Justin Sutherland Opens Up About His Recovery and the Moment He Fell Off His Boat: 'I'm Very Lucky'

·4 min read

Chef Justin Sutherland is opening up about his recovery almost one month after he was seriously injured in a boating accident.

The former Top Chef contestant tells PEOPLE he's doing okay since falling off a boat near the motor on July 3. "I feel very lucky and good," says Sutherland. "But physically, exhausted."

Sutherland was discharged from the hospital on July 21, and he only just recently looked at "gory pictures" of himself from the day of his accident. "I didn't really realize how bad it was until I saw that," he says.

He remembers the moment the boat hit a wave and just how fast everything happened.

"I hit the water and the boat just drifted right above the spot where I went in, and as I was swimming back up, I swam under the boat pump into the motor," he says. "I remember opening my eyes probably inches away from the propellers spinning and seeing them spinning, and that's when the lights went out."

justin sutherland after his boating accident
justin sutherland after his boating accident

courtesy justin sutherland

Once Sutherland resurfaced, he regained consciousness, as his friends who were with him immediately jumped in to rescue him. He was in "major shock" but stayed conscious until getting to the hospital. "I wasn't feeling any pain, wasn't feeling anything. But, as soon as I saw that blood, I knew something wasn't right," he says.

RELATED: Top Chef's Justin Sutherland Injured in a Boating Accident on July 4th Weekend

Since the accident, Sutherland has had three surgeries, including one that "had to happen immediately" that night.

"I had a very severe laceration in my forearm…that just cut all the way down to the bone and ripped through everything. And then, about an inch below my shoulder, a full compound fracture. Broke that bone all the way through," he adds. "I got a titanium plate up by my shoulder, holding that together, as well as stitching up on my forearm from the laceration."

justin sutherland after his boating accident
justin sutherland after his boating accident

courtesy justin sutherland

RELATED: Chef Justin Sutherland Fell Off His Boat Near the Motor and Suffered Injuries to Head, Jaw, and Arm

He underwent surgery to repair his jaw, which originally was set to be wired shut after both his eye sockets, cheek bones and entire row of upper teeth were all shattered. The procedure involved adding five metal plates in the regions surrounding his face trauma, and it was so successful that he did not need to get his jaw wired shut.

Despite that good news, Sutherland still cannot open his jaw more than three or four inches and can't put pressure on his upper teeth. This calls for a liquid diet for at least another month, he says.

He manages to drink several smoothies and fresh juices each day. One friend even dropped him a full turkey dinner with mashed potatoes, stuffing and chicken stock puréed into a soup. "But, 2,500 calories and 160 grams of protein is a lot to get in with [just liquids]," he says.

Another major hurdle he addresses is his vision. "The propeller sliced all the way through my eyelid and stopped right at my eyeball — 10 millimeters more and it would have ripped my whole eye out," he says. "But, I still don't have full vision in my left eye."

Justin Sutherland - boating accident - stitches
Justin Sutherland - boating accident - stitches

Courtesy Justin Sutherland

Even with these injuries, which cause severe exhaustion, impaired mobility in his left arm and nerve issues that cannot be addressed until swelling reduces, he says, Sutherland is working towards healing — and even starts physical therapy on his arm next week.

RELATED: Justin Sutherland Forgoes Feeding Tube After Accident, Needs to Eat 2500 Calories in Liquid Form

The chef says he needs at least two to three more surgeries, but they won't happen for another four months depending on his recovery process. "The swelling has to really go down to see where things fall. And, my jaw isn't still completely lined up. So, they're working to find out if that's going to be surgical or dental," Sutherland says, adding that there will also be cosmetic surgery for scarring.

The Iron Chef America winner, who's GoFundMe page has garnered nearly $250,000, is grateful for the outpouring of support. Most recently, Guy Fieri announced a fundraising event for Sutherland's recovery and medical bills. The event will take place at Fieri's house and tickets are being sold for $5,000 each.

"It's a huge help. I don't know where my family would be without it," he says of the well wishes he's received. "Even just the words of encouragement in texts and cards that have been sent have meant a lot. I'm very, very, very lucky and blessed."