Defying the Odds

“You look like a werewolf.”

When Dominique Jefferson first returned home in the summer of 2016, that was the first thing his cousin said to him. After two months in a hospital in Chicago and nearly two weeks in a hospital in Iowa City, Dominique’s hair was a scruffy mess.

His cousin insisted on a haircut. Dominique, 21, obliged that very same day.

It was a small, but significant, return to normalcy for the University of Northern Iowa junior, whose life changed forever on April 20, 2016.

Dominique Jefferson
In 2016, Dominique Jefferson suffered a life-changing injury. Two years later, he's back at UNI continuing his education.

That night, while performing as part of the probate announcing his membership to the fraternity Omega Psi Phi, Dominique missed a step in the routine he had practiced for countless hours.

Dominique knew something wasn’t right. Not long after the performance, he felt a sharp pain in his back. About 15 minutes later, the pain was unbearable. He left the Maucker Union ballroom to get a drink of water and collapsed. Dominique pulled himself up and was able to take three steps towards a couch before crawling the rest of the way.

As he lay there, he realized he couldn’t move anything below the neck.

His fraternity brothers drove him to the hospital, where an MRI revealed a blood clot on his spinal cord. The official diagnosis was a spontaneous thoracic hematoma.

The cause was unknown, but Dominique said it felt like someone “hit a light switch and cut everything off.”

“I can’t say it was easy,” Dominique said. “But you’ve got to take what life gives you and just keep going. It could’ve been worse.”

Much worse.

After surgery, Dominique began to experience a massive headache. As his blood pressure dropped to dangerously low levels, the doctors scrambled for answers. Privately, they informed his mother that his condition was life-threatening.

Fortunately, he stabilized. But the doctors thought Dominique would never walk again.

Dominique had a different mindset.

“I couldn’t accept what had happened to me as my fate for the rest of my life.”

Once physical therapy began, Dominique set out to push his limits. When he first started to regain leg movement, his physical therapist was astonished.

After nine months of physical therapy, Dominique was able to return to UNI. He can walk again with the aid of a pair of leg braces, but he chose to use a wheelchair to get around campus because his pace still lags.

But, wheelchair or not, his outlook remains bright.

“Months ago, I could’ve been done,” Dominique said. “Even when I’m rolling around in a wheelchair, I’m smiling, because I could not be here.”

Even though he marvels at the progress he has made, there is still more work to be done.

“I think about (recovery) a lot, and maybe too much, to be honest, because there is no guarantee that I’ll ever get back to that point,” he said. “I believe it’s going to happen. I want it to happen. I’m going to do everything I can for that to happen.

“At the same time, I have to live in reality. I wasn’t supposed to walk again. At the stage I’m at right now, if I were to stay like this the rest of my life, how could I be upset with that?

“Yet I’m walking,” he said, smiling.