ORANGE PARK – Gilberto Lopez remembers everything about his short motorcycle ride on Jan. 28:
The urgency to get home before dark.
Seeing the truck turn directly in front of him.
All the surgeries, almost daily, to check for possible healing and debris in his mangled right leg.
And the decision.
Now, less than two months later, Lopez still feels mosquitos biting a leg no longer exists. But he’s optimistic, if not grateful, for what’s ahead, because the way he feels, he only lost a leg, not his life.
“I have my full health, so it’s OK,” he said while returning to Orange Park Medical Center Monday to “come by and say hi” to the rehabilitation staff, including University of Florida student Franco Pulji, that had a roll in his amazing recovery. “I’m alive. I’m all right, I have my family. I have everything. I just don’t have a leg.”
Lopez soon will be fitted with a prosthetic leg that will return a little more normalcy to a young life that almost was lost less than two miles from his home. He rode his motorcycle to the gas station and was on his way home when a truck veered and struck him at 103rd Street at Old Middleburg Road. He immediately was taken to OPMC.
“He caught me on my blindside,” Lopez said. “I wasn’t doing anything bad. It was cold, and I was just trying to get home. He just made a mistake. In one second, everything changed. But I don’t have any hard feelings.”
Through all the physical and emotional pain that comes with rebuilding a broken body, Lopez refuses to be distracted by pity or anger. He insists there are so many more good days ahead of him than bad days from the past.
“I’m going to be better than I was before [the accident],” he said. “Life doesn’t stop here. You just replace your leg with another one.”
Lopez certainly could feel hopeless. He had just turned 20, and suddenly, he had to make a decision that came with both doubt and disappointment. He could keep the leg, knowing his movement would be extremely limited. Or he can cut it off. Decisions rarely are more difficult than that.
“His injuries were severe,” said Dr. Paul Baldwin, the orthopedic surgeon who amputated Lopez’s leg. “We had a long conversation about the functional outcome. Even if all the stars aligned perfectly, he would have to go through a lot of surgeries to keep the leg, and he probably wouldn’t have any mobility in his knee. It would be stiff. Basically, it would really difficult for him to get in a car or ride on an airplane. It was a real difficult conversation.”
Lopez also talked with other survivors of traumatic injuries before deciding to have the leg amputated above the knee. He spent a week in recovery and another week in rehab working with Pulju. Then he went home.
“He has a great spirit,” Baldwin said. “He will be a good example of someone returning to a functional life – a different life, but a functional life.”
Lopez wants to be a peer visitor for other patients who face difficult choices following a severe accident, Bowden said.
Not only did the surgeons work tirelessly to save his life, they gave him all the information he needed to make an informed decision about the amputation, Lopez said.
“All the surgeons who worked on me did their maximum,” he said.
There will be difficult days ahead. He must learn to walk without crutches and trust a new sense of balance. There will be moments of despair, only to be quickly overwhelmed by his zealous appreciation of life.
“I’m not happy this happened, but I’m happy for the opportunities it’s brought to me,” he said. “I’ll be fine. When I get my new leg, I can’t wait to show it off. I’ll be as good as new.”