Road to Recovery: John's Story of Recovering from an Accident

Hi, my name is John Cortez and I'm 27 years old. I like to think of myself as a hard worker and avid adventurist. At any given time, when I'm not working, you can find me biking about town, running with my dog, or climbing at my local rec-center.  The money I make that doesn't go to paying bills, I save for trips to the Red River Gorge.  Last summer I was on my way home from the RRG when I was in a vehicular accident that would change my life forever.

Recovering from Injury

This accident occurred on the highway with my girlfriend, Theresa, in the passenger seat, and my best friend, Nels, in the backseat.  The impact left Theresa with a broken hip, and Nels unscathed. I broke my Tibia, Fibula, Pelvis, and Femur, which was sticking out of the back of my leg.  When I first saw my leg, I quickly tried to come to terms with the idea that I may never walk again.

Amidst this surreal insanity, there was light at the end of the tunnel.  Talks of losing my leg turned to keeping my leg, then to repairing my leg with a possibility of full recovery.  During my 7-day stay at the hospital they performed 2 surgeries.  The first surgery was to put a rod in my leg from ankle to pelvis, and the second was to put two bolts in my pelvis.  Theresa had an identical surgery to secure her hip together.

As a Health Studies major, I thought I knew what I was up against, but no amount of coursework can teach you how to handle the emotional trauma.  Physical pain you can block out.  The emotions, they wear on you.  It starts with blame.  Forget about me, I almost killed my girlfriend, how do you deal with that? Others want to blame you too, but can you blame them?  You replay that moment in your head over and over, trying to figure out what you could have done differently.


I quickly realized I shouldn't do that to myself.  Negativity was going to be my biggest adversary on my road to recovery. I had to remain positive.  I remember allowing myself one moment of weakness.  I sat upright in my hospital bed, wanting to puke from the change in blood flow. They were sending me home sooner than I was ready for.  I called my mother into my room, I pulled her close and I told her, "I don't think I can do this, I can't do this." I had never doubted myself until now.  I allowed myself 10 minutes self pity, letting it all out. Then I took a deep breath, got in my wheelchair, and started my journey home, and my road to recovery.

I couldn't start physical therapy until every bone was healed, so the doctor gave me daily leg exercises to perform.  Full recovery was my goal, and I knew I was going to have to push myself more than ever.  Weekly, I would add more reps to my leg workouts or perform more difficult variations.  I would crutch laps around my parking lot, and everyday try to do one more lap than the last.  I would curl dumbbells while standing on one leg, balancing myself with my walker.  Everyday became a constant effort of improvement.  I became addicted to other peoples stories of miraculous recovery.  I told everyone I was going to make a 'Bruce Lee' recovery.  My goal was not only full recovery, but I wanted to cut the healing time in half.  When doctors would tell me my recovery would take year, I would tell them "I'll make it in 6 months then."

By the time I was able to start physical therapy my determination was mechanical.  I never missed a day, and I would ask for workouts to do at home.  Therapy was 7 days a week for me, whether I was at home or PT.  It was important that I remembered my end goal, but you have to take it day by day.  I remember the triumph I felt the day I was able to bathe myself, or put my own sock on without knocking the wind out of myself.  Balance turned to walking, walking turned to jogging, and with that came climbing, biking, hiking.

I stand here today, 9 months since the accident, in better shape then ever before. I can bike 20 miles easy, I'm working on leading 5.10, Theresa and I are happier than ever, and most of all, my whole attitude has changed.  It's amazing what you learn about yourself when you go through something like that.  I'm tougher than I ever realized.  No pain will ever amount to what I suffered in the car that day, and no triumph will be as great as defeating the negative feelings of body image, social image, and emotional trauma.  Every single day is the best day of your life when you're just happy to be alive.

-John Cortez is a health promoter and rock climber. We heard about John's story during an #STPLive Twitter Chat and invited him to tell his story here on the Hub. Join the #STPLive chat this Wednesday at 4pm to discuss recovering from tragedy.
Andy Hawbaker
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Andy Hawbaker
Andy is a hiker, backpacker, snowboarder and outdoor fanatic. When he isn't exploring the Rocky Mountains, burning marshmallows or scratching his dog behind the ear, he shares his experiences here on the Sierra Trading Post Blog.
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