Physical therapist Phil Sauer instructs 26-year-old Waipio resident Dustin Meza as he exercises his legs in a pool at the Hawaiian Rehabilitation Services in Waimea. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Aquatic therapy allows 26-year-old Waipio resident Dustin Meza to strengthen his legs as he slowly regains sensation in his feet and lower legs. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Dustin Meza attends a physical therapy session on July 9th in Waimea. After an accident that left him severely injured and paralyzed from the waist down in January, he has made significant steps toward recovery.
Phil Sauer helps 26-year-old Waipio resident Dustin Meza during a physical therapy session, which he attends twice weekly at Hawaiian Rehabilitation Services in Waimea. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
A 26-year-old Waipio man who was paralyzed from the waist down after falling from a tree has regained the ability to stand and walk, and is starting to get feeling in his calf muscles.
Dustin Meza’s recovery, at six months and counting, defies medical expectations and has had a dramatic effect on his life. In a pool at Hawaiian Rehabilitation Services in Waimea, Meza demonstrated his strength, balance and ability to move his hips and legs.
Phil Sauer, his physical therapist, said Meza relied heavily on a cane and felt no sensation below his knees in May when he came to Hawaiian Rehabilitation Services. Sauer, who mostly works with orthopedic conditions, had limited experience working with patients with the severity of injuries Meza has. Nevertheless, the pair has worked through the recovery process nicely, with Meza continually making gains. Sauer credits Meza’s positive, determined mindset.
“His attitude and his spirit are indefatigable. You cannot put a dent in it,” Sauer said Monday. “He continues to make steady, spectacular progress and always works 10 times harder than everyone else in here. We’re expecting a full recovery.”
Meza has strived for that prognosis, even when medical professionals said he would never walk. Meza credits his recovery to a practice he developed that uses yoga, meditation and spiritual manifestation to heal, recover, rejuvenate and connect to a purpose-driven life. He applied to teach it at a resort a week before his accident.
Meza also regularly used craniosacral therapy, energy work, acupuncture and tai chi — alternative methods he claims work and should be accepted fully, not disregarded in favor of more traditional treatments covered by insurance. Meza said Hawaiian Rehabilitation Services, where he goes to rehabilitate twice a week for an hour, fine-tunes his recovery and provides beneficial water therapy. He hopes sharing what has helped him and his story will motivate others dealing with dire predicaments; he said he would like to become a motivational speaker.
“I want to share inspiration, helping individuals expand beyond their perceived physical, mental and spiritual limitations. There’s an element of grace, of which once you surrender to it, you can open up power beyond comprehension or awareness of our abilities,” Meza said. “I hope to encourage others to pursue a better quality of life. There are ways of healing oneself, methods society doesn’t always deem normal and that are outside of standardized care.”
At around noon on Jan. 17 at an ecohomestead in Hawi, Meza climbed up a tree to gather coconuts, which he and his then-partner April Gaoiran planned use for a cleanse. Roughly a week prior, he had climbed another tree nearby fairly easily and harvested coconuts for a youth camp. But this time, there were so many coconuts that Meza had to go around them to reach the tree’s crown. With his hands holding a frond, one leg wrapped around the trunk and the other wrapped around a frond, he attempted to push himself up. He fell.
Meza dropped 25 to 30 feet to the ground. When he awoke, there was shock and excruciating pain. “There’s nothing I can compare it to because it’s so indescribable and nothing I ever want anyone to have to feel,” he said.
Meza knew he was paralyzed. All he felt was pain. He couldn’t move. Not only did he hurt his back, sternum and spinal cord, he shattered his foot, badly injured his ankle and dislocated both elbows. In and out of consciousness, Meza remembers being at North Hawaii Community Hospital in the evening and being transported via medevac to The Queen’s Medical Center.
“The medevac crew was awesome,” he said. “They were like angels who lifted me out of harm’s way, comforting me in every way possible, making me feel cared for and reassuring me that I would walk again. Having someone in your corner like that does so much.”
Meza spent a month at Queen’s Medical Center, where he first worked on breathing, trying to generate full breaths, using his mind to push the breath through his body and will movement. Like the scene in the movie “Kill Bill” with actress Uma Thurman, “Wiggle your big toe” became his mantra.
A nurse who played piano and sang further motivated him. Meza recalled the first time he controlled his leg. The nurse and her assistant began throwing his leg back and forth playfully, and Meza stopped it. “I was crying because I was so happy,” he said.
Meza said he disregarded recommendations to slow down and take it easy. After therapy, he would wheel himself to the garden, sit in the sun, meditate and do whatever tai chi movements he could muster. With a nurse, he would try to walk the hallways until exhaustion hit.
Meza also spent a month at Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific on Oahu. By the time he left there, he could move with a walker. Meza returned home to Waipio, where he practiced alternative healing methods, did the therapy he learned and created challenges like walking to the kitchen from the living room for two months before going to Hawaiian Rehabilitation Services. Eventually, he could walk with more control, switching the walker for a cane.
“I couldn’t have done this without the support from family, friends and motivators I met along the way,” Meza said. “Numerous people on the Big Island showed me what ohana was all about. But the person who made this possible was April, who was my back when there was no backing, stayed with my every baby step and pushed me when I needed it. Without her support, caring and nurturing, the journey would have been harder.”