The car crashed into him at 60 mph, but Drew Garcia doesn’t remember that.
He doesn’t remember flying 100 feet and landing in the middle of the road. Nor does he recall the ambulance ride to the hospital, or the surgery to amputate his damaged leg.
One moment does stick with him, crystal clear.
He looked up to see his parents beside his bed at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital after his ventilator tube came out.
“I told my dad I couldn’t wait to get back to playing basketball,” Drew said. “He started crying. That’s when I realized something was wrong.”
A doctor soon explained the extent of his injuries―that he had lost his lower right leg.
At 18, Drew lives to shoot hoops with his friends. The car accident happened as he crossed a street on his way to a basketball court. As he contemplated life with one less leg, his love of the sport kicked in.
He began to plan his rebound.
Other athletes play with a prosthetic leg or in a wheelchair. He would do that, too, he decided.
“There’s no way I’m not playing basketball,” he told his parents. “No matter how it plays out, I’ll be A-OK.”
From the beginning, he has tried to focus more on victory than loss.
“It could have been way worse. With a car going 60, it could have easily killed me,” he said. “I just lost a leg. A foot, really.”
An early morning accident
Drew’s father, Joe, sympathizes with the driver of the car that hit his son.
“The driver never saw him,” he said. “He did everything he had to do. He cooperated with the police.
“It’s just an accident. An unfortunate one.”
I kind of have a new outlook on life. I get to be stronger.
The last thing Drew remembers of that day, April 30, was leaving the house early in the morning. The door slammed with a bang behind him and he paused, afraid he might have awakened his brother’s infant son.
In silence, he set off for the 40-minute walk to a basketball court. He went there most mornings to run sprints. He wanted to get in shape and improve his game.
About 5:30 a.m., he crossed U.S. 31. That’s when a 2009 Kia Spectra hit him. And Drew went flying.
“He’s extremely lucky to be alive,” said Blake Miller, DO, the orthopedic trauma surgeon who operated on Drew.
Paramedics took Drew to a local hospital, and the Holland police notified his parents, Brandy and Joe Garcia, who rushed to his side. He had a torn aorta, kidney lacerations, a broken vertebrae and blood loss from his crushed leg.
“No one knew if he was going to live or die,” Brandy said. “I just lost it.”
Drew went by ambulance to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
Dr. Miller examined Drew’s right leg and found the impact had fractured both lower-leg bones. The top end of the fibula, the smaller bone, dislocated to the center of the calf. The injury severed a leg artery and severely stretched the nerve. Drew had no muscle function or feeling in his foot and lower leg.
After discussing the injury with Drew’s parents, Dr. Miller amputated the leg below the knee.
Drew’s family worried about the long-term effect the amputation would have on Drew, the youngest of the family’s four children. He was always a happy, easygoing kid. But they didn’t know how he could handle such a loss.
“I was wondering when I would be able to see him smile and laugh again,” said his brother Darrian, 23. “I thought it would be forever.”
But Drew joked with his big brother the first time he saw him.
“I don’t understand why you’re crying,” he said. “I’m still going to cross you over.”
Two weeks after surgery, Dr. Miller saw Drew for a follow-up appointment and was impressed by his positive attitude.
“His whole affect was, ‘I’m just glad to be alive.’ He has a really good outlook,” Dr. Miller said. “He is a super cool kid.”
Coping with ‘phantom pain’
As Drew recovered and grew stronger, he moved to the Spectrum Health Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Blodgett Hospital for intensive rehab.
With his residual limb still healing from the injury, he wore a protective helmet-like device to protect it. He began exercises to boost his arm strength, cardiovascular endurance and balance.
On a morning in mid-May, he pushed up from a wheelchair and grabbed a walker. He hopped on his left leg across the gym, turned and hopped back. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he eased back into the chair.
He went 150 feet, said physical therapist Joe Ross. Big progress from his first attempt. Hopping on one foot takes twice the energy as walking on two legs, Ross added.
Drew pumped fists in the air.
“I did it,” he said.
Ross asked if he still had phantom pain.
“Yes,” Drew replied. “Not as violently as I used to.”
Like many amputees, Drew felt sensations in his missing limb. His foot itched. Sharp needle-like stabs pained his leg.
Ross had him sit on a therapy table for a sensory desensitization treatment designed to ease phantom limb pain. Drew removed the protective covering from his leg, rubbed and tapped the end of it.
Next, Drew lay on his stomach and practiced leg raises and knee bends. The exercises keep the leg muscles and hip flexors stretched and strengthened for the day he could use a prosthetic leg, Ross said.
Eager to play basketball
Before the accident, Drew had been working to get in shape. He did push-ups and sit-ups, in addition to the walks and sprints on the basketball court.
“That’s definitely helped me work through this,” he said. “It is an unexpected bonus.”
It’s not about what he can and cannot do right now. It’s about what adjustments he has to make so he can do it.
Sixteen days after his accident, Drew hopped with a walker up a metal ramp to his home. He passed through the door for the first time since that morning when he heard it slam behind him.
It was a short visit to prepare for his discharge from the hospital. With Ross, he practiced maneuvering on one leg in his bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. All went well.
Drew crossed the carpeted living room and sank into the couch.
“It feels good to be home,” he said.
Two days later, he moved home for good.
While Drew liked being out of the hospital, he was impatient to keep progressing with outpatient therapy.
“I kind of have a new outlook on life,” he said. “I get to be stronger. I have a lot of arm strength.”
Drew and his family have always been close. But his accident brought that home in a new way.
“We don’t usually have a lot of touchy-feely stuff,” he said. “But we had a lot more of those conversations. It was nice.”
The Garcia family has been touched by the support they have received from co-workers and friends, Brandy said.
“We’ve learned to cherish each other and our support network that much more,” she said.
She’s not surprised to see Drew upbeat and focused on moving ahead. He never was one to dwell on the downside of life. But still, she’s amazed at the way he faces the new challenges that surface each day as he navigates with one leg.
“It’s not about what he can and cannot do right now. It’s about what adjustments he has to make so he can do it,” she said. “That’s his whole philosophy.”
On a recent afternoon, Drew headed to the basketball court to shoot hoops from his wheelchair. His leg needs to heal more before he can get a prosthetic. But the day when he can run up and down the basketball court gets closer all the time.
“I’m still excited,” he said. “I’m still hopeful.”