'I'M STILL HERE'
When Chris Thompson first saw his close friend Alex Agan lying paralyzed in an Intensive Care Unit in Mission Viejo, Calif., a few weeks after the accident, adrenaline rushed through his veins, his cheeks reddened and he felt a searing sensation in his face.
With the help of Alex's then-girlfriend, who could read Alex's lips, Thompson tried to cheer his friend up — relaying simple yet goofy questions.
Though they struggled to maintain composure, Thompson and Jackson Ray, another friend who visited Alex that day, complied with a simple yet important rule that Alex's mom, Shannon Agan, imparted.
They could not cry. They had to stay strong for Alex.
"What she had said, and it was from some good guidance we had received from a guardian angel at the hospital, was that you can't help the emotion but Alex needs you to be strong and you don't want him to start feeling bad because you're feeling bad," Alex's dad, McGregor Agan, said.
So ever since the Thanksgiving accident that damaged the C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae in Alex's neck and his spinal chord and rendered him quadriplegic, steadfast positivity has been the Agan mantra.
Alex, a Lake Oswego High graduate, has improved steadily and is hoping to raise money via his Help Hope Live campaign to pay for technologies and therapies to progress toward his ultimate goal of independence.
On Dec. 29, Thompson's band Freaks of the Sea and other local groups will perform during a benefit concert for Help Hope Live at the Dandy Warhols' Odditorium in Portland.
"Ultimately in my mind, the best-case scenario is that I fire all of my caretakers and I'm living 100 percent independently," Alex said.
Before the accident, Alex had lived a tranquil, happy life. After earning his diploma at LOHS, he graduated from University of Oregon in 2014, found a job shortly after graduation at Aruba Networks, was ascending up the corporate ranks and enjoyed life with a steady girlfriend and close-knit friend group.
"He always had the biggest smile of anyone in the room — always the most positive, loved to have a good time, was super supportive of everyone around him," Thompson said. "I always could relate to him, but he had a pretty picturesque life before this happened. I don't think he had anything go awry, and this went about as awry as it could go without dying."
One last slide
Alex has vivid memories of the incident that changed his life.
He remembers waking up early for a family golf outing and subsequently flirting with a triple-digit score, eating lunch and floating down the lazy river at the Grand Mayan resort.
Alex and a few family members found a pool connected to a slide that Alex describes as no taller than the roof of his parents' home in Lake Oswego. After an uneventful plunge down the slide, Alex recalls his family members suggesting they leave the pool and go grab a beverage.
But Alex wanted one last ride. And in a fateful spur-of-the-moment decision, he entered the slide head first.
After reaching the water, he ducked his head downward; he couldn't curtail his descent, though, and the back of his head smacked the pool's floor about four feet below the surface.
He remembers hearing a crack and having the wind knocked out of him, but Alex initially thought the accident would just be a minor blip on an otherwise enjoyable vacation. As time elapsed and he lie in the pool face down, though, he realized he couldn't move and he needed help. In the corner of his eye, he saw an arm move and thought assistance was imminent. But 10 seconds passed and his situation remained unchanged.
Eventually, his cousin Houston Agan, a lifeguard, came to the rescue and saved him from drowning. As Houston hoisted him out of the water, Alex knew that something was seriously wrong.
"As soon as he did that, I could feel his hand on the back of my head but I couldn't feel his other hand, and I realized that the hand that I saw earlier was my own," Alex said. "That was when I was like, 'Oh, that's not good.' I could tell it was pretty serious. Over and over, all I could say is, 'This is the dumbest way to get paralyzed.'"
Though Alex didn't realize it at the time, Houston's hasty rescue may have saved his life. Alex didn't need resuscitation from drowning, but if he had, its physical impact could have further injured his spinal chord or worse.
"If we would have gone into resuscitation without recognizing, it would have been worse and could have had horrible implications. It could have killed him," McGregor said.
Alex was whisked into an ambulance and eventually sandwiched next to two patients in critical condition. His nurses could not speak English.
Meanwhile, Shannon, who was preparing happy hour at the time of Alex's injury, feared the worst as she rushed to the hospital. But when Alex spoke to her, she felt relieved.
Alex told her: "Hey mom, I'm so sorry."
"The fact that he was here and didn't have any mental disturbances, that was pretty awesome. I thought I would just be a wreck and I walked out saying, 'He said he was sorry,'" Shannon said with a surprised and hopeful tone of voice.
Alex says the first night in the hospital after his family members had gone home was mentally challenging. Alone and unable to move, he was left with nothing but his thoughts.
At first, sadness seeped through his psyche, but he eventually snapped out of it. Survival necessitated positivity, he says.
Amazingly, during this darkest moment of his life, he thought about rapper and former child actor Drake and his role as a wheelchair-riding student in the show "Degrassi." When McGregor returned to his bedside, Alex greeted him with a smile.
