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‘Attitude is everything’
KP Cassidy’s remarkable path from paralyzing accident to walking across graduation stage
KP - Therapy Dog
KP Cassidy meets therapy dog Bentley on his first day at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation facility renowned for specializing in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, in early June 2018. KP sustained a compression fracture of his C6 vertebra -- one of 33 interlocking bones that form the spinal column -- after he dove off the bow of his family’s boat into shallow water on Lake Wateree to retrieve a set of keys he had tried to throw to a friend. (Provided by the Cassidy family)

The day was May 31, 2018. A Thursday. Above Lake Wateree, the sky was blue with a smattering of clouds. The temperature a balmy 85 degrees. Storms were in the forecast and they were packing plenty of rain.

Another storm was also in the offing. It packed something far more harrowing and Camden’s KP Cassidy was in its crosshairs.

“(High school) seniors always have that last week of school off before graduation and we were just hanging out on the lake,” said KP, who was 18 at the time and who is now a freshman at Wofford College.

“We had two boats and 15 people and we’d been cruising, listening to music and soaking up the sun. We stopped at an island and everyone went swimming on a sandbar.”

Indeed, it was a good day, but one about to turn terribly bad.

Unbeknownst to KP and his friends, the lake’s water level had been dropped to prepare for the incoming rain, and as early evening approached, the friends on their boats headed back to shore. Some of them needed to get home. One of those friends was on a dock; his car keys were in KP’s pocket. KP stood on the bow of his family’s boat -- a Scout center console -- and tossed the keys towards the dock.

“I was trying to save time,” KP said. “I threw the keys, thinking I could get them there, but I was 6 inches short.”

KP -- athletic, comfortable around water -- dove in to recover the keys, assuming there were the usual 6 or more feet of water. There was not.

“My head hit the ground. I heard a little crackle. I could taste something like iron. I don’t know what the taste came from, but it tasted like blood. Then I realized I was not capable of swimming.”

KP floated to the water’s surface, face down.

“I was thinking about how I’ve been in the water all my life and I just need to stay calm … I could sort of move my arms back and forth, but nothing else. I made eye contact with one of my friends (on the boat) and then I went back down in the water. I was hoping they would catch on that something was wrong.”

They did.

One of KP’s friends, a football player, jumped in the water, pulled KP into his arms, and handed KP’s immobilized body to a fellow football player who was on the boat. Cell phone service was sketchy but another friend was able to get in touch with her mother, who is a nurse. She instructed her daughter to stabilize KP’s neck and call 911.

*****

Early that same evening, KP’s father, Kyle Cassidy, was at the Camden House of Pizza on DeKalb Street. While waiting on a take-out order, he checked his cell phone and noticed a missed call from KP’s phone. When he tried to ring KP back, the call went to voicemail. Kyle got his order and headed home to the Cassidy house, just minutes from downtown Camden.

“When I was on Union Street,” Kyle said, “I saw my other son, Matthew, in a car, coming in (to the driveway) on two wheels. I knew something was wrong then. Matt told me that the ambulance needed my permission to leave the lake with KP. I realized something tragic had happened to KP at the lake. I could see it in Matt’s eyes. My only question to Matt was, ‘Is KP alive?’”

Inside the Cassidy’s spacious two-story home, wife and mother Elizabeth Cassidy was in the kitchen, preparing a graduation dinner for the following night.

“The entire family was coming into town,” Elizabeth said. “Kyle walked in the front door and I could tell by his voice that something was wrong. Kyle was on the phone with one of the teenagers (at the lake). Matt was standing next to Kyle and I was asking, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ All I heard were the words ‘boating accident.’

“I was thinking that KP had been run over by the (boat’s) propeller. We have been on that lake our entire lives and KP knows never to dive into the lake. Kyle was out the door so quickly he didn’t have a chance to tell me what was going on. I asked Matt if KP was alive and he said he didn’t know but that there was an ambulance on the way and he wasn’t sure what had happened… Alive. That’s all you care about at the time. All I can remember is just being in the kitchen, pacing.”

*****

KP was alive.

When his friends were finally able to reach an emergency operator, they were told to keep KP conscious.

KP laughed at the memory. “They kept calling me ‘ugly’ to keep me awake.”

Meanwhile, Kyle was racing to the lake.

