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Seal Beach Rallies Around Crippled Swimmer, 13

Times Staff Writer

His breath was the only thing David Lupash could control as his body floated to the surface of the briny waves off Long Beach--so he held it, and waited.

As the men who would save his life pulled his limp body from the water, the thoughts of the 13-year-old Seal Beach junior lifeguard flashed to the day before, when he had gone through a bizarre dress rehearsal for this moment.

Only then, it had been role-playing. First he had practiced being the boy who dived into a sand bar and crushed his spinal cord, and then he was the lifeguard who would gently secure a neck brace on the paralyzed victim.

So David Lupash--son of Romanian immigrants, budding violinist fluent in two languages, straight-A student at McAuliffe Middle School in Los Alamitos--was smart enough to know what had happened in a split second that brilliant July 15 afternoon.

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“I saw them coming with the neck brace, and I knew I was probably paralyzed,” he says now, his voice matter-of-fact. “It was everything I had learned the day before, right down to the same cervical (vertebra) being broken.”

Even as he lies immobile in a Long Beach hospital room, a “halo vest” bolted to his skull, David Lupash is making plans to do volunteer work next summer. He expects that eventually he will return to his school, where he would have been in the eighth grade this fall.

Doctors said it is still unclear what mobility the quadriplegic boy will regain through intensive daily hospital therapy, which they anticipate will require at least five months, maybe nine months, maybe more--at about $1,000 a day. The family has been told that their bills could easily reach $500,000. Their insurance will pay for only two months of hospital rehabilitation--or $60,000. They are unsure how they will raise the remainder.

But in a town still small enough that word of mouth spread news of the tragedy in less than a week, prayers and fasting, moral support and fund raising have come from David’s swimming pals, lifeguard buddies, Sunday school classmates and family--including identical twin brother Daniel, just 60 seconds his junior.

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In recent weeks as many as 100 youths canvassed their Seal Beach neighborhoods, knocking on doors for donations for David, who lives at the edge of Westminster but whose family has for more than a decade participated in Seal Beach activities.

On Aug. 5, the members of the Seal Beach Junior Lifeguards program swam around the Seal Beach Pier in a fund-raiser and brought in $5,000. Members of the Seal Beach Swim Team--about 100 children ages 5 through 18--are already collecting pledges for a 200-lap swim-a-thon next month. A raffle also is planned, with prizes donated by local business owners.

Why?

“ ‘Cause we like him,” said Troy Davis, 10, who also is on the Seal Beach Swim Team. “He’s our friend.”

Troy’s mother, Karlean Davis, who has collected the donations, said: “The whole town is just buzzing about this. People who didn’t even know him. . . . All of us realize it could have been one of our kids.”

It was the kind of dazzling summer day that earns California its reputation--dry and warm with a faint breeze--and the Seal Beach Junior Lifeguards were ready for the competition with their Long Beach and Newport Beach counterparts. David Lupash took his turn in a relay, running from the shore into the waves.

Although he does not recall precisely what happened, his brother and other witnesses said David, always intensely competitive and one of the top swimmers on his team, plunged into a wave without first placing his hands together over his head in the proper diving position.

“His forehead hit a sand bar,” explained brother Daniel Lupash, an articulate 13-year-old who plays the cello, “then he floated to the top. He didn’t even swallow any water because he held his breath.”

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The beach was filled with screaming and crying children and parents, recalled Troy Davis, who knows the Lupash brothers from both the Junior Lifeguards and the swim team.

His father, Tiberius, a supervisor in the public works engineering division at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, and his mother, Cornelia, a Long Beach City College chemistry professor, were summoned to the hospital.

Their son would undergo a 5 1/2-hour surgery that night in which doctors working from both the front and back of his neck would reconstruct the fourth cervical vertebra out of a piece of David’s hip bone.

Four days later, David was fitted with an aluminum-framed halo vest, which holds his head and neck motionless while the spine heals. From the screws in the metal crown of the device, “there’s a needle that goes a half a centimeter, maybe a centimeter, into my head,” said David, who is at Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach.

