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Personal trainer paralyzed in Virginia Beach faces challenging recovery

Jeff Di Fulgo went to Atlanta for rehabilitation after a diving mishap left him paralyzed from the chest down. His journey has its challenges, but he's determined to stay strong.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WVEC) — Jeff Di Fulgo’s life was turned upside-down in a cruel twist of irony. Since then, he has made it his life goal to disprove what most people think to be impossible.

Di Fulgo started a journey to recovery in a hospital bed in Virginia Beach in July, shortly after he dove into a sandbar at Croatan Beach. The incident left him paralyzed from the chest down. His family immediately worked to get the Di Fulgo the best care possible. That led to the personal trainer being airlifted to the Shepherd’s Center in Atlanta.

13News Now caught up with Di Fulgo in Atlanta as he learned skills needed for daily care and home life. Each day of learning is different but each one is filled with hour-long sessions. The sessions take place five days a week.

One was a physical therapy session in which he learned how to move from an electric wheelchair to a manual chair. It provides him more mobility. Sound easy? Not so much.

“You have to do weight shifts, you have to turn, you have to do this and that,” Di Fulgo said. “There’s so much more than just existing and trying to get better. It’s more than exercise.”

July 14, the day that Di Fulgo dove into the sandbar, was supposed to be a day of fun in the sun. Instead, his girlfriend, Madison, would end up pulling his motionless body from the water.

“That’s another thing that gets me emotional is that she really did save my life,” said Di Fulgo. “And, now, I’m here and I have to work for that because she saved my life.”

During our visit to Atlanta, the couple worked together during certain therapy sessions. For about an hour, Madison helped Di Fulgo move from his wheelchair to a bed.

“I don’t want to go too far when he’s not ready to go as far as I’m pushing,” Madison told a physical therapist. “That’s what I guess we have to work on.”

Adjustments that 26-year-old Di Fulgo has to make include talking to a computer to navigate web pages and emails. Both were part of his administrative work at the Hilltop YMCA. He can't type, although he has limited movement in his hands. He uses a device to click on a laptop trackpad.

At one point, he had to take a break from the sessions. An infection, which put him in the hospital for days, left him very sick and dealing with a severe fever.

“I was nauseous here. I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t even get in my chair,” Di Fulgo said. “And, then, finally when I got discharged and got over to the residence, I couldn’t get out of bed and I was running a 104 temperature, so it was time to call the ambulance.”

Trainers said Di Fulgo jumped right back into training as soon as he could. He shared mainly positive affirmations during an interview.

Di Fulgo said community support is what keeps him going. In Hampton Roads, #jeffstrong seems to have taken over social media. People formed a Facebook support group for him. Former clients at the Hilltop YMCA have sent well-wishes and attend numerous fundraisers for him.

13News Now featured Di Fulgo with Willie “Sketch” Burnham, a quadriplegic, in April before Di Fulgo's accident. The two formed a brotherhood and bond that helped Burnham walk.

“That’s definitely where the emotions come. Whether it’s pictures, thinking about work and what I could be doing today instead of this,” Di Fulgo said. “I just try not to think about that.”

Di Fulgo has a tough road to recovery. Soon after leaving the Shepherd Center in October, he was readmitted to a hospital in Virginia Beach because of more complications. Family members told 13News Now he is progressing. They have set up a support fund at Towne Bank and a GoFundMe page.

Di Fulgo is committed to walking again and to teaching other people a lesson through his story.

“Just be happy with your situation no matter what it is,” Di Fulgo said. “Don’t ever wish your life was different or anything like that. Just be happy with what you’ve got because it can be different in the matter of seconds. Just be happy with what you’ve got.”

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