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His attitude is everything

After breaking his neck in an accident, Matt Oka offers his stream of visitors a contagious positive outlook, even while he undergoes painful therapy.

October 31, 2007|By Sue Thoensen

**CORRECTION: Jacob Baquir’s name was misspelled, and he should have been described as an occupational therapist.**

Matt Oka awakened, shocked, at 7:30 a.m.

Literally shocked. A physical therapist attached wires to his arms and shoulders, sending electrical currents designed to stimulate and strengthen his weakened muscles.

Daily stimulation and exercise has strengthened his left tricep muscles, so Oka puts up with discomfort and tries to avoid negative thoughts.

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“I was really outgoing and always an active person, and I was even a lot worse when I first got here,” he said. “I want to get better, and I try when I go out there every day. Some of these people [here] seem so down and depressed, it’s almost depressing to associate with someone who doesn’t want to get better.”

Oka, 21, broke his neck when he hit a sandbar diving into the ocean just south of the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach on the Fourth of July.

An accomplished swimmer, the 6-foot-3 Oka would have returned as a senior to complete his education at USC a couple months later.

Instead, he’s 50 pounds lighter from his one-time weight of 185, is confined to a wheelchair, has limited use of his arms, no sensation and little movement in his fingers and is dependent on his family for the everyday activities most people take for granted.

He’s also armed with information and ready to move on with his life.

After spending nine-and-a-half weeks at Hoag Memorial Presbyterian Hospital in Newport Beach following the accident, Oka was transferred to Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center in Downey last month to begin a program of physical, occupational and recreational therapy.

Jacob Bacquir is the therapist who delivered the wake-up call, and he laughed as Oka recounted the experience during therapy later that day.

“This is the torture machine. It’s called electronic stimulation. He woke me up at 7:30 this morning attaching these all over my arms, and it like, basically, just shocks you.

“I didn’t really have to get up until 10 a.m., but when he’s shocking me, I obviously can’t go back to sleep.”

It’s harder to deliver those one-liners when one side of your vocal chords is paralyzed, but Oka manages.

The chords were damaged when he was intubated at Hoag after he developed severe pneumonia, but they may come back in time, he said, with breathing exercises that build up his diaphragm muscles and increase lung capacity.

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