On August 28, 2016 — just one day after proposing to his girlfriend Jordan Lovas on their dream vacation to Honolulu, Hawaii — Mike Droter rode one last wave in the ocean — a simple move that leaving him paralyzed and fighting for his life.
Lovas, who was in Hawaii to celebrate her 25th birthday — was packing up the couple’s beach bags minutes before they were to head to the airport to return to home to Citrus Heights, California, when she suddenly heard screams coming from the shore.
When she looked up, she saw people pulling Droter, 30, out of the water.
“It was absolutely terrible. You can tell that he was completely lifeless,” Lovas tells PEOPLE. “It was literally a dead body on the beach. I was flailing all over him and they literally picked me up and threw me off of him.”
Droter was drowning after a wave flipped him upside down, causing him to hit his head on the ocean floor, fracturing his C1 vertebrae — one of the worst spinal cord injuries someone can have.
“I immediately knew I was paralyzed,” he tells PEOPLE. “I remember trying to swim out of the ocean and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t do anything.”
The couple was told by doctors at Queens Medical Center in Honolulu that Droter’s injuries were “the worst of the worst” and that he’d never be able to eat, talk, walk or have any other motor functions for the rest of his life.
For the next four and a half weeks, his family and friends — who had rushed to Hawaii after the accident — stayed by his side. On Sep. 22, he was transferred to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California.
Just six weeks after the accident, he stunned doctors when he was able to say his first words. Two months later, he was able to drink water on his own (instead of through an IV) and within three weeks, he could move one of his thumbs. He’s currently on a ventilator to help him breath.
“Doctors said that this was going to be it,” says Droter, who was a manager of a Jiffy Lube store for over a decade prior to his accident. “They told me to start an online business and just accept it.”
While Droter wasn’t ready to give up, he also wasn’t prepared for how difficult life would be once he finally arrived back home on Nov. 22.
“I had a dog that I loved who I had for 10 years and he didn’t even look at me the same,” he says. “I wasn’t able to pet him or throw a ball. He neglected me for about three weeks. I was in my home and not able to do the normal things that I could before.”
The couple ended up hiring a nurse to help him during the mornings. Lovas — who is with him every day and hasn’t been able to go back to work as a regional trainer for European Wax Center— helped him start physical therapy on his own and came up a fitness plan.
Droter says that because he is on a ventilator, insurance won’t pay for physical therapy for liability reasons. But just three weeks ago, he started training at SCIFIT, a physical training company that helps people with spinal cord injuries.
“I already see so much improvement,” says Droter. “A lot of things are coming back. They actually have hope I’ll walk again.”
He’s now able to move his triceps, kick his leg down and do assisted squats, pull downs, stand ups. He has also regained feeling on the left side of his body.
“My doctors are extremely shocked,” he says. “When I went to show [my main doctor] my movements, she started crying.”
The training — which he hopes to do for as long as possible — costs around $2,000 a month out of pocket. To help defray costs, the couple created a GoFundMe page.
“It was difficult for us to get in there too because they also don’t take people on ventilators,” he says. “But Jordan sent them all of these videos of me exercising and they agreed to meet with us.”
In person, he showed them how far he has come on his own and with Lovas there with him every day for liability reasons, he continues to get stronger both physically and mentally.
“People say I seem like the old Mike after I leave the gym,” he says. “I feel amazing afterwards.”
Adds Lovas: “He’s the most amazing man. I’m so proud of him.”
Every single movement that Droter gets back gives the couple hope.
“We stay strong off the simple stuff, honestly,” he says. “I got to hold her hands for the first time about two months ago. We both cried and then we video taped it and then we laughed. It was an amazing moment.”
Those big moments are also a constant reminder of what’s missing.
“We can’t sleep next to each other and cuddle,” he says. “But when I get these movements back, all of the sudden I’m like, ‘Wow, I really might be able to put my arm around my fiancée,’ or ‘I might be able to stand next to her at my wedding.’ That’s what keep’s us going. The movement and progression.”
Their wedding day — March 23, 2018 — is something they both think about every day. After meeting six years ago, they started off as friends but after the two went on a date they never looked back.
“It was love at first sight after that,” he says.
While so much has changed since the accident, the one thing that hasn’t changed is their dedication for one another.
“For the first time we’re hearing positive things,” says Lovas. “We’re ready for our lives if nothing changes, but we’re not ready to give up. We’re going to be okay. We’re in this together.”