WATCH: Man Nearly Paralyzed In Bicycle Accident Runs With the Person Who Hit Him and the Doctor Who Saved Him
On Sunday September 24, one year after a bicycling accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Dean Otto will run a half marathon alongside two people who changed his life immeasurably: the driver who hit him and the neurosurgeon who saved him.
It was before sunrise on the morning of Saturday, September 24, 2016 when Otto, an avid runner and budding triathlete, set out for a bike ride in Charlotte, North Carolina. Though he was prepared—he wore a helmet, reflective socks, a reflective vest with flashing LED lights—he somehow was invisible to Will Huffman as he made that fateful turn onto Old Providence Road. Otto was 15 feet in front of him when Huffman spotted him through the condensation on his windshield. He slammed on the brakes of his Ford F-150, but it was too late.
"I heard brakes, I felt the impact, and immediately, I was just pissed," Otto, 52, recalled to The Charlotte Observer. "I was like, ‘Are you f------ kidding me? I've got lights all over my bike, I'm in the middle of the lane, there's a whole 'nother lane over here. How the hell are you hitting me right now?' And then it was lights out."
When he regained consciousness there on the side of the road, Otto, a recovered alcoholic who found faith on his path to sobriety in 2009, told the Observer that he prayed.
"God, I don't know what you've got planned for me, but whatever it is is larger than I can process," he prayed. "It's all yours. I'm gonna give it to you, and trust that this plan is gonna work out."
Otto says that the old him, the angry man who drank too much, "would have responded to being hit by Huffman by hitting him with as big a lawsuit as possible."
"I knew, through my recovery, that resentment is awful. It sends more alcoholics back out to drink than anything else. I knew I had to get rid of that resentment immediately," Otto told the Observer. "So even though I was pissed when I was flying through the air, I woke up and pretty much forgave Will right on the spot."
Later, at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, Otto's body was in the hands of Dr. Matt McGirt. When he arrived at the emergency room, Otto had no sensation in the lower half of his body and couldn't move a muscle below the waist. His spine was fractured and dislocated, and two vertebrae were pinching his spinal cord, preventing blood from getting to it. He had also dislocated his back, and broken his pelvis, tailbone, fibula and multiple ribs.
In a 90-minute surgery, McGirt un-pinched and re-aligned the spinal column and locked everything in place with titanium rods and screws. Then the waiting game began. It could be months before they'd know if McGirt had managed to save his lower half. McGirt told Otto and his wife Beth that only 2 to 3 percent of people with this type of injury can expect to ever walk independently again.
The next morning Otto was wiggling his toes.
Meanwhile, Huffman, 27, was determined to apologize to Otto. Even though everybody told him not to, nine days after the accident he and his wife visited him at Carolinas Medical Center so he could apologize in person.
"There were definitely those who said, ‘You need to just let the insurance people deal with it, and the lawyers,' but I never really considered those things," Huffman told the Observer. "I just knew that I needed to tell him that I was sorry, even though it was an accident. ... I just felt it was the right thing to try to make an attempt, at least, to reach out."
Huffman said he couldn't stop saying he was sorry, and he was struck by Otto's reaction. "You have to get past this," he told Will. "We know you didn't intend to do this. We forgive you."
In the days that followed, Otto's recovery continued to astound McGirt. Just a few days in he was already using a walker, at which point he started thinking about running again.
"Dean says to me, ‘I bet you could do a half (marathon),' " McGirt recalled to the Observer. "He said, ‘I'll tell you what, in a year, when I beat this damn thing, if I run one, will you run it with me?' And I thought, ‘Man, there's no way that's happening,' so I said, ‘Dean, look, if you ever run a half marathon, I'm the first guy running with you.'"
A few weeks later Otto walked into his office with virtually no assistance. The next day McGirt began training for the Napa Half Marathon in California.
Otto remained a force to be reckoned with. Exactly four weeks the accident, he showed up at the starting line of the Big South 5K—a race he registered for prior to the accident— and fought through tears as he completed it in just under 50 minutes.
He was back.
One day in February, Otto was out for a run on McAlpine Creek Greenway when he came across Huffman and his wife. They felt inspired to go for a run that day—something they rarely do—and once again found themselves in Otto's path.
"To me, it's just another part of the plan," Otto told the Observer. "Not my plan. It's just another one of those things that, how else can you explain it? Why did I decide to take a left right there? Was it breezy? What was it? I mean, something moved me to go that way."
So Otto invited the Huffmans to run the race he was training for, the Run Jen Run 5K at Symphony Park in SouthPark, and on March 11th all three of them crossed the starting line together. Shortly after, Otto and McGirt told Huffman about their half marathon plan. Huffman was in.
"I've had a lot of miracles," Otto concluded to the Observer. "It's a miracle that I'm here sober. It's a miracle that my wife stayed with me when I was being a jackass. ... It's a miracle that I'm friends with the guy who hit me, and with my doctor—who never has a relationship with any of his patients, because 99 times out of a hundred, he's delivering bad news."
He continued: "The thing that's the most startling and humbling about the whole experience, though, and the reason why I wouldn't change anything, is I've gotten to see how many people love me, and how many people come to my aid and my family's aid," he said. "Generally, you see that at people's funerals. I've gotten to see it while I'm alive."