Last year Jake Davis injured his back on a surf trip. The pain was so unbearable he couldn't get out of the water with his own will. The cause of the problem couldn't be identified by any of the five different doctors he tried in the early going.
Then he met Dr. Robert Bray Jr., who unfortunately confirmed Davis' worst fears. The problem was much worse than muscle spasms or a slipped disc. The 19-year-old was diagnosed with Spinal Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) - a rare, abnormal tangle of blood vessels on, in, or near the spinal cord. A critical surgery was scheduled immediately, with his life on the line.
Davis still isn't surfing. But he is on a slow and steady road to recovery. He spoke with us about is ordeal, its impact on his mindset, and his ambitions to be back.
WSL: Take us back to last year and what set off this terrible chain of events.
JD: I was in Costa Rica about ten months ago and it all just pretty much fell into a hole. Basically I just did a minor air and right when I landed my back compressed and it was over.
I did a minor air and when I landed my back compressed and it was over. I went surfing again and same exact thing. I landed a little bit straight legged and my whole back seized up - level fifteen pain.
WSL: And with no past problems in your back did you think it was something minor?
JD: It just felt like I had a kink in my back - it was only like a level four pain. It was constant pain for about two days but everyone who surfs knows that a little back ache will go away. I went surfing again since a big storm came into Pavones and did an air on the fourth wave and same exact thing. I landed a little bit straight legged and my whole back seized up - level fifteen pain. I tried to ride all the way in on my stomach and just get into the sand but when I got in I couldn't even stand up. My friend who was filming and good friend Noe Mar [McGonagle] had to come pick me up and that's where everything started.
WSL: But you recovered enough to keep competing.
JD: My whole outlook on that year was just to try and do a few QS events to get a little bit of a seed because the new Junior rule was coming out - which I was 100% devoted to. But...throughout all this time - competing in all these contests, traveling on a million different planes, going all these places, my back has just completely downgraded. I was in a full back brace and it's gotten to the point that I can't even support my own spine anymore or the muscles.
WSL: What were the first few consultations like when you went for help?
JD: In a nice way of saying it, they all looked at me as if I was lying. They didn't believe my pain and five of the surgeons told me to lay on my back for six months and it would get better. If I had done that and actually listened to them, I'd be dead right now.
They all looked at me as if I was lying. Five of the surgeons told me to lay on my back for six months. If I had done that I'd be dead right now.
WSL: So Dr. Bray was one to finally take you seriously. How did that process begin?
JD: He has a guy that does assessments, Dr. Hargan, who's kind of a guru chiropractor that knows everything about your body. He did a three-hour assessment on me. Most people he sees get a three-to-five page report, but mine was a ten or eleven page report and that was for Dr. Bray so that he could understand what's going on and clears the patients for surgery. That was the first time I had a doctor tell me something this is way worse than what the other doctors were telling me.
WSL: What came next?
JD: The first time we sat with Dr. Bray he told me we need to look at what I haven't done. He said think of everything you've checked off and look back and think of anything you haven't done which was a thoracic MRI. So we got one of those which has ink in it and you can see the veins through the MRI and that's when he told me I had a mass that's connected to my spinal cord. It was a mass of veins and blood vessels, and that's what was causing everything.
WSL: Was there relief in discovering what was going on with you?
JD: There aren't enough words to describe how much of a relief it was to figure out instead of just getting worse. I was telling everybody that when they finally do figure out what's wrong with me it's going to be a lot worse than anyone could've thought. I know it for a fact, I know it in my heart. Dr. Bray figured out I had a really major thing going on that they needed to address immediately -I had four different ones, but if the major blood vessel had popped I would've either been paralyzed or died from the bleeding. When Dr. Bray found that out we went into surgery a week later.
If the major blood vessel had popped I would've either been paralyzed or died from the bleeding. When Dr. Bray found that out we went into surgery a week later.
WSL: How nervous were you about surgery of that magnitude?
JD: I was nervous because I've never had any type of surgery, but I have a lot of really good people in my life and Jesus on my side so I felt really calm going into surgery just knowing I was going to come out better. I one of the best surgeons in the country. He figured out ten years ago how to address this surgery to help fix people. There's only two people in the United States that know how to do it - Dr. Bray and a guy he taught how to do it who's in New York City. I'm so beyond blessed and lucky that all this came into play.
WSL: You came out in a much better place but there's still a long road to be had isn't there?
JD: Surfing isn't even my number one priority, not even close. My number one priority is to get rid of the pain. Once I'm out pain, then I can start thinking about surfing again. Dr. Bray just wants this to go slowly and he'll clear me when he clears me - I need to heal. He put so much inside of me to help my spinal cord that all I need to do is heal right now. I'm on a paleo diet throughout the process and just eating as clean as I can to help it.
WSL: You've got a pretty amazing support group around you to help with the healing, both mentally and physically. How was it to come out of surgery and see all the love?
JD: It felt so good to have my family, close friends, and my girlfriend right there who stayed the night with me. Without her I wouldn't have been able to through this all, there's no way. I had a lot of really good friends sending me there best and one of them, Sam Moody, was there. He was going through surgery with cystic fibrosis and he knows how it feels going through a surgery situation and having people there. After my surgery and letting people know what's going on and how many people wanted to help and support and relate to back issues - it means the world. I never felt I'd witness something like this and get the drive from their support.
WSL: What's been the biggest thing you've learned from this experience?
JD: I felt like I was on top of the world training wise. But when you feel unstoppable and can do anything you want then you do a tiny thing, then your whole life is ruined and everything is taken away from you that you've wanted - you put a lot into perspective. Just all the things I love like surfing and skating, I just want to do them so bad. Now that I can't do any of it, my drive and hunger to get back is beyond what I can explain to anybody. I have such a love for it -just to be an athlete. I just can't really explain how much I need to live in that environment. My mind is so set toward that kind of stuff. Training wise I really know how to push through boundaries and take down walls. This has been the biggest thing for me and I would never take it back.
When you feel unstoppable and can do anything you want then everything is taken away from you that you've wanted - you put a lot into perspective. This has been the biggest thing for me and I would never take it back.
WSL: Why wouldn't you want to?
JD: It's been a living hell but I've learned so much from it, more than I ever thought I could in an entire lifetime about myself. Without it I don't think I'd be able to achieve the goals that I have in my mind now because they're really big goals. You have to have a really composed mindset for that and I have a hunger beyond what I thought I did before. I have a whole new love for it. It's definitely awakening. I don't even know what my first session back will be like, I'll probably cry the entire time.