“I'm able to lead by example. If I did it, there's no reason why you can't do it either.”
In 1990 Mona Patel was a freshman at California Polytechnic State University. Just 17 years old, her future was bright—promising and straightforward. Nobody could have predicted that one man’s reckless decision was about to change her life forever.
Walking to class one spring morning, Patel was struck by a drunk driver. "I flew up about 12 feet," Patel recalls to CNN. "And then he pinned me between his car and a metal railing, and that's what smashed my leg and my foot."
Over the course of the next seven years, Patel underwent more than 20 surgeries to salvage what was left of her leg. Ultimately it was amputated from the knee down. Through it all, she became frustrated with the lack of support available for amputees, and in 1997 she vowed she would change that.
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Twenty years later, Patel’s nonprofit, San Antonio Amputee Foundation, is thriving, and so are the 1,100 amputees who have benefited from it. The group offers all the things she wishes she had following her accident: peer support, education and recreation opportunities, as well as financial assistance. Now all of the work she’s done to help her fellow amputees is gaining national attention, and has earned her a coveted spot among this year’s CNN Heroes.
"When somebody becomes an amputee, maneuvering through the system is sometimes just scary," Patel tells CNN. "I think the big catalyst of me doing what I do to help the amputee community is because I lived it."
Patel, a now a mother of two, also leads health and fitness programs and sponsors people who have lost limbs in tennis tournaments and endurance climbs. In 2015, she and a group even climbed to the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“When I'm able to provide peer support to an individual, it's powerful,” she says. “I'm able to lead by example. If I did it, there's no reason why you can't do it either.”
Thirty years after that fateful spring day at California Polytechnic State University, Patel tells CNN that she she sees the silver lining in all of it. “I tell the people that I work with, ‘It may take you a while to figure out the 'why,' but you'll come to know why this has happened to you.’ Twenty years (after starting work), I know why this happened to me. It has become my platform professionally, philanthropically—just to embrace the people that come to me. And I hold their hand through as much as they need me to.”