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Brave teenager ‘shows up for life’ after spinal cord injury



Johannesburg teenager Isaac Moritz was on a family holiday in Cape Town in December 2021 when his life changed forever.

He followed his friends into the icy Atlantic Ocean on Clifton 2nd beach to try catch a wave, and slammed headfirst into a sandbank, breaking his neck on impact. A severe spinal cord injury rendered him paralysed from the neck down.

He remembers it like yesterday.

“I never lost consciousness,” he told the SA Jewish Report this week.

Earlier that day, he had been at the Waterfront on a sailing boat. “I was having fun and went on a scooter around Sea Point, and then went to meet my brother and friends at the beach,” he said.

It was the day before Christmas, sunny and hot, with happy people socialising at a distance in the open air after months of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

All this came to an abrupt halt as scenes of pandemonium ensued in a bid to save the once sporty and active, happy-go-lucky teenager’s life.

“I couldn’t move, I thought I was going to die,” said Isaac, 16, recalling the tragic, life-altering incident.

“I remember being under water, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t feel anything. I saw legs and swimming shorts and tried in my mind to wave and beg for help,” he said.

His panic-stricken friends nearby pulled him to shore, realising he was in obvious distress.

“I kept telling them, ‘I can’t move, I can’t feel anything, help me!’” he said.

The following catastrophic moments on that beach, surrounded by dozens of faces staring down at him, lying motionless on the sand, are a blur for the Grade 10 pupil at Yeshiva College. He was literally frozen stiff as the water kept running over him while people rallied and called for help.

Isaac’s mother, Merissa, was at the apartment preparing for Shabbos when her son, Michi, 18, called. “I felt the blood drain from my body,” she said.

Flooded with painful memories she tearfully describes the scene as “unfathomable”, and remembers feeling physically sick to her stomach.

A trained occupational therapist, she knew instinctively that her boy needed all the help he could get. “I called my husband, Gabriel, to organise a tehillim group and immediately start praying for a miracle,” she said.

“Isaac was hypothermic and couldn’t move, he desperately needed an emergency silver blanket to warm him,” she said.

Firemen carried him up the famous steep steps where they waited with anguish for the ambulance to arrive. So began Isaac’s gruelling months-long journey to wellness and slow recovery.

News spread fast, sending shock waves through the community, shattering holiday vibes as people far and wide prayed for him. “The community sprang into action,” said Merissa, setting up multiple tehillim groups, arranging challah bakes and charity drives in Isaac’s name.

“Doctors didn’t know if he would be able to walk again or what the future would look like,” she said.

It has been an “incomprehensible” year and three months of life-threatening trauma and recovery since the incident which upended his life and that of his parents, three older brothers, and younger sister.

Isaac spent a week in an induced coma.

“I prayed to let me be able to read his lips when he woke up,” said Merissa. He spent another three agonising weeks in intensive care, on life support at the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital. This was followed by a dramatic medical airlift to Johannesburg’s Netcare Milpark Hospital, where he spent a further six weeks on life support battling septicemia and numerous complications. Once stabilised, Isaac was moved to the hospital’s rehabilitation centre for a further two months. He finally reached home in May last year, where a whole new world of convalescence coupled with ongoing intense multiple therapies and state-of-the-art rehabilitation awaited him.

Today, through sheer determination, resilience, and a strong will to improve, as well as the finest medical care, Isaac is able to walk a few steps by himself – something doctors were doubtful he would be able to.

He can walk “quite far” with assistance, and can move his left hand and arm. He has minimal movement in his right arm, but overall body sensation and muscle tone is improving, albeit slowly, said Merissa, who is his devoted primary caregiver and helps him with things like brushing his teeth, bathing, and getting dressed.

He remains focused on his dream to achieve functional independence in the not-too-distant future.

After an early morning physiotherapy session, Isaac attends school in a wheelchair for a few hours a day, followed by more therapy.

“I can see I have come a long way, which gives me hope,” he said.

Behind his warm smile and soulful expression lies a world of pain but a steely resolve to “push through the hard moments because tomorrow is a new day with new possibilities”.

“I know what my life was before, so it’s frustrating to be physically challenged. When I’m having a bad day, I shut everyone out and wait for the moment to pass because there’s always an end to it, the sun will come out,” he said.

“It’s not about the big things,” said Merissa. “It’s about small moments, and there are many of them each day. We don’t talk about his prognosis, we focus on the journey and moving forward,” she said.

The family is forever grateful to “phenomenal” doctors and healthcare professionals, who they believe saved his life. “We have been carried by our faith in Hashem and an extraordinary community of close friends, family, and total strangers who have given us wings throughout this ordeal,” said Merissa.

For three months, all meals were provided including school lunches and toys for Netanya, 6.

“People still drop by with sushi and donuts, and do random acts of kindness for Isaac’s recovery. We are overwhelmed with gratitude,” she said.

Isaac’s older brother, Adam, 23, said his brother’s journey had touched many people.

“He has no idea of the positive impact he has on so many people. He has pushed me to get into shape and my other brother to start running and participate in the Jerusalem marathon. He inspires all of us to push harder and be the best we can,” he said.

A year after the incident, Isaac attended Bnei Akiva camp in Mossel Bay for 10 days, encouraged and assisted by his doctor and confidant, Reuven Jacks, who has attended to him throughout, and his older brother, Avadya, 21.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the hall when he delivered a moving speech before the crowded campsite, instantly becoming a symbol of hope.

“Isaac shows up for life. It’s tough, but he’s determined not to let his accident hold him back from experiencing all that life has to offer,” said Merissa.

In spite of his injury and resultant health conditions, he’s dedicated to making a difference in the world by showing that there are infinite possibilities regardless of circumstance.

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