“I was praying that he was going to be alive, promising that I would accept whatever version of KP we were going to get,” Kyle said. “I was pulling down the boat ramp as they were closing the doors on the ambulance. I was anxious to get my eyes on him. When I saw KP, he was scared. I got in the ambulance and asked him if he was OK. He said, ‘I’m so sorry.’”

Kyle touched his son’s legs and asked him if he could feel anything.

“KP said, ‘Yes, I can,’ but I knew he was lying. Just parental instinct. I realized then that we were not going to be coming home that night.”

The doors closed on the ambulance.

“As soon as the doors shut,” KP said, “I was out.”

Kyle got back on the road, returning to Camden to pick up his family and head to the hospital in Columbia.

Friends were at the house with Elizabeth, Matt and the Cassidy’s daughter, Caroline. 

“Not knowing was awful,” Elizabeth said. “Kyle finally called and said that he thought KP had broken his neck and that he couldn’t move his legs. Kyle came back to the house to pick us up and we raced to the hospital. I don’t really remember time being slow or fast. I remember Matt and Caroline crying and Matt saying he wished it was him. Kyle and I were trying to calm them down and we told them that we didn’t know how bad things were and that we needed to be strong for KP. We said, ‘KP is strong and he is going to be OK. He is alive and we will handle anything that is thrown at us.’ A storm hit as we were leaving, so we drove in the rain the entire way. We were able to catch up with the ambulance, so we were there when KP entered the hospital. As we walked towards the hospital, we approached a wall of teenagers and adult friends.”

“Word of KP’s accident traveled faster than we did,” Kyle explained.

*****

When KP arrived at Palmetto Health Richland Hospital (now Prisma Health Richland Hospital), he was strapped to a backboard and was wearing a neck brace. He was also still wearing his bathing suit.

“He was drugged and out of it,” Elizabeth said. “Kyle and I kissed him, told him we loved him and everything was going to be OK… Being strong for KP was very important. There was no time for crying.”

KP was taken to have X-rays. The news was not good. A compression fracture of his C6 vertebra, one of 33 interlocking bones that form the spinal column.

“When the doctor said ‘compression fracture’, Kyle’s face drained of color,” Elizabeth said. “Kyle explained about all the tiny bony fragments everywhere and how dangerous that was because (the fragments) could damage KP’s spinal cord.”

KP was in surgery all night. Doctors went in through his throat and the back of his neck to remove the bone fragments. KP’s C6 vertebra was essentially replaced with a titanium substance and anchored to his C5 and C7 vertebrae.

Prior to surgery, Kyle recalled that the doctor in charge was reluctant to offer a prognosis.

“He said, ‘Your son has a very serious injury and we won’t know anything for several days.’ But you still have hope,” Kyle said.

During surgery, a nurse called the Cassidys each hour to report progress.

“We would stare at the clock just waiting for the next hour,” Elizabeth said. “I walked around the hospital telling myself that KP is strong and positive and that if anybody overcomes this, it will be him. I thought about the things we would need to do to help keep him positive and what type of accommodations we would need to start making if he was wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.”

“You know,” Kyle said, “there are all the statistics and they are bad, but the statistics are not a strong, healthy, 135-pound guy. Despite the statistics, you just have to believe.”

KP was kept in a hypothermic state for almost a day. His blood was cooled, which brought his body temperature down so swelling around the spinal column might be reduced.

When KP finally came to, he was in a “quad room” where four intensive care patients were being treated in a single area.

“I remember being told that I would be very weak,” KP said, “and then I remember trying to move certain parts of my body and they didn’t move and that’s when I realized I was in for a fun year.”

KP’s mom remembered those early days, too.

“I remember being shocked at all of the tubes and IVs going into his body. They were everywhere … I can’t remember which night it happened, but Kyle and I were driving home from the hospital and we were quiet. He looked at me and asked, ‘Have you cried yet?’ I said, ‘No, have you?’ He said, ‘No.’ We talked about how we needed to be strong and that if we started crying we might not stop.”

As the days progressed, KP’s determination set in.

“I didn’t have my hands and I didn’t have my legs, but I felt like I would eventually be capable of doing anything,” KP said. “Maybe because I was surrounded by so many people coming in and out of the hospital. I knew I had my family and I knew I had my friends and I knew I was going to get back out on that lake.”

