safety and named in honor of former state Rep. Irv Slosberg’s daughter who was killed in a car crash near Boca Raton in 1996.
“I feel like it’s my turn to give back,’’ he said.
Vazquez was accepted into Florida Atlantic University where he will pursue his bachelor’s degree in communication/mass media studies. He said his goal is to continue speaking to groups and perhaps make a movie or write a book. “The world is endless possibilities,’’ he said.