Jeff Edwards of Herman, MN, fell from roofs and crashed dirt bikes as a kid, parachuted into dangerous places with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and faced potential harm for 13 years as a sheriff’s deputy and SWAT-team marksman. So breaking his neck in shallow water, while on vacation in Mexico in 2015, was not something Jeff had ever imagined.
“It was just a freak accident,” he said. “I got rolled by a wave and hit the crown of my head on the bottom of the ocean … instantly paralyzed.” Jeff said he remembers thinking, “All the dangerous and dumb things I have done in my life, and a wave takes me out?”
After a medical evacuation—securing an air ambulance that required up-front payment of $30,000 became longtime girlfriend Dani Murdoff’s first act as a caregiver—Jeff had surgery at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis to stabilize his spinal cord. And then he set his first goal: going home.
“I hated being in the hospital,” Jeff said. “They said I would have to be there for at least three months, and then I would be in [physical] rehab for six months.” But after just one month, he transferred to the Spinal Cord Injury & Disorder Center at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System.
Doctors at the VA, where Jeff was eligible for treatment as a Catastrophically Disabled Veteran, also thought it would take six months for him to master a wheelchair, bathe, dress, cook and learn to drive with hand-controls. But in three months and 10 days, Jeff had “checked all the boxes” of self-sufficiency.
So he went home to figure out his next steps, so to speak, with Dani, his kids, Briona and Jakob, and the family, friends and law enforcement community that had rallied around him.
While Jeff was in the hospital, Dani put up for sale the two-story house they had been restoring, and put into motion plans for building a place with an open floor plan and no stairs. Next on the to-do list was a new line of work. “Obviously, I couldn’t be a law enforcement officer,” Jeff said. “You have to be able to chase the bad guys.”
Through the VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America, Jeff landed a work-at-home job with a computer-storage company based in New York. He wanted to quit on Day 2. “It was completely different from what I was used to, and way out of my knowledge base,” he said. “But I’m not much of a quitter, so I figured I would give it a week … and within the first month I started catching on.”
Although “not a quitter” sums up so much, Jeff said he still thinks about the day his life “went from 60 mph to 0 mph, in no time flat.”
“Every day there are ‘what-ifs,'” he said. “I think, ‘What if I had just hung out at the pool that day? Or gone across the street to shop? Or had not even gone on vacation?’ How different my life would be.”
While he said he feels entitled to those thoughts, Jeff won’t let them take over. He also refuses to be consumed by anger. “So many guys with injuries like this are angry with the world,” Jeff said. “But I look at it like, ‘This was my fault … something I did to myself.’ Granted, nature had a little hand in it, but I made the decisions that led up to what happened.”
What remains difficult for a sheriff’s deputy and Army veteran trained to protect and serve is being on the receiving end of help. “Learning how to say, ‘yes’ to help was very, very hard. And it still is,” Jeff said. “But I am getting a little better.”
And life offers so many opportunities to practice. Jeff is handy—his workshop gives him away—so talking son Jake through repair of things out of Jeff’s reach offers an exercise in bonding … and patience for a man used to being very independent.
He also enjoys hunting and fishing, which remain possible thanks to an all-terrain wheelchair purchased through a GoFundMe campaign launched by friends. Being outdoors and doing activities he loves is good for Jeff’s soul, although having to depend on Dani or daughter Briona to load the track-chair onto its trailer is yet another reminder of how life has changed. Reconciling the before-and-after like this is at the core of Jeff’s healing process.
For Jeff, healing is a mix physical and mental. And while he does not pretend to have all the answers, he has this advice for others: “For me to heal, I had to push myself. Maybe you’re not going to be 100%, but you’re going to be at 100% of what you are capable of at a time. The stronger you can stay mentally, the better off you will be as a person. Try to do the best you can, with what you have. That’s what healing means to me.”