Photo courtesy of Orion Owens

“Now is not forever,” is one of Orion Owens new favorite quotes.

The Cal Poly art and design senior was visiting Utah with some friends for a wedding. He and five friends ventured to a local rodeo where Orion Owens was photographing on the evening of July 21. The group soon left the rodeo to escape the summer heat and cool off in a nearby lake.

One by one they entered the lake before it was Orion Owens’s turn. No one could anticipate what was to come next.

He dove into the shallow water just as he had been doing all week, but this time he didn’t come back up. There was no sign something was wrong. His friends assumed he was pulling a prank and would soon sneak up on one of them, according to Orion Owens’s friend Marshall Birnbaum. After a few minutes, the group realized this was no joke.

Orion Owens had hit his head when he entered the water. It wasn’t a rocky lake. There were no outstanding things that could have warranted an injury. But whatever he hit froze his body; he could not move at all underwater.

“I got really calm and pretty much accepted the fact that if nobody found me, I was going to die,” Orion Owens said.

He held his breath for five to seven minutes, something not many can do. But Orion Owens was trained– he had taken surf-survival and free diving classes in the past that taught him to hold his breath for long periods of time.

That’s what saved him.

“They always tell you that the only way to get through it is to remain calm,” Orion Owens said. “So I knew that the calmer I was, the better chance I had to stay alive and that someone would find me.”

He blacked out after about three minutes before Birnbaum stepped in.

He swam over to where Orion Owens had entered the lake, saw bubbles surfacing and dove into the water. After pulling him out of the lake, Birnbaum performed CPR on Orion Owens for no more than ten minutes before he regained consciousness. When Orion Owens’ came to, Birnbaum could only describe his own feelings as pure and utter elation. Orion Owens was calm and talking like normal.

“The first thing I remember is laying in Marshall’s arms and then I think I just started singing a little bit,” Orion Owens said. “That’s pretty crazy”

Emergency personnel arrived to airlift Orion Owens to the nearest hospital in Ogden— Ogden Regional Medical Center. According to Hunter Owens, Orion Owens brother, Orion Owens was talking about filming while he was in the helicopter — one of his many passions. He had plans to film out of a helicopter in Tahiti this summer.

“I remember being in the helicopter and saying ‘I was planning on going in a helicopter this summer, but I wasn’t planning on doing it this way,’” Orion Owens said.

The doctors at Ogden Regional Medical Center diagnosed him with a clean fracture on his C5 vertebrae and a crushed C6 vertebrae. He went into surgery that night to repair the vertebrates.

Orion Owens had no movement or feeling below his waist and limited movement in his arms and hands, but had full facial movement. There was no water in his lungs and no brain damage, which is “pretty remarkable considering how long he was underwater,” Hunter Owens said.

Orion Owens stayed at that hospital for 10 days before moving to the best rehabilitation center his family could find – Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo. known for helping patients with spinal cord injuries with a 95 percent recovery rate. He has remained at Craig Hospital since.

“It makes you reconsider things when you realize, ‘Wow, he was that close to dying,’” Hunter Owens said. “And when you are alive and able to walk, it makes you really not want to take anything for granted.”

Orion today: Focused on recovery 

Orion Owens now spends his time at Craig Hospital in rehabilitation classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day with one hour for lunch. He has not fully regained feeling in his lower body or movement in his upper body.

“It’s a weird feeling because I’ll look at my legs and they look normal but I’ll try to move them and I won’t really get anything,” Orion Owens said.

But, according to his friends and family, he has shown great progress.

“He doesn’t really let anything get in his way,” Birnbaum said. “That’s Orion.”

Orion Owens had high spirits from day one— on the first day of physical therapy training, there was a race up a ramp among the patients in wheelchairs and he was the first to make it up the ramp, impressing his family and friends. 

According to Orion Owens’ mother, Laura Owens, he regained a bit of feeling in his lower back on August 31 – an improvement considering a few weeks prior, he couldn’t even feel anything in his mid-back.

“His body is like this focused engine that is determined to recover and be healthy. That’s really special to me,” Orion Owens’ friend Audrey Buchanan said.

Orion Owens has always been an active person. Baseball, basketball, snowboarding, skiing and surfing are just some of the sports he has enjoyed, according to Hunter Owens. Five years ago, Orion Owens became interested in filming and found his niche filming sports.

He has traveled all over the world to film professional athletes. Most of his relationships are in the surf industry and he primarily works on collaborations with surfers from Hawaii, according to Hunter Owens.

Photo courtesy of Orion Owens
Orion Owens filming last summer in Fiji at a surf spot called Cloudbreak | Photo courtesy of Orion Owens

Being so active, it was a challenge at first for Orion Owens to not even be able to do small things like open a bag of chips himself, according to Hunter Owens. Now, he’s able to do little things such as typing and opening small packages and food. His upper body has also gotten stronger.

“You can’t really explain it– not being able to do everything you used to,” Orion Owens said. “It just made me really think about how easy things were before and how everything you do that you don’t think about, I think about and I can’t do it. It’s a pretty humbling experience.”

Orion Owens has kept an impressively positive attitude – something even the nurses at Craig Hospital have noticed. He’s had a lot of support from people who have overcome this sort of traumatic injury. Many have told him how they stayed positive during rehabilitation. 

“A lot of things can change over the next year,” Orion Owens said. “There’s no one way to recover from it and it’s just up to you to be patient, stay positive and try to have as much fun as you can while you’re in the hospital here.”

One of the things Orion Owens will do to stay positive is to keep saying “wiggle your toes,” as he jokingly talks to his toes and tells them to move.

“I think it really blows everyone away, given his age on this planet and how young he is. From the doctors and all of us as his friends, from the night that it happened until now, his courage and perseverance is no joke,” Buchanan said. “He’s doing everything in his power to recover fully.”

Orion visits downtown Denver for the first time with friend Johnny Noris | Photo courtesy of Laura Owens
Orion visits downtown Denver for the first time with friend Johnny Noris | Photo courtesy of Laura Owens

Orion Owens will stay at Craig Hospital for about another month as a part of the inpatient program. In the beginning of October, he will be discharged, but plans to stay in the area as a part of Craig Hospital’s outpatient program. His friends, family and supporters remain optimistic for the future because, like Orion Owens says, now is not forever. 

“So much can change in an instant and a lot can happen in this next year for my body to heal,” Orion Owens said.

For those looking to show support, there are several ways to get involved and keep up with Orion Owens’s progress through his CaringBridge page, Facebook page and YouCaring funding campaign called “Wiggle Your Toes.” Some of Orion Owens’ photography and videography can be seen on his personal website.

I think it is really fantastic to share the huge comfort that Cal Poly families have offered to not only Orion Owens, but to other students and families who have experienced devastating circumstances,” Laura Owens said in an email interview.

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