Black Mountain man fighting to walk again following rare spinal cord injury while surfing

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Devin Gildner is determined to walk again after suffering from surfer's myelopathy while on his senior trip in California.

What began as a fun day of surfing in the Pacific Ocean ended in a fight to walk again for a Black Mountain teenager celebrating his recent graduation from Owen High School. 

Devin Gildner was in the final hours of his senior trip to his native California when he began feeling weakness in legs as he emerged from the surf. Hours later, unable to feel anything from the waist down, he was diagnosed with a rare nontraumatic injury to his spinal cord, commonly referred to a surfer's myelopathy. 

Three weeks later, instead of preparing for his upcoming freshman year at Warren Wilson College, Gildner is determined to regain the ability to walk, according to his family. 

"My wife and my youngest son decided to meet up with Devin for the final week of his trip and I stayed back," said Justin Gildner, Devin's father. "I grew up surfing and my boys didn't, so my dad asked me if he could take them out and get them some lessons as a great way to end their trip."

Devin Gildner, left, and his brother Ian prepare to enter the water on July 6, hours before Devin was rushed to the hospital after losing feeling in his legs.

After spending the day on the water with his grandfather and younger brother Ian, Devin began feeling numbness in his lower extremities and was helped to the car by his family. As his condition deteriorated, he was rushed to nearby Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

Within hours, Justin was on a plane to California. 

"I had never heard of surfer's myelopathy in my life," he said. "Depending on who you talk to, some doctors believe Devin's case may be the first confirmed case in California."

The rarity of the condition led doctors to initially believe he could be suffering from a stroke. 

"The symptoms of surfer's myelopathy can mimic a stroke," Justin said. "But they were able to see a slight amount of trauma in his lower spinal cord. The odds of Devin getting bit by a shark that day were greater than this happening to him."

Surfer's myelopathy is believed to be caused when a blood vessel leading to the spine is obstructed by the hyperextension of the back. The loss of blood flow deprives the spinal cord of oxygen. 

"Initially the doctors were hopeful that it was a spinal concussion, similar to a stinger, and that it would wear off in a day or so," Justin said. "They didn't diagnose him officially until the Tuesday or Wednesday after he was admitted to the hospital."

Treatment for Devin's injury is still "fluid," according to Justin. 

"The spinal cord is part of the brain and the brain heals at its own pace and on its own time," he said. "We do know that Devin will be where he is now, which is a rehab facility attached to the hospital in Long Beach, for at least the next six weeks."

Devin will require out-patient therapy once he is discharged from the in-patient facility.

"The perfect scenario would be him progressing through the phases of equipment," Justin said. "It would be him going from wheelchair, to crutches, to braces, to ultimately standing up and being independently mobile on his own, but the time frame for that is all guess work."

Devin Gildner smiles as he faces rehabilitation for a rare spinal cord injury he suffered while on vacation in California.

Devin's age and physical condition give doctors reason to be optimistic about his recovery, Justin added. 

"He's in great shape because he's an athlete and he's only 18," he said. "They're hoping those factors will culminate in a faster recovery, but a 100 percent recovery doesn't appear to be in the cards for Devin."

His son, who planned to play soccer at Warren Wilson after a four-year career at Owen, is undeterred, Justin said. 

Devin has found inspiration from an unlikely source. 

"I grew up an Anaheim Ducks hockey fan and, by proxy, Devin did too," Justin said. "There is a famous goal in game six of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals where Paul Kariya was leveled with a hit to the head. The injury looked terrible and the announcers thought they would not see him on the ice again that season."

Kariya returned to the lineup later that period and fired a goal into the net of the New Jersey Devils. The goal resulted in the well-known "off the floor, on the board" call by Gary Thorne, who was calling the game for ABC. 

"That's been Devin's rallying cry," Justin said. "He's determined to not have this beat him, and as a father, those are the moments where I feel so inspired by him. He's not angry, he's not bitter, he's just so focused on reaching his goal to walk again. Every text, every phone conversation he ends with 'off the floor, on the board.'"

Family members launched a GoFundMe campaign to support the Gildners as they face a long, arduous rehabilitation process. 

"This community has been so supportive of us and I really want to thank everyone for all of their help," Justin said. "Not just monetarily, but emotionally as well. I've never seen anything as awesome as this community's response to this situation."

The GoFundMe page contains regular updates on Devin's condition. 

"We're trying to cling to the positives and look for any of the good things that may come out of this," Justin said. "But the driving force behind all of that is Devin, because he refuses to give up or relent."