Angel Ortega once jumped out of a plane with ease. It was an accomplishment for the then-18-year-old as an infantryman in the Army.
But 40 years later, Ortega, behind the wheel of his Jeep, bumped into another car as he drove home toward Palmetto Bay last September. He got out, and as he was walking between the two cars, a third car crashed into his Jeep and trapped him.
The 58-year-old doesn’t remember three months of surgery as doctors at Kendall Regional Medical Center worked to repair his crushed pelvis, fractured leg and herniated disk in his back.
“They told my family I had a 30 percent chance of survival,” Ortega said. “But I guess I fought tooth and nail to stay here.”
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Now, jumping into the shower without help is the daily accomplishment he celebrates.
And on Wednesday afternoon, Ortega politely refused help as he walked to a lectern at Kendall Regional Medical Center during the hospital’s fifth annual Trauma Awareness Day celebration.
“It’s a challenge,” he said before pushing his walker forward, surrounded by applause and laughter.
Hospital employees on Wednesday handed out medals to the 14 survivors present, many of whom still bore bandages and splints from recent operations.
“Trauma survivors have such a long road,” said Brenda Benson, the hospital’s director of trauma and burn services. “But we want to not only recognize their strength, but the strength of their team that works with them.”
Trauma, which includes any injury that is limb or life-threatening, is the leading cause of death for Floridians ages 1-44. Benson said Wednesday’s intimate gathering allowed former patients to comfortably reunite with the staff that saved their lives.
“I break out the tissues every time,” she said.
Nurses and surgeons, slipping in and out of their daily routine, lined the back wall as stories were shared bu survivors and their families.
Many wiped away tears as the patients, including keynote speaker and recent FIU graduate Andrea Mirabal, thanked hospital staff, the rescue team and God for their life and their recovery.
Mirabel, 21, almost lost both legs after being pinned between two cars in December. But she walked forward without help to speak — the first time many of the hospital staff saw her stand.
“Look at her, she’s ridiculous,” said Lotta Siegel, wiping away tears. “I didn’t know she’s taller than I am.”
Siegel, a director of nursing at the hospital, said the event was a chance for medical employees to see how far their former patients had come.
“We are given that gift of being able to make a difference,” she said. “But seeing them recuperate is our true reward.”
Almost 7 1/2 months after her arm was ripped by a neighbor’s American bulldog, Corinne Moree was reluctant to come Wednesday. With her arm still wrapped in a splint, it’s hard for her to be reminded of the attack and the fear that came with it.
But as she stood with her mother, the 54-year-old said she was glad she was able to say thank you to those who saved her life.
“It’s going to remind me every day to keep fighting, that it wasn’t my time,” Moree said. “All I can say is ‘thank you.’”
While he proudly held his survivor medal, Ortega said the stories from the people around him meant the most.
“It just wakes you up to reality, just to see so many survivors that have gone through so much trauma like I have,” he said. “I’m not alone. It’s a blessing.”