*****

On June 7, 2018, KP was moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a renowned rehabilitation facility specializing in the treatment of spinal cord injuries.

“We were told, ‘The best place in the world for KP is Shepherd’,” Kyle said.

“I felt like when we got to Shepherd, we were going to be OK,” Elizabeth said.

“The first thing they did at Shepherd was clear me for (eating) food and that was a great step for me,” KP said. “I ate a Burger King -- a double cheeseburger with just mustard. Shepherd was beyond anything I can describe. Oh my God, they were all so optimistic there. They put me in a power chair. It was nice. I put that thing on rabbit speed. They told me there was an outdoor garden and I went straight to it. It was so good to be outside again. My occupational therapist had me using my hand, brushing my teeth. I spent hours on a mat, practicing balance. I learned a certain way to put on my clothes. Being able to drive a car -- that was a big step. We (KP and his family) went to my favorite restaurant in Atlanta. I mean, you almost have to relearn everything. It was kind of like a job, but instead of getting paid money, I got paid movement.”

KP said he sometimes got sad when he thought about what he might be doing had the accident not happened. High school sports. Cross country running. Tennis. Being with his friends.

But he persisted.

KP was in three different therapy programs at Shepherd, one program building on another.

“We didn’t know what was at the end of the rainbow,” Kyle said, “but we knew we were going to get there quickly. Things were happening fast. When KP became self-sufficient, able to take care of all his needs without our help, at that point, we knew he was going to be OK. We knew he was going to be able to live independently.”

“My goal,” KP said, “was to go to college on time and be able to walk into class.”

*****

KP returned home to Camden, for good, on December 14, 2018. He drove himself, in his 4 Runner SUV, and he was alone on the highway.

“I felt very free. I even rolled the window down in the cold for a minute. I was listening to some country music, thinking about college, what my next step would be, and thinking about how I was finally going to be with my friends at home all together again.”

On January 2 of this year, KP entered Wofford as a freshman.

“I was excited to finally be in college,” he said.

“It was the best feeling ever,” Elizabeth said. “KP was so excited and he was feeling strong.”

KP is now able to walk unaided. He still uses a cane when he is tired or has to walk for extended periods of time. He uses his wheelchair if he has to navigate difficult terrain -- hills, mud, rocks -- or when he is in large crowds.

KP said he has met with the doctor who performed the surgery right after the accident, and the doctor told him that “based on those (first) X-rays, he didn’t think I would get anything back.”

KP cannot run and his left hand is still not as strong as he would like it to be, but he has been to the lake many times.

“You recover for two years,” he said. “My spinal cord is still swollen and still healing. I’m now trying to improve my stamina, speed and left hand movement.”

*****

The day was June 1, 2019. A Saturday. Camden High School (CHS) graduation. Against a backdrop of gold and black, CHS Principal Dan Matthews stood at a lectern and introduced the ceremony’s alumni speaker to a gathering of black-cloaked graduates.

“This time last year, there was a tragic accident up at the lake involving one of our seniors, Mr. KP Cassidy. At this time last year, he was fighting for his life, wondering whether or not he would live or walk, what his life would be… Today I welcome him to the stage to give the alumni speech.”

KP rose from a nearby chair, unaided by anything but his own strength. He wore a gray suit, a white dress shirt and a red tie. He walked determinedly across the stage, compensating for the weakness still evident in the left side of his body.

He arranged his speech papers, grasped the lectern and looked out at the graduates. He began his address by naming several celebrities who had given previous alumni speeches to Camden High graduates.

Then he paused and smiled.

“This year you get a 19-year-old quadriplegic with a mean pimp walk.”

KP talked about the accident; the decision to dive into the water to rescue the keys. “An impulse that turned my world upside down.”

He talked about the support he and his family received from the Camden community. “I remember waking up (in the hospital) to more support from this community than anyone could ever ask for.”

Finally, he took a deep breath and he talked about attitude.

“Attitude is everything. Everyone here is going to meet an obstacle or challenge in their life that will push them harder than ever before and if I’ve taught you anything, the only way to get past that obstacle is with the attitude you give towards it. You have to embrace the challenge.”

(Email story ideas to McInerney at salley.mac@gmail.com.)