"I'm still here. I'm comfortable. And in the end I don't mind being the cool cripple friend. I literally thought about it in the moment. 'Well, Drake did it in "Degrassi," so this couldn't be too bad,'" Alex said. "It sounds goofy and weird, but it was kind of a fight-or-flight moment. Instead of getting upset, I, for whatever reason, kept thinking of the positives, as corny as it sounds."
From there, Alex was transported to Mission Viejo, Calif., and Dr. Sylvain Palmer's ICU facility. During his six-week stint, he suffered double pneumonia and panic attacks; his heart stopped twice, and his lung collapsed.
"The six weeks in the ICU wasn't about getting better. It was just about staying alive essentially," Alex said.
But ample support kept him happy and motivated. His friends flew down from Portland to visit, and his uncle showered his room with Christmas decorations.
"That was amazing. It was needed because it was this constant daily battle with, 'What are we going to deal with next today,' essentially," Alex said.
After learning Alex enjoyed the cool breeze brushing across his face when shuttling around the hospital, Alex's nurses rushed him outside frequently. He compared the breeze to the rusty cup of water his great grandfather drank during the Great Depression.
"The best-tasting water came out of a rusty cup because you were that thirsty. He (Alex) said, 'This is my rusty cup,' because he was having fresh air that he wanted so badly," McGregor said.
After six weeks, Alex moved to Craig Hospital near Denver — where he underwent rehabilitation for another six months. The rehabilitation consisted of developing big body movements as well as fine-tuned movements, and also preparing Alex psychologically for his return to Lake Oswego.
Caregivers would simulate trips to the airport and to restaurants, so that once Alex headed home, he could competently navigate everyday life.
"Acute rehab is about getting you healthy enough, strong enough, capable enough to be able to go home." McGregor said.
Alex describes the atmosphere in the hospital as a dorm room where each patient, all facing severe injuries, learned each other's life stories. He says the patients with the most visitors generally had the most successful recoveries. And he received especially steadfast support. Every weekend, a friend or family member visited him.
"It's a life-or-death situation that you can face if you don't have the support system," Alex said.
Since he moved back to Lake Oswego in 2016, Alex has moved into his parents' house, continued rehabilitation at Oregon Health & Science University and met a new girlfriend. He is planning to move out into his own apartment with a caretaker this month.
Initially, Alex was paralyzed from the neck down. But now, he can move his arms to a limited degree, can operate a manual wheelchair and doesn't feel nearly as sick.
"When the spinal cord gets injured, everything shuts down. I would feel physically sick and now I feel much better for sure. Everything is under control," Alex said.
Despite improvements, his life is obviously much more limited now.
Though he hopes to one day join a wheelchair rugby team, he can no longer play his favorite sports like golf and snowboarding. And though Aruba Networks kept his position open for a year and a half during his recovery, he's now working part time and his morning preparations last four hours. Simple pleasures like frequenting restaurants are now onerous ordeals.
Yet his social life has remained vibrant.
"The social aspect hasn't dipped at all, because people are really interested in talking to me, getting to know me. That's nice. I was definitely concerned about that going home. 'Oh, things are going to be different. They're going to be uncomfortable bringing it up.' But they really haven't. They've been the opposite," he said.
Help Hope Live has raised more than $350,000 and the Agans hope to raise $5 million. They say they would use the money to buy a wheelchair van that Alex could drive, continue to pay for extensive caretaking services and pay for experimental treatments — potentially, stem cell spinal injections — down the line. Alex is currently undergoing an experimental therapy that sends vibrations and electricity down his arm with the hope of activating the nerves in his fingers.
Thompson actually came up with the band Freaks of the Sea after reuniting with a friend during his trip to visit Alex in California, and his mother, who is an event producer, thought of the idea for a benefit concert. Thompson says Alex's accident inspired him to move to California and pursue his passion for music.
"It woke me up and I realized, 'I shouldn't do anything else besides what I want to be doing because I could wake up and be severely injured or dead,'" Thompson said.
Ever since the accident, the Agans don't celebrate Thanksgiving on the usual Thursday anymore. Instead, they gather for the annual feast the day before Thanksgiving. As he said in a recent holiday toast, McGregor is not thankful for the day that changed his son's life, but he's thankful for Alex's life leading up to it and the sup-port his family has received since.
"So we are not thankful for Nov. 23, 2015. But we are really thankful for the life leading up to it and the life sense," he said. "He's a really good person, has a great friend group, has family, the community has been phenomenal.
"You should be thankful for what has turned into this amazing thing," McGregor adds. "We're very thankful for that. You don't realize how wonderful people are until something like this happens."
IF YOU GO
What: Right Now: A Benefit Concert in honor of Alex Agan
When: 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 29
Where: The Dandy Warhols' Odditorium, 1433 N.W. Quimby St., Portland
Details: Go to tinyurl.com/AlexAgan
You can help: Donations to Agan's Help Hope Live campaign are tax-deductible. Learn more at helphopelive.org/campaign/11290