Beloved high school principal who lost his legs begins a long journey to walking again

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Joey Flechas, Miami Herald (Tribune News Service)
Sunday, January 8, 2017

MIAMI—Javier Perez wears two wristbands every day—reminders of the moment a drunk driver careened through a fence at his son's Little League game in April and nearly killed him.

Pinned under a car after pushing a friend out of harm's way, Perez, a high school principal, later woke up from a coma with a new reality: recovery in a wheelchair without two legs. A different daily routine that now includes physical therapy. A lighter diet after his system got used to a feeding tube while he was in the hospital.

A new challenge while raising two children, balancing their busy schedules with his road to recovery.

Each day, a leather bracelet with a cross hugs his right wrist, a gift from a friend who recently visited Jerusalem. On his left, he wears a blue band emblazoned with the motto for his recovery and the community that has rallied behind him: #JaviStrong.

Strength in his muscles and his spirit will be crucial for him on a tough journey: returning to South Dade High School the way he last left it—on his own two legs.

He'll need prosthetics to do that. Still every bit the gym rat he was before the accident, Perez goes to LA Fitness with his brother every day to build back strength in anticipation of getting his new feet in the spring. He wears compression socks to shrink his stumps so they'll fit the prostheses.

Standing again will take time and dedication. He is not running low on either.

“Time is what I have,” he said in a recent interview before his daily workout.

Doctors had to amputate two legs—his left leg above the knee. His insurance covers basic prosthetics, but he doesn't plan only on walking. He wants to jog again and keep up with his kids at the park. He wants to be able to roam the halls of his high school and join his students for lunch in the cafeteria. He wants to coach Little League again.

There's a state-of-the-art, computerized leg that would give him an able left knee and the motion needed to return to his active lifestyle. It would learn his movements and eventually aid him so he doesn't have to exert himself too much.

But even just one is very expensive, and he'll need to get a new one about every five years. One “smart” leg runs about $150,000.

A crowdfunding effort to help him with medical bills and the cost of one of these legs has raised $177,000 so far. But recovery is a long process, and his wife Maytee has been unable to work as she cares for him through his rehabilitation. Costs will continue to mount.

The ultimate goal for Perez and his loved ones is for him to get back to work, back to the grind he loves.

“I can't wait for him to come back,” Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett said.

Perez is well-loved among the whole school community, including its police officers. The department nominated him for the Miami Herald Wish Book, but this isn't the only way the police have shown their support.

Before Perez came home from the hospital, a group of handy officers went to Perez's home and made renovations that would make it easier for him to move around his home, including adapting his shower and filling in a sunken living room. They worked on their own time and dime.

“Javi would do that for you,” Moffett said.

That loving spirit Perez has shared in two decades as an educator is coming back around to him in spades. And it serves as a source of strength when he gets down about his situation.

Early on after he woke up in the hospital, Perez didn't want to see what remained of his legs. He wasn't ready until his 5-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter asked to see them. If they could handle it, then so could he.

“They're my guardian angels,” he said.

And by his side, his wife Maytee keeps everything running as smoothly as she can. She's constantly with him. Whereas before they could divide and conquer the daily school and extracurricular routine, making sure the kids got to school and sports practice on time, now she has to transport the whole family together.

It's made Perez's journey a team effort, with the kids learning about life as an amputee right along with their dad.

“Whatever they ask, we answer,” Maytee said.

The family wants to take the outpouring of support they've received and pay it forward. Perez is starting a foundation to aid those with disabilities. He has learned a lot from strangers in other states who've written to him and veterans in a support group who have welcomed him.

But more than anything, Perez just wants to get back to business as usual. He got a small taste of it when the family took a vacation to Disney World for Thanksgiving. Although he encountered some of the problems people with disabilities face—he was mistakenly given a room without an accessible shower—he was grateful to relax with his wife and kids.

“It was nice to get away and be a family and be normal,” Perez said.

Normal is all he wants. He's planning on taking big steps toward that very soon.

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