All the way back

Deepa Bharath

Brian Slater's friends believe he's a miracle man.

Exactly one year ago, the 52-year-old Newport Beach paramedic

spiraled into a coma after a bodysurfing accident near Orange Street,

not too far away from his home.

On Monday, wearing a brightly colored shirt, shorts and his

trademark broad smile, Slater celebrated his recovery from what could

have been a fatal or debilitating injury with family and friends at

the Catalina Fish Kitchen.

Bob Blanchard, who still has a hard time talking about the day of

the accident, said he never thought his friend would make it all the

way back.

"I thought he'd fight back to where he'd get better," he said.

Blanchard pulled him out of the water off Colton Street with the

help of another lifeguard. At first, he didn't know the person who

had gone under was his friend. Blanchard just thought he was going to

help a stranger.

"It's hard for me to even think about it," he said. "I flipped

this person over, and it was Brian. At first, I thought he was

playing a joke or something."

But it was all too real and a huge shock for his friends and

colleagues at the Fire Department. Slater had trained some of the

paramedics who responded.

The situation was stressful to say the least, said Battalion Chief

George Pearce, who was on call that day.

"It was extremely hard on those who worked that call," he said.

"But they did a great job."

Slater's popularity in the department and the community drew

crowds to the emergency room and hospital waiting rooms. The city

even set up a website to keep people updated on his recovery.

It was a step-by-step recovery for Slater, longtime friend John

Kenney said.

"First he opened his eyes, which was a big deal," he said. "Then

he reached out and squeezed hands, and then he started recognizing

people."

Slater's recovery bears testament to his tenacity and strong will,

Newport Beach paramedic Jeff Boyles said.

"He is a very special person who always wants to help," he said.

"Six months after his accident, I saw him at the beach getting rid of

trash. It's the kind of person he is."

Slater underwent extensive rehabilitation and still goes to

Coastline Community College four days a week to a special class for

people with acquired brain injuries. He still struggles with

short-term memory but does well when it comes to remembering events

from many years ago.

"I remember things a lot of people find difficult to remember,"

Slater said. "But I have trouble remembering things that are very

easy for others to remember."

Going through the motions and the recovery process were the

biggest challenges, he said.

"But I'm glad I have the support and the wherewithal, which made

it all possible," Slater said. "I'm thankful that I still have

memories and I know right from wrong."

When he recovers completely, Slater wants to help someone going

through what he went through.

"So many people were nice to me," he said. "I want to be nice back

to them."

Last year was a rough year for the Newport Beach Fire Department,

said Pete Hadley, support services captain. The department lost Al

Schmehl, who died of brain cancer in August. Slater retired in

February after his injury.

Another irreparable loss for the department was the death of

Training Division Chief Randy Scheerer in December. He died of a

sudden heart attack at age 53.

The entire department is ready to get past that year of tragedy,

Hadley said.

"Hopefully, the worst is over," he said. "We're ready to move on

to better times."

* DEEPA BHARATH is the enterprise and general assignment reporter.

She may be reached at (949) 574-4226 or by e-mail at

deepa.bharath@latimes.com.

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