The world swam before the young man’s eyes, his body airborne and plummeting toward the ground below. In one stroke of bad luck, life had shifted.
“If I would have just landed on the pavement I’d probably have just broken my arm,” Nate Higgins said, reflecting on his 2004 fall from a rooftop where he had been painting for a summer job. “But I landed on the steps.”
How long Higgins lay in the sweltering July sun before the college-age crew realized his side of the roof had grown quiet can only be guessed. But within minutes of discovery, the paint-soaked Tri-Cities teen — one who had expressed concern over lack of safety measures — was taken to the nearest hospital.
“When the chaplain met us and asked if we wanted to pray, we knew it was serious,” his mom, Debbie, said as she relived the emotions of that day. “He said, ‘I think they’ll be sending him to Harborview.’ ”
Breathless minutes stretched into heart-wrenching hours, while Higgins battled for his life in a drug-induced coma, his parents waiting. Their athletic, active son lay motionless — a kid who in childhood and beyond could rarely sit still.
“My first memory is waking up in Harborview,” said Higgins, remembering the respirator that prevented him from talking. “I knew something very, very bad had happened; I knew I was paralyzed.”
In addition to the massive head injury, the 19-year-old had suffered a T4-T5 spinal cord injury.
“He knew immediately and wrote notes to the staff, ‘Will I ever walk again?’ ” his dad, Ron, said, recalling little hope.
Thus began a journey of determination, one filled with valleys that could break the strongest of men. But Higgins refused to let his new circumstances overwhelm him for long. Once a high school wrestler, he used the mental training to face his demons.
“I had a rough winter and I made a resolution New Year’s Eve of 2004,” Higgins said. “I was going to win. I wasn’t going to let this beat me.”
The now resolute paraplegic took a couple of college classes at Washington State University Tri-Cities, not for the credits as much as to get out of the house, connect with life again and prove he could still go to school after the brain injury.
“It had been hard mentally. You’re watching others come back from college with fun stories and then there’s me, ‘Hey, I didn’t die last weekend,’ ” Higgins said with a touch of dark humor.
Between his grit and wit, Higgins later transferred to Gonzaga University where a place had been held for him. But in the first year, he seemed to be a fish out of water.
“I’d already been accepted to the college before the accident, but this was my first time living independently with a spinal cord injury,” Higgins said, reflecting on the challenge and subsequent depression. “It was probably the most difficult year of my life.”
Confined to a wheelchair, his dream to graduate from Gonzaga seemed beyond his reach. Then the thought of swimming came to mind. For the former lifeguard, it might bring a new sense of freedom.
“I had a doctor who told me I’d never swim without water wings,” Higgins said of the discouraging prognosis.
But that wasn’t about to stop Higgins who wanted to swim — not just laps in a pool — but competitively as he had done in high school. He came home and dove into summer training with one of the Tri-City Channel Cats swim team coaches, Jennifer Tonkyn.
“I didn’t think I was that bad of a swimmer, but when she saw me, I think she thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into,’ ” Higgins said with a lighthearted laugh. “It took me about four months to be able to do a single length of butterfly or backstroke.”
From just one pool length to eventually a swim across the Columbia River, to open cold water swims at Alcatraz’s San Francisco Bay and Lake Pend Oreille, to Southern California’s warm Pacific Ocean and many more, Higgins has accrued a list of swimming accomplishments miles long. He even swam in the 2008 Paralympic Trials and the Parapan American Games — all without water wings.
And that dream to graduate from Gonzaga, one that seemed out of reach? This determined guy received his degree in 2009 with three business concentrations and a minor, all while living independently on campus.
Then came what Higgins calls a “lucky break” that would give him his ultimate educational dream.
“This guy came up to me at a swim meet wearing a USC polo shirt,” Higgins said, and encouraged him to apply for a “Swim with Mike” scholarship for physically challenged athletes, one that might provide a full-ride scholarship to the University of Southern California. “I gave his friend, a board member, a call, but I didn’t really follow up until I was up late one night and went on the web. I decided to apply.”
He had missed the deadline in ’09, but he was told to reapply the following year. When opportunity knocked in 2010, Higgins was ready to answer.
“The guy I interviewed with was John Naber, who has won more gold medals than anyone else at USC,” Higgins said of the five-time Olympic medalist. “I promised him that if ‘Swim with Mike’ gave me a scholarship, I’d be a positive return. I’d raise more money for them than the full-ride scholarship.”
In May 2015, Higgins received his MBA from USC while swimming competitively at times, holding part-time jobs and then working full-time in his last year. Employed at Toyota Financial Services in L.A., for almost three years before becoming a Windemere real estate broker in the Tri-Cities this past April, Nate still wants to do more.
He hopes to extend his workday by mentoring those new to spinal cord injuries while continuing to raise money for the USC “Swim with Mike.”
“I think we’re put on this Earth to help people,” said Higgins, reflecting on all who have helped him. “We’re always happier when we’re doing something for someone else.”
A tribute to life’s purpose and a note Higgins scribbled from his hospital bed after realizing he was paralyzed from the chest down: “With God’s help I’ll make the best of what I have.”
Through faith and determination, Nate Higgins has “walked on water.”