Following Explosion, Jorge Hernandez Achieves Miraculous Road to Recovery
October 2018 Issue
Life knocks us all down from time to time. It's how we choose to get back up that counts. No one epitomizes that sentiment better than 34-year-old Jorge Hernandez.
Hernandez was just ten years old when he moved from Mexico to the United States. From the time he was young, his determination has come naturally. He found a career he was passionate about in the mortgage industry when he was just 19 years old.
"I enjoyed it because I loved helping people with the most important purchase of their lives," Hernandez says. "I also bought my first home at a young age and things were going great."
But in 2008, the housing market crashed, forcing Hernandez to give up his dream career and take a night job at a steakhouse. By 2009, his relationship with his girlfriend of four and a half years had ended and he was losing the home in which he had invested $100,000.
"It was a dark season, and I was trying to fill a void—I felt like nothing was going right," he recalls. On June 28, 2009, he was wrapping up a week of vacation and decided to have a last hurrah with friends at The Palms Hotel pool in his hometown of Las Vegas.
"I wanted a fresh start after the vacation, and I knew I wasn't living right," he says. "I was actually supposed to go to church that day, but I didn't go. I am a man of faith, but I had somewhat lost that faith in my 20s."
He also recalls a concerned friend talking to him at the pool about the amount of partying he'd been doing.
"I was putting on a front and told him how free I felt, when in reality I was more shackled up than ever before."
After spending the day at the pool, Hernandez got a ride home with a coworker who had been with him that day. Reclining the passenger seat for the ride home is the last thing he remembers. The rest of that day's story is based on accounts from neighbors and his mother, who he lived with.
When the two got to Hernandez's home, his coworker did not wake him. Instead, he sat in the car and listened to music while Hernandez slept. But soon after, his coworker also fell asleep, with his foot revving the gas pedal and the air conditioning running as temperatures hovered near 118 degrees. Neighbors recall hearing the revving engine for 40 to 45 minutes, thinking someone on their street was having their carpets cleaned.
Suddenly, the engine exploded, and the car was engulfed in flames. While Hernandez's coworker managed to get out, Hernandez could not. A neighbor tried to extinguish the flames, and a nearby food delivery driver helped get Hernandez out of the burning vehicle.
"I was awake for the whole thing, but I thank the Lord; he shut my brain down," Hernandez says. "I am thankful that I don't know what it feels like to burn."
Recovering From the Trauma With the Help of Miracles
Once Hernandez was rescued and taken to the hospital, physicians put him in a medically induced coma for 90 days. He was eventually transferred to the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, which is recognized as one of the best burn centers on the West Coast, to treat the third- and fourth-degree burns he'd sustained over 80 percent of his body.
"The doctors told me I was a miracle," Hernandez recalls. "For weeks I was in a place where I could have died any day—at any moment."
One of the most critical concerns was that Hernandez's kidneys were badly damaged and left functioning at only 10 percent immediately after the accident. Physicians told his mother he would certainly die without dialysis, although they weren't sure his badly burned body would accept it.
Being a family of strong faith, his mother says one of many miracles happened at this time during his recovery.
"Before she would sign off on the dialysis, she told the doctor that she needed to pray," Hernandez says. "So, my mother, my father, my brother, and the doctor all prayed for my healing. She signed the paperwork; 24 hours later they repeated my blood work, and my kidneys were functioning at 100 percent."
There were many more developments the family describes as miracles over the more-than-yearlong period Hernandez spent in the hospital and in rehabilitation. He had a tracheotomy in place for five months after the accident and physicians feared he'd never again be able to breathe on his own. But he does.
Within the first three weeks in the hospital, his feet had to be amputated as skin infections and other complications hampered his recovery. Over the next several weeks, as his condition worsened, Hernandez underwent bilateral transfemoral amputations.
"I used to stand six feet and three inches tall—now I am four feet tall," he says.
Because all of this happened while Hernandez was in a coma, his family had the difficult task of telling him when he awoke that he'd lost both of his legs and that his arms had also been badly burned.
"My family did a great job of guarding my heart," he says. "They didn't tell me about my amputations right away."
When he learned of his severe injuries and amputations, Hernandez says he went through the "what ifs?" and the "why me?" stages. There were plenty of tears, he says. But thanks to the support of family and friends, he says his previously strong faith was restored.
"Faith and hope go hand in hand, and that faith empowered me with hope that I was going to walk again," Hernandez says.
Always a go-getter, he also knew that a lot of hard work lie ahead of him. Still, he never backed down from the challenge—and as a result his recovery was nothing short of incredible. Hernandez also credits some very special doctors and prosthetists who were involved along the way in his recovery.
An Incredible Gift
During the time Hernandez spent in the hospital, his insurance lapsed, leaving him with mounting medical bills and the inability to pay for the prosthetic solutions he needed. But when Vikram Choudhary, CPO, Bionic Prosthetics and Orthotics Group, Merrillville, Indiana, learned of Hernandez's story, he provided Hernandez's first set of prostheses for free.
Later, Hernandez met Jimmy Colson, CO, a fellow sports enthusiast and CEO of Las Vegas-based Precision Orthotics & Prosthetics (P.O.P.). Hernandez has been a patient at P.O.P. ever since and the company has been generous in donating additional services to Hernandez to help relieve the financial burden.
"I have been blessed that I am able to walk, to be mobile, and that would have otherwise taken me years," Hernandez says.
Since 2016, Hernandez has worked with Jeff Eschenburg, CP, at P.O.P. Hernandez started out with an Ottobock C-Leg solution and locking silicone liners. The rigid carbon frame sockets feature a flexible interface inside of them.
Hernandez has minimal use of his hands, so it was imperative that his prosthetic solutions were designed to eliminate the risk of falls as much as possible. To do so, Eschenburg added electronic vacuum-assisted suction sockets (VASS). "Because he is a bilateral amputee, this also allows him to move more easily from a sitting to a standing position," Eschenburg says.
Hernandez presses each leg on to make a seal, settles into the sockets, and then engages the pumps to draw out any remaining air. The vacuum pump maintains suction suspension.
"For a bilateral transfemoral amputee, loss of suspension would be detrimental because his upper body is also compromised," Eschenburg explains. "If he fell, it would be catastrophic."
With the vacuum pump, a prosthetist can set a window of variation and when a drop below a certain level is sensed, the pump can adjust the suction to correct it. The VASS solution also gives Hernandez more control with rotational movements.
"It is a fantastic solution for him and he is completely independent with it," Eschenburg says. "We just upgraded him to the C-Leg 4 solution with microprocessor knees."
The VASS are monitored several times per second and can calculate whether Hernandez is sitting, standing, or walking, allowing the knee to react on the fly to whatever level of flexibility and support is needed at the moment.
"If he stumbles, the knees will react before he could," Eschenburg says. "They will go into a high-resistance mode, so he can recover from a fall."
Sharing His Gift
Despite his trials, you won't hear Hernandez complain. Instead, you'll only hear gratitude when you speak to him. He says once he got reconnected with his church and got up and told his story for the first time, he knew that was his gift.
"Whenever you come out of the storm, you need to share the victory because there are people going through that storm right now," he says.
He continues to share his gift of faith and hope with others as a mentor to children through a non-profit organization and a youth pastor at his church. He also does frequent speaking engagements where he shares his inspirational story with other churches and with corporations.
"I am passionate about identity, and having the right character, principles, and attitude," he says. "If you apply those principles in your life, it's going to work."
Tara McMeekin is a writer and editor based in Parker, Colorado.