Dr. Joseph Brofsky believed he would die. After being hit from behind by an eight-foot wave while vacationing in the Dominican Republic, he lay face-down in three feet of water, paralyzed.
“I was wide awake,” Brofsky recalled. “It was very quiet because I was floating in water, and I realized that I was probably going to die because I couldn’t move and I couldn’t get out of the water. . . . And I’m saying to God, ‘No, you can’t take me. It’s too early. I have so much to do. I have to see my grandchild.’”
Brofsky, 62, lives in Lynbrook and practices dentistry in Woodmere and New Hyde Park. As he lay in the surf that March afternoon, he recounted, he thought about how he would be unable to meet his unborn grandson — who was due in June — if he didn’t survive. He was in Punta Cana with seven of his friends for their 13th annual “mancation” at the time.
Brofsky was standing in the water and facing the shore when the massive wave crashed into him. He fell face-first into the water and hit bottom, and the sudden impact hyperextended his neck, causing him to lose feeling in his limbs. He shared his story at a news conference at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset on Aug. 1, the five-month anniversary of the incident.
Jim Lawler, Brofsky’s friend and neighbor, said he thought they had both dived through the wave together, but when Lawler surfaced, he couldn’t find Brofsky. The retired high school woodshop teacher turned toward the shore and spotted Brofsky floating face-down. Lawler said he initially thought his friend was pulling a prank, but quickly realized he was in trouble and frantically swam over to him. When he rolled Brofsky over, his face was bloodied and he couldn’t move.
Brofsky remained motionless as waves careened into him. A man and woman hurried over and helped Lawler move Brofsky onto the beach as a lifeguard called for medical assistance.
“Seeing him laying in the water that day, I could see the fear in his eyes and him thinking of his uncertain future,” Lawler said in the hospital’s conference room. “I’m just so happy to see the glean back in his eye again.”
Brofsky was rushed to two different hospitals in the Dominican Republic and then flown to North Shore on a private jet on March 8. He was stabilized in the hospital’s neurosurgical intensive care unit, and imaging tests helped doctors determine that he had hyperextended his neck and compressed his spinal cord, damaging five vertebrae.
Dr. Michael Lefkowitz, the hospital’s assistant clinical professor of neurosurgery, said he opted for laminectomy fusion surgery, which involved removing bone from Brofsky’s spine to relieve nerve pressure. During the nearly three-hour-long procedure, Lefkowitz also inserted rods and screws into Brofsky’s spine to stabilize it. Before the surgery, doctors were unsure whether Brofsky would walk again, but he is now able to, and he has limited use of his hands, but is able to write and text.
Lefkowitz said he sees injuries like Brofsky’s at least once a summer, and added that he is recovering quickly because he is strong mentally and physically, noting that he was an avid runner before the accident. He also lauded Brofsky for helping train many dentists and treat countless patients in the Northwell Health System, a role that he returned to five months after surgery.
“Dr. Brofsky is an institution in the Northwell system,” Lefkowitz said. “He’s trained dozens, if not hundreds, of residents and medical students, and he’s treated thousands of patients. And one thing that I think is amazing about this story is how Northwell has been able to return the favor so that he can continue his work.”
Brofsky and his wife of 42 years, Laurie, have lived in Lynbrook for 24 years. They raised their daughters, Jenna, 30, and Emma, 28, in the village. Brofsky runs a pediatric dental practice in Woodmere and serves as head of pediatric dentistry at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
During his recovery, he spent five weeks at Glen Cove Hospital learning how to walk and eat again. He had lost all fine motor skills, and could not sign his name on the consent form for his surgery. Brofsky said he was grateful to everyone who helped treat him, and at the news conference, he sat between Lawler and Lefkowitz and slowly turned his head toward each of them to express his gratitude. His experience, he said he hoped, would be a lesson in water safety to others.
The incident gave him new perspective, he said, and minot inconveniences like traffic no longer bother him. He also said he could still vividly remember the wave striking him, his head hitting the sand and his neck snapping back, as well as the fear that he felt because he couldn’t move.
“For a while there, I really thought it was over,” he said. “So when you go through an experience like that, you change. Your life changes and the way you look at things change.”
Though he has returned to teaching dentistry, he no longer has the motor skills to drill or perform intricate procedures. He can examine patients, however, and Lefkowitz said he was optimistic that Brofsky would fully regain the feeling in his hands. He added that he cleared him to run in late July.
And, though he has limited use of his hands, he was able to hold his grandson, Isaac, when he was born on June 2 in Kansas City. He prepared for the moment by spending weeks lifting eight-pound weights.
“When I saw the baby, I did cry like a baby because it was very emotional,” Brofsky said. “When I held the baby . . . [it was] as good as it gets. No greater feeling.”