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Derek Herrera is lucky to be alive. A marine special operations officer, he was just seven weeks into a six-month deployment in Afghanistan, when the team he was leading found themselves in the midst of an intense enemy firefight. Thousands of bullets raged all around them – chaos was in the air.

One bullet hit Derek square in the shoulder, wedging itself in his spine at the T6 level. He slumped over, realising he was in trouble – his body no longer seemed to be working from the chest down. He wondered how he could possibly make it out of the war zone to get medical help.

“You’re not only fearing for your injury, but for your life.”

But these are the situations military forces have been trained to deal with. Thanks to the incredibly heroic feats of his squad, Derek was able to be evacuated from the scene along with another critically injured surgeon. Medics leapt into action to stabilise Derek’s condition while the rest of the squad repelled enemy attack. This allowed the Medevac helicopters to land and evacuate the injured marines.

I was just really happy to be alive and was really fortunate to have made it out of that situation.

Derek HerreraMed Tech Inventor

Derek’s next memory was waking up in a hospital in Camp Bastion, joint base for US and international forces. He remembers explicitly listening to the doctor tell him he may never walk again, how their eyes locked as he processed the information he’d been told. Deep down Derek knew what had happened to him from the moment he felt the bullet bite his back.

As he lay in his hospital bed, Derek’s immediate concern was not for himself but for his wife. Calling her with the news of his injury was hard but became his first step towards making a strong recovery.

“It was incredibly challenging, but we were just happy I was alive to make that call.”

Many of Derek’s friends who served weren’t given the same opportunity to phone home themselves, so he was grateful he could. His rehabilitation involved a fair bit of travel as he was shifted through medical centres, from Afghanistan to Germany until finally he was back home in the US.

Upon arriving home, Derek was initially placed in the National Naval Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland. He spent several days there until he was transferred for the third time to a Veterans Affairs Hospital. The nature of his spinal cord injury meant Derek was no longer able to serve in the military, which lost him the funding that had been paying for his medical care up to that point.

As a result he was transferred yet again to a hospital for former military service members, a Veterans Affair hospital in Tampa, Florida. It was here the reality of his injury started to sink in.

In retrospect, one of the most traumatic aspects was the loss of his physicality. His life as a  marine had been extremely physically demanding – constantly running, swimming and working out. Having that part of his identity ripped from him so suddenly was hard to come to terms with and Derek found himself having to delve deep and find himself again in his new body.

Initially, his outlook on life was naively positive – he’d just survived an insanely dangerous situation in Afghanistan. Despite doctors explaining to him how he might never walk again, the ‘might’ gave him a glimmer of hope and he was prepared to be on his feet again in six weeks.

Looking back, Derek sees his mindset in both a positive and negative light. On one hand, he’d had the motivation to stay alive while his other injuries healed. But it also meant he had a greater height to fall from emotionally as the realisation dawned on him that his paralysis was perhaps more permanent than anticipated.

“You’re easily thinking about all the things that have been taken from you. It just took time for me to push through.”

It was especially frustrating for Derek being stuck in a hospital bed in the US, while his squad was still in Afghanistan fighting. His wife and kids were also growing as a family. Derek was supposed to be their leader and supporter but he could no longer fulfil those roles the same way.

He started to isolate himself and dwell on these facts. In this moment, the only saving grace from the darkness he’d slipped into was surrounding himself with a sense of community and staying in contact with the people who mattered to him however he could; whether that was by calling his squad mates on a satellite phone, or the support from his loving wife.

When he found himself stuck, he’d remind himself to work hard for them in the ways he could: by ensuring a good recovery.

Don’t shut down, communicate what you’re feeling so they can support you.

Derek HerreraMed Tech Inventor

His next point of call was finding himself a new sense of fulfilment with the changes his future now held. While he couldn’t be with his squad commanding on the battlefield, Derek still wanted to contribute what he could. He felt as though he needed to get back to somewhere he had value.

As soon as he could, he took on administrative duties for the military. He quickly found the more he worked, the more progress he made emotionally and physically in his recovery. It wasn’t long before he found himself applying to business school, something he never imagined doing prior to his accident.

Derek’s experience as a student was phenomenal, attending a school that was very accessible both physically and financially. Besides he discovered that as a wheelchair user, there wasn’t anything other students were doing that he couldn’t do.

“Go back to school if you have a good idea of why you’re doing it. If you know where you want to go, it’s really good to help you get there.”

While at university, he discovered a lot about the unmet needs for those with spinal injuries. Pondering on those unmet needs transformed into what is now Spinal Singularity. They focus on simplifying the complicated multitude of different technologies around the world that solve issues for those with spinal cord injuries. Derek has dedicated five years to setting up this company, which was officially established just two years ago.

The company’s current focus is set on simplifying technologies that resolve bladder management issues for those with spinal cord injuries. One of their products is a catheter that can be controlled by the push of a button.

Spinal Singularity has done incredibly well in terms of progress which makes perfect sense when you grasp the level of passion that radiates from the team, led by Derek. In 2018, they carried out two clinical studies and are actively enrolling for their third for 2019. With this data, they hope to qualify for the CE mark approval and the FDA regulatory clearance by early 2020.

“We started with a napkin sketch years ago and we’ve turned that into a real device.”

The way Derek views his company is astonishing. He truly values helping as many people as possible over the financial gain of doing so.

“Five years will pay off because if we could do this, it could just help a lot of people and improve their lives in a meaningful way.”

Derek Herrera is now enjoying what he considers to be one of the best joys of his life: being a father to his 19-month-old twin boys with his devoted wife. Raising them and seeing them grow is something he definitely looks forward to in the future. He would say for any other couples to remember the importance of what you’re working towards together.

Focus on what brought you together and the fact that you want to stay together.

Derek HerreraMed Tech Inventor

Remembering that being married and staying married is a commitment you make every day. And if you need, sometimes taking a moment from your own feelings and considering how your partner feels can help. By taking the focus off yourself, by default your relationship can find a rhythm and flourish to something even bigger than it was.

Derek Herrera

Super Power: T6 Paraplegic

Specialities: Former Marine Special Operations Officer & Spinal Singularity CEO)

If you’d rather listen than read…

Listen to the Podcast with Derek Herrera now.