Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville patient and ambassador for medically complex children Jacob Lopez needs a special wheelchair to get around, but that doesn’t stop him from teeing it up on the golf course or the driving range.
The 10-year-old Jacksonville boy can hit a golf ball two ways—from his wheelchair or from a three-wheeled golf cart known as a paramobile, which lifts him into a standing position with a push of a button.
“Like everything else he does, he just has to do it differently than most people,” explained his stepfather, Bill Miller.
A life-changing accident
Three years ago, Jacob and his mother, Maria Munoz, were in a serious car crash in Jacksonville, Florida, that has left Jacob paralyzed from the waist down. Both he and his mother were initially hospitalized with traumatic brain injuries and multiple broken bones. Jacob’s injuries were so severe that he had to be placed in a medically induced coma for several weeks to allow his body to heal. He spent more than 120 days at Wolfson Children’s, the majority in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
But after numerous complex surgeries, including spinal fusion in January 2017, Jacob is now an inspiring example of how children with complex medical needs can live—and thrive—despite physical challenges.
In 2016 alone, he:
- Was invited to Washington, D.C., by Wolfson Children’s Hospital to lobby lawmakers about improving care for medically complex children.
- Spoke at the annual leadership conference of the Children’s Hospital Association.
- Participated in a $2 million check presentation to Wolfson Children’s on behalf of THE PLAYERS Championship.
Since 2011, THE PLAYERS has donated $3 million to establish and maintain a center for child health, wellness and injury prevention programming at Wolfson Children’s. Jacob is just one of thousands of children in Florida and Georgia who have benefitted from the work of THE PLAYERS Center for Child Health at Wolfson Children’s.
For the past three years, he’s attended THE PLAYERS as a guest of Community PedsCare®, a North Florida program for children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions.
Last year at THE PLAYERS, Jacob took a few cracks at The First Tee Challenge in the Stadium Village, where golf fans attempt to land a shot on a replica of the famous island green at 17. Teeing the ball up for Jacob was none other than U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Meeting with champions
Later that day, Jacob fist-bumped two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson and had a memorable chat with 2017 Masters winner Sergio Garcia.
“We saw Bubba tee off on No. 10, and as he walked by us, Jacob said, ‘Go Dawgs,’” recalled Miller, a die-hard University of Georgia football fan. “When we saw Sergio walking off the 16th green, I told Jacob to say, ‘Hola, Sergio.’”
After hearing the greeting, Garcia immediately walked over to Jacob and began conversing with him in Spanish. “He asked Jacob his name and wanted to know what happened to him,” Miller recalled. “He was incredibility generous with his time. It was a very meaningful experience for Jacob and something he will never forget.”
At the 2016 PLAYERS, Phil Mickelson made his way down a long line of autograph seekers to personally present Jacob with an autographed golf ball. “That was a huge,” Miller said. “It shows how sensitive PGA TOUR players are to disabled children.”
An inspiring figure on the golf course
Last September, Jacob was asked to hit the ceremonial first ball to kick off the Web.com Championship in Atlantic Beach, Florida. He’s grown nearly five inches since the car accident, and will start sixth grade in the fall.
“His legs are much stronger now,” said Miller. “The spinal surgery has allowed him to do more advanced physical therapy. We realize paralysis is the likely outcome for Jacob, but we still believe he will have the opportunity to walk at some point. We want his legs to be strong for when that day comes.”
Pediatric physical therapists with Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation have taught Jacob, who is proficient at “popping wheelies,” how to get back up in his chair after tipping over backwards. Since losing the use of his legs, Jacob has taken up a number of other adaptive sports besides golf, including wheelchair basketball and Power Soccer, a team event developed specifically for powered wheelchairs.
He’s even earned his driver’s license at Legoland, one of his favorite Florida attractions.
“We were in a very bad accident, but it’s amazing to see how far Jacob has come,” said Maria, a stay-at-home mom with two other children. “He operates his wheelchair so well, people think he’s been in it a long time, but it’s only been three years. We don’t put Jacob in bubble wrap. We let him live his life.”
For children like Jacob, hope starts at one of the best children’s hospitals in the country, Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville. To give now to support Wolfson Children’s, visit HopeStartsHere.com.