Young man recovers after severe motorcycle accident with help from therapy at Lynn Rehabilitation Center

By: Krysten Brenlla

When Juan Ruiz Cruz, 35, tries to remember what happened on January 30, 2022, the only thing he can recall is waking up in the hospital.

“The last thing I remember is my sister’s birthday party, which was the day before my accident,” Ruiz said.
On that Sunday afternoon, Ruiz planned to watch a soccer match at a park near Jackson Memorial Hospital. He rode his motorcycle, but on his way there, he got into a severe accident.

When emergency medical services (EMS) arrived to the scene, they found Ruiz unconscious, but alive – thanks to the help he received from a nearby nurse, who witnessed the accident.

EMS rushed him to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial with a cracked skull, broken collarbone, broken ribs, broken knee, collapsed lung, and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“When I finally woke up in the hospital, I wasn’t even aware of the extent of my injuries,” Ruiz said.

He needed several emergency surgeries to fix his fractures. Ruiz remained heavily sedated at Ryder Trauma for several weeks while recovering from his injuries before he was transferred to Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center for The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at UHealth/Jackson Memorial.

“Juan’s initial presentation was a severe TBI,” said Gemayaret Alvarez Gonzalez, MD, medical director of Brain Injury Medicine Services at Lynn Rehabilitation Center, and a rehabilitation physician at UHealth –University of Miami Health System. “He was unable to eat by himself. Although he was able to walk really quickly, his right side was completely immobile due to a brachial plexus injury.”

The brachial plexus is a network of nerves in the shoulder that carries movement and sensory signals from the spinal cord to the arms and hands. Ruiz’s brachial plexus was injured, causing the right side of his upper body to be immobile.

He required intense rehabilitation therapy to regain function in his right shoulder, elbow, and wrist.

“When Juan got to me in outpatient therapy, my main goal for him was to increase his strength in activities that required him to use both hands,” said Neil Batungbakal, an occupational therapist at Lynn Rehabilitation Center. “We worked on active movement without resistance; whatever he can move on his own.”

At the time, Ruiz could not cut his own food, get dressed, or shower without assistance. However, with occupational therapy, he slowly improved.

“We would position his right arm in one spot and hold it there to try to increase his strength that way,” Batungbakal said. “At that time, he wasn’t tolerating any type of resistance.”

After months of intense therapy, and with the help of a wrist brace and at-home exercises, Ruiz regained significant motion in his right side.

By October, he was strong enough to hold up and extend his wrist on his own.

A month later, Ruiz reached a major milestone – he regained all mobility on his right side, and was fully discharged from Lynn Rehabilitation Center.

“Juan always had a positive attitude to continue to work – he has humility, he’s kind, and he’s grateful,” Dr. Alvarez said. “I’ve never heard him say, ‘why me?’ I think that sets him apart from other individuals, and what really pushed him to make a full recovery.”

In the months that followed, Ruiz found a newfound love for painting. Today, he participates in a peer support group through Lynn Rehabilitation Center’s Recreational Therapy Program, which helps him connect with other patients who have suffered from similar injuries.

Ruiz continues to push himself with different exercises at home to help with his mobility and strength. He credits the team at Ryder Trauma, Jackson Memorial, and Lynn Rehabilitation Center for saving his life.

“Everyone always thinks that painters are artists,” he said. “But after going through this, I realized the real artists are the doctors, nurses, and therapists who save lives every day.”

Gemayaret Alvarez-Gonzalez, MD