Accident Gives Good Samaritan New Perspective
May 2021 Issue
Until April 19, 2017, Norma Trujillo was leading her life—constantly on the go—in Tucson, Arizona. She had just started a new job and was raising an 11-year-old daughter and three-year-old twin sons. She and her husband, Michael, were also managing their daughter's youth soccer team.
That day, she was teaching her niece to drive when they saw a stalled SUV in an intersection. Leaving the girl in the car, Trujillo walked over to help and was struck from behind by another vehicle. The force of the impact pulled Trujillo beneath the car that hit her. The vehicle dragged her body along the asphalt, and the heated motor and fuel burned her skin.
"From there my world went still with blackness," says Trujillo, who was 33 years old when the accident happened. "That's where my life stood still for the next three months."
You Were in a Bad Accident
Trujillo wasn't conscious again until the next month. When she woke, Michael was at her bedside.
"What happened?" Trujillo asked.
"You were in a bad accident," he replied.
Trujillo learned the extent of her injuries. She underwent bilateral transfemoral amputations, her skull and spinal cord were internally separated, which resulted in a 90 percent loss of movement in her neck, and she received third-degree burns over her right arm and upper right side of her chest to her abdominal area.
Despite the seriousness of her injuries, she says she remembers lying in the hospital bed holding her husband's hand, thinking repeatedly, "What's next? There has to something else, this can't be it."
Trujillo spent the next three months in the hospital battling sepsis, enduring several surgeries for skin grafts, and being treated by a host of physicians, specialists, and therapists.
Initially, Trujillo feared being paralyzed and she was unable to speak. "The only way I could communicate was by blinking my eyes," she says. "One blink for yes, two for no."
She was eventually able to regain control of her body and started writing notes to her family and physicians. "Although it was very painful, I followed the directions of my physical therapist as he tried to guide me to reduce scar tissue with skin grafts and prepare my nubs to be able to walk again."
Once Trujillo's health began to improve, she says she started to show better results. She was moved to Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Tucson to continue her recovery process. On her first day of physical therapy, Trujillo says she was asked to lie face down on a mat to see if she could raise herself up. She could not.
"I was laying there helpless, and I had no control," she says. "Tears flooded that mat, not because I was sad but because I was frustrated. That was a glimpse of how weak my body was in a physical form."
Despite her severe limitations, Trujillo says she quickly became known at the hospital as the patient who wanted as much therapy as she could get.
Starting With Stubbies
Six months after her accident she met Sarah Don, CPO, Hanger Clinic, Tucson. Trujillo says, "The moment I met her I knew we had a special connection because of the reply she had to my question that had been on my mind since day one: ‘Is it possible for me to walk again?'"
Don replied with enthusiasm, "That's why I'm here. I got you."
Their work began by focusing on skin care, muscle strengthening, pain management, and shaping of Trujillo's residual limbs.
Like many patients with bilateral transfemoral limb loss, Trujillo started with stubbies and small platform feet. Eight months after her accident, she stood on her stubbies for the first time, looking at herself in a mirror. "It was the first time I saw myself in full bloom," Trujillo says. "With no thought at all I started taking my first steps."
Realizing her first milestone, Trujillo leaned over the support bars overcome with emotion. "Tears of joy from my accomplishment and fear rolled down my face," she says. "It was the first time in my life that I could not make any excuses or just allow myself to quit."
Trujillo received her stubbies when she attended Hanger's EmpowerFest, her first experience connecting with other amputees. "I found support, friends, and I was motivated by other amputees, and my confidence as an amputee grew," says Trujillo, who also danced at the event with her husband for the first time since the accident.
In 2018, still wearing her stubbies, Trujillo attended another Hanger event, the Bilateral Above-knee Amputee Bootcamp, which motivated her to work toward increasing the height of her prostheses and qualifying for microprocessor knees.
It took Trujillo several months to learn her new center of gravity and develop a strong sense of balance and stability. "I found myself gaining two inches every other week throughout the months," Trujillo says.
By the end of Trujillo's first full year of recovery she had completed several personal goals she had set for herself: to stand, dance, drive, and swim.
In early 2019, Trujillo was ready to transition to a new set prostheses, locked knees with pylon rods. She developed a cyst on the back of her neck, however, that led to a major surgery. "This paused my world yet again and put me down for several months because I was wheelchair bound," she says.
Her mental health began to suffer because she had to deal with a vacuum-assisted wound closure behind her neck and a PICC line in her chest. "It was the first time I felt fragile due to the complications of my fused neck," says Trujillo, who also gained 89 pounds brought on by the stress and immobility.
Friends and Family Support
Trujillo says she was able to make it through that time in her life thanks to family and friends. "I started to do physical therapy and from there my stamina flew," she says. "After months of nonstop walking I lost half the weight I'd gained and graduated to my C-Legs."
By the end of 2019, Trujillo says she had accomplished the goals she had set for herself that year: handcycling and running.
"Over the last four years of providing her prosthetic care, I have seen Norma constantly set prosthetic goals and push herself to meet these goals," says Don, who gives the example of Trujillo participating in Tucson's Run & Roll event every year since her accident—first in a wheelchair, then on her stubbies, and finally walking the entire event on her microprocessor prostheses in 2020, including the hills.
Don would also agree that Trujillo is not one to give in easily, and the support she has received only further encourages her.
At the beginning of 2020, Trujillo was using carbon fiber feet, microprocessor knees, and ischial containment sockets. In March 2021, Don fitted Trujillo with a hybrid pin/suction suspension system that allows for the reliability of a mechanical pin locking suspension along with improved rotational stability received from the suction rings.
Don says Trujillo's feet are lightweight, dynamic, low-profile, and can comply to uneven terrain such as gravel and a desert landscape. "The knees automatically adjust as necessary, which assist Norma to ambulate safely, naturally and reliably," she says. "The ischial containment socket allows for improved stability throughout the stance phase."
Pandemic Presents New Challenges
Trujillo says she was fully independent at the beginning of 2020, but COVID-19 put a stop to all her progress.
This time, however, Trujillo was prepared for the setback.
"Even though I had no assistance to keep rehabbing, I found myself reaching out to close friends I had on my social networks by asking for help, advice, and lifestyle hacks." Eventually she joined support groups and attended some local community outings. In 2020 she accomplished her weight goal, became an advocate for local community groups, received a role with the National Amputee Coalition as a lead advocate for Arizona, and earned certification as a peer support visitor.
She also learned to walk with her microprocessor prostheses using only a single cane.
Trujillo entered 2021 with a bang, she says.
She's fully independent, driving, and taking care of her children. An artist, she continues to draw and paint, she plays golf with her husband, rides bikes with her sons, and walks soccer fields with her daughter. She's still planning to do a 5K handcycling marathon.
"We are a very active family and because of that, it motivated me to push and work hard," Trujillo says. "I want to teach my kids to grow up to understand that no matter what life throws at you, you are in control of how you want to spend it. Either you sit by and watch life pass you by or you can rise and roll with life."
Betta Ferrendelli can be contacted at email@example.com.