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‘I'm just lucky to be alive:’ Beamer grad Corey Obungen vows to walk again after spinal cord injury
Corey Obungen had just accomplished what every teenager dreams about.
The 2008 Todd Beamer High School graduate had recently finished his first year at the University of Puget Sound and just moved out of his parents’ Federal Way house. Obungen was also preparing for his second season on the Logger football team.
The undersized, 5-foot-6, 150-pound defensive back played in five games his freshman year, totaling three tackles.
Everything seemed to be rolling right along for Obungen, who snared 11 out of a possible 12 letters while at Beamer.
But that newly-acquired independence didn’t last too long.
“I had just moved into a house in Tacoma,” he said with a laugh. “I stole all my parents’ food and was on my own. I was very, very excited. Then I left for Hawaii.”
It was that trip to the island paradise that would change Obungen’s life forever. Just two days after arriving on Oahu and watching his cousin’s graduation, Obungen went to Lanikai Beach with a couple of buddies from the University of Puget Sound football team.
“I just went there to hang out with friends from UPS,” Obungen said. “We went to the beach. We were having a good time, doing nothing out of the ordinary.”
Obungen then did something he had done a hundred times before. He ran into the surf and dove into the ocean. But this dive wasn’t like all the other ones. Obungen, a Hawaiian native, didn’t pop out of the water.
“I hit the bottom kind of awkwardly,” he said. “The bottom looked deeper than it was.”
During the dive, Obungen’s head landed perfectly on the bottom of the ocean and the fall broke his neck, shattering his C-5 vertebra and basically severing his spinal cord. The injuries left Obungen without any movement in his legs and very limited movement in his upper body. He now faced the likely possibility of never being able to walk again.
“When I went down, I felt a big shock,” he said. “I couldn’t flail my arms and I was just hoping that somebody would pull me up. I knew right away that I broke my neck. Luckily, the guys on the team pulled me up before I drowned.
“It was weird because the day before I was jumping off cliffs at a different beach. I was jumping off the rocks from 20 feet up.”
In the three and a half months since the life-changing injury, Obungen has made some progress. Immediately following the accident, he was forced to stay in a Hawaiian hospital for three weeks until doctors deemed him healthy enough to fly back to Seattle.
“I flew on a commercial flight in first class,” Obungen said. “I was in a neck brace and could hardly move my arms. I came to the airport on a stretcher. It was pretty intense, but I made it.”
After landing at SeaTac, Obungen was taken directly to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where he spent the next five weeks in rehab doing adaptive therapy for his injuries, which required the fusing of a massive metal cage over four vertebras in his spine. The surgery, which also included having a cadaver bone inserted to replace his shattered vertebra, was necessary to stabilize his neck.
“It’s actually pretty crazy when you think about it,” he said.
Obungen was initially bound to a power wheelchair, “which is something you never want to be in,” he said. He didn’t have any flection in his wrists and could barely lift his arms. After two months of therapy, doctors moved Obungen to a manual wheelchair. He can now flex his wrist and thumbs, and has movement in his shoulders, biceps and triceps.
“Things are coming,” Obungen said. “The one thing I didn’t like was that doctors don’t tell you much and they are kind of negative. But they will tell me that every spinal cord injury is different. My goal is to walk again. Crazier things have happened.”
Doctors aren’t making any promises, in terms of Obungen’s ability to walk or being totally independent in the future. But just being alive is enough to keep him moving forward.
“I’m just lucky to be alive. That’s what keeps me going.”
But that wasn’t always the case. Immediately following the accident, there were days that Obungen wondered how he would make it through.
“Being in the hospital and seeing myself in the mirror for the first time was tough,” he said. “I went from being really fit to having no function below my waist. I went from being completely independent to fully dependent. That kills you. Every now and then I still have some dark days. But then I think, ‘I’m still young and I could have died.’ I allow myself only to be mad for 10 minutes or so.”
Obungen wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill athlete during his time at Beamer. He was selected as an All-City defensive back during his senior football season after intercepting four passes for the Titans. He was also named first-team, All-South Puget Sound League South Division by the league’s coaches.
But football wasn’t the only sport he excelled at. Obungen was a rare three-sport athlete. Obungen was a district qualifier as a long jumper for the Beamer track team and wrestled at the Mat Classic state wrestling championships as a 130-pound senior.
“I think being an athlete helped me,” Obungen said. “I have that notion of always pushing myself. I think that gives you an advantage. I think the wrestler mentality sets me apart.”
Obungen has already accomplished one of his goals following the injury. He’s currently enrolled in one class at UPS and on his way to getting his exercise science degree. The school is providing him a note taker.
“The school has taken care of everything and that feels really good,” Obungen said. “Seeing familiar faces on campus is awesome. It felt like I needed to be here.”
Obungen was already planning on the exercise science degree before the accident, but he is even more passionate now about getting into the field.
“Now that I’m injured, there are so many different kinds of therapy and exercise to help gain function back,” he said. “That is something I would really like to get into.”
The University of Puget Sound is also hosting “Team Corey Day” during today’s (Sept. 25) home football game against Whittier. Proceeds from the game will be donated to the Corey Obungen Trust to help with medical costs, as well as his potential enrollment into Pushing Boundaries, a Redmond-based facility that offers people with spinal cord injuries a place to go to become more independent.
“Right now that place is doing amazing things,” Obungen said.
Pushing Boundaries describes itself as a facility that preaches repetition. According to its mission statement, Pushing Boundaries “combats the inactivity that has traditionally been the ‘norm’ for those living with paralysis. New research shows that the more time a person is out of their chair and engaging in aggressive, repetitive movement, the better the chance a person will have at recovering the most function.”
Seattle University’s women’s soccer team has also jumped on board, thanks to Obungen’s old Beamer classmate Jordan Salisbury. Salisbury convinced Seattle U to donate a portion of their ticket sales to Obungen’s trust. Salisbury and the Redhawks play at home at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 26 against Sacramento State.
“I just want to say thank you to everybody. I’m very lucky and very fortunate to have my mom around,” Obungen said about his mother, Shari, who is a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way. “But also everybody in the Federal Way community, Beamer and Sherwood Forest (Elementary). I just want to say thanks.”
Tax-deductible donations can also be made to the Corey Obungen Supplemental Needs Trust at any Bank of America Branch or send to Bank of America, Corey Obungen Trust, 2100 SW 336th St., Federal Way, WA 98203.