June 13, 2013 at 12:53 PM ET
When Michael Patterson spotted a 4-year-old drowning in a local Rockmart, Ga., swimming hole, he didn't hesitate before jumping in to save her. But Patterson’s heroic dive, made on June 8, has landed him in the hospital — still in critical condition and paralyzed from the waist down from spine injuries and three broken bones in his neck.
“I just did what I would hope anybody else would’ve done for me,“ he told his mother, Vicki Jones, in his hospital room at Redmond Regional Medical Center in nearby Rome, Ga.
Patterson and his 9-year-old son, Cole, were spending an afternoon together along the Euharlee Creek, as they've done for years, when the 43-year-old father heard a mother screaming for help, Jones told TODAY.com. The creek’s swift current was carrying the woman’s 4-year-old child away, according to the police report.
A strong swimmer, Patterson jumped in and saved the girl, but the water was apparently too shallow to cushion his dive. Bystanders found him face down in the water moments after the rescue, and paramedics rushed him to the hospital, where he fell into a coma. “He was somehow able to push the little girl out of the water,” his mother said. "Then he drowned."
It was touch and go at first, but Patterson is known in his family as a “fighter.”
“I don’t want to die, I want to live,” Jones said her son mumbled to her from his hospital bed.
On Tuesday, Patterson was taken off his respirator and started breathing normally on his own. But by Wednesday evening, his health took a turn for the worse when bacteria-filled creek water in his lungs triggered a case of pneumonia.
"Mike had a very hard night and has some huge hurdles that we had hoped were behind us," a friend posted to a Facebook page set up in his honor. "Mike is back on the ventilator, in a medically induced coma, and has pneumonia in both lungs. His sweet mom is sitting by his bed, holding his hand and praying for a miracle and that he is in no pain right now."
Jones was never surprised her son risked his life for another human — it’s a habit of his. Just last month he and another man pulled a truck driver to safety from the flames of his crashed 18-wheeler.
“It scared me to death,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Son, your heart is bigger than your body, you helping like this is going to get you killed.’”
While Patterson has received much recognition for his heroic deeds from news outlets and strangers alike, the timing of his hospital visit couldn't be more difficult for him and his family. Patterson’s new job doesn't provide health insurance, so the family is struggling to scrape together funds to get him transported to the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta nonprofit hospital specializing in spinal cord rehabilitation.
Friends and family have received support and kind words from people around the globe on the Facebook page they created for Patterson. Jones, whose own husband is also in the hospital battling Stage IV cancer, broke into tears when she described one man who offered to donate his own brand-new wheelchair to her son.
“I was at that point where you get to thinking that you don’t have any blessings to count; I had lost my faith in people,” she said. “I’m thankful to everyone who has helped him. People all over the world have responded unbelievably.”
Doctors have told Jones that her son could remain paralyzed from the waist down, with some movement in his right arm, for the rest of his life. Patterson isn't quite aware of this yet: After suffering from a concussion, he still hasn't been able to digest the full extent of his paralysis. But Jones remains hopeful that her active child will one day walk again.
“This is his worst nightmare,” she said. “But he has a heart of gold, and I do know with all my heart that he’s not going to give up.”