Health & Medicine

Dunbar senior injured at Florida beach improving, hopes to attend graduation

Gaines wore a tux for prom. He was named prom king.
Gaines wore a tux for prom. He was named prom king.

At least three days a week at Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, Travis Gaines is suspended in a harness over a treadmill as he practices standing and stepping, with specially trained therapists and technicians moving his legs. It's called locomotor training, and it's used to help people, like Gaines, who have spinal cord injuries.

The Lexington 18-year-old is striving to achieve one goal in particular: to attend graduation May 24 with his senior class at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

"I'm going to go to graduation. That's for sure," said Gaines, who plans to enroll at Centre College in Danville in the fall.

Gaines' injury occurred during a diving accident April 2 when he was on spring break in Destin, Fla., with other members of Dunbar's baseball team. They were taking part in the Florida Beach Bash Tournament, an annual event that draws 30 teams each spring.

Gaines, an outfielder and first baseman, said he "ran into the ocean, dived into the wave, and I think I didn't run out far enough."

His body struck a sandbar, leaving him with limited movement below his chest, his stepmother, Nici Gaines, said.

He was taken by helicopter to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, then later transferred to Louisville's Frazier Rehab Institute, one of eight centers in North America that are part of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation's NeuroRecovery Network. Christopher Reeve, the late actor best known for his role as Superman in the 1970s and '80s, brought national attention to groundbreaking treatments when he sustained a spinal cord injury in a horseback-riding accident in 1995.

Travis Gaines has been in therapy for more than three weeks. His condition has improved since his arrival.

"Since we have been doing the treadmill, we can see major improvements throughout my body," he said.

He is undergoing electrical stimulation to help him regain movement and strength in his wrists and fingers. He also has been working on his core strength and sitting balance.

"He's doing great," Nici Gaines said. "He gets stronger every day, and you can see improvement in his strength and functioning. He's a really hard worker. You couldn't ask for anybody to work harder or have a better attitude."

Travis Gaines said he has been encouraged by the support of family and friends — and people he's never met.

A Facebook page, "Let's Rally Around Travis Gaines," had 8,667 likes as of Tuesday evening.

"I finally got a good look at the Facebook page ...," Gaines said. "I ... realize how much support I had and I'm really grateful."

There's been financial support, too.

As of Monday, people had donated about $53,000 through multiple fundraisers; the money will be used to help Gaines with what is expected to be an extended recovery, according to family friend Keven Moore.

"All these funds came from small donations from thousands of people and organizations from all corners of the state, and even as far away as Florida and California," Moore said in an email.

Gaines said that as many family members and friends "as can fit in the room" have been to Louisville to see him.

And he didn't have to miss out on a teenage rite of passage Saturday when he put on a tux at the rehab center and attended his senior prom via Skype.

Nici Gaines said school administrators "contacted us and said they wanted to set up Skype so that Travis could virtually attend prom."

Travis Gaines said he and Dunbar senior Julia Rukavina, who has been his friend since fourth grade, had decided before the accident that they would go to prom together. On Saturday afternoon, she went to the rehab center in her lavender off-the-shoulder prom dress.

"I got all dressed up, and we went outside and took a whole bunch of pictures," Gaines said." I took my neck brace off."

Rukavina, 18, went back to Lexington, where she and other Dunbar students posed for prom pictures at Shadwell Farm. The students formed a circle and prayed for Travis.

From his bed, Gaines started Skyping about 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

"I felt like I was actually there. ... It wasn't like a one-way conversation," he said. "Even though there was some communications problems, they could all hear me."

At one point, Rukavina said, "We danced together through Skype." She said she and Gaines held out their arms and had a virtual slow dance.

Then Gaines' classmates named him prom king.

"Everybody was screaming, they went wild," Rukavina said.

Dunbar principal Betsy Rains said Gaines' injury "has brought everybody together."

Rains said the only way the "kids know to help is to raise money" and by wearing Gaines' baseball number, which is 19.

"Everybody wants to help in some way," she said.

How to help

Donations for Travis Gaines may be made at or sent to Fifth Third Bank, 3061 Harrodsburg Road, Lexington, Ky. 40513 (payable to For the Benefit of Travis Gaines).

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