As he spoke, nurses, doctors and friends streamed in and out of his sunny hospital room, decorated with surf posters, a T-shirt signed by a pro surfer, get-well cards and balloons, inspirational posters, framed photographs of his family and his fellow Junior Lifeguards.

Every hour he must be lifted and rolled into a new position to prevent bed sores and skin infections. He wears knee-high support stockings to encourage circulation. His hand is bent around a coiled washcloth and he wears toeless high-top tennis shoes to ward off atrophy.

For the time being, his smile and dark brown eyes convey a variety of messages. He rolls his eyes when his father mentions violin lessons, he shuts them while reflecting on a serious question.

They had a run-swim for me,” he said, his face softening. “My brother got second overall, first place in his (age) division. It’s really hard on him. He’s usually here every day, but my Mom needed to spend some time with my brother and sister (Ruth, 16).”

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He finds comfort in the almost imperceptible movements most take for granted, like his ability to flex the muscles of his chest and shoulders. He still has sensation, feeling heat and pressure from his shoulders down to his elbows, and occasionally elsewhere on his body.

It will be another month--perhaps three--before the vest comes off. It is unclear when he will finally return home.

The enormity of the accident is only beginning to be felt by the Lupash family. Twin Daniel has taken it especially hard. He has had “sympathetic” pains in his neck, his father said. All three children are extremely close.

“These kids seem to really, really love each other, for real,” Davis said. “It says a lot about how they have been raised.”

Since David is treated by a parade of medical experts, his father sleeps each night on a roll-away bed in his son’s room, trying to provide some security.

“Suddenly something happens like this!” Ti Lupash said, snapping his fingers, “and suddenly you become an invalid. David is doing way better than I ever expected, even when he has headaches and heartburn and things.

“His favorite nurse . . . said to him, ‘You may have to live in a wheelchair.’ And he said, ‘My Dad is already fixing my bike so I can do volunteer work at the hospital next summer.’ He is not dejected or upset. He wants to catch up.”

Both parents are proud of their children, whom adults and children alike rave about as natural leaders, well-mannered and considerate.

“They started one semester at McAuliffe and those two boys made their mark,” Sally Champlin, whose daughter swam with the twins, said during a hospital visit. “They are nice boys, creative, intelligent--they’re just exceptional. And very popular.”

But Mom and Dad also fret for their son. He is only a child, they remind themselves.

Each family member wants desperately to help. Monday, Cornelia Lupash began full-time teaching again, shuttling from the college to her son’s bedside daily. Ti continues to work and commute. Next year, Ruth will attend school through noon and then spend afternoons working with David.

“The problem will be Daniel,” Ti said of his youngest son. “He wants to stay home from school and take care of his brother. . . . They are inseparable. Always have been. Since they were little they communicated and none of us could understand them.”

One day last week, four boys and a girl from David’s Sunday school class at Romanian Baptist Church in Bellflower dropped by to visit.

Lying face down, the edges of the metal halo propping him about three inches from the bed, David looks at scads of baseball cards the children, eager to cheer him, slide under his nose. “We’ve been praying and fasting,” one said. “We get bulletins each week about how he is doing,” said another.

When they leave, David is briefly alone.

“I know everyone wants to help for my good, but I sort of feel bad when people feel sorry for me, because I don’t feel sorry for myself. This is just like a mountain I have to climb; it’s just something I’m going to have to work through.”

And work it will be. Soon, perhaps this week, David will begin six hours of daily physical therapy. After a few months he hopes to feel stable enough for occasional weekend visits home.

Some of his Seal Beach supporters understand what he is going through. Sally Champlin’s daughter, Nancy, 13, was on the Seal Beach Swim Team when encephalitis left her without speech and mobility two years ago.

“You realize your own vulnerability and you wake up and realize everything is not as it was. Everything is different,” Champlin said. “We will be here to help over the long haul, because with spinal cord injuries you are talking about years.”


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