Justin Dawson saw the car that would change his life coming at him almost in slow motion.
He was going through the early stages of a normal workday with the Virginia Department of Transportation. He went to help his co-workers assist a stranded motorist outside the East River Mountain Tunnel in West Virginia.
But as he approached the back of the VDOT service truck, he looked back and saw another vehicle coming – directly toward the shoulder.
Justin thought the driver would eventually swerve. He didn’t.
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“I had no time,” he says.
At the last minute, Justin jumped. But the car still hit him directly, pinning him to the back of the service truck. After landing on the ground, he felt the blood running down his legs and knew it was serious.
The car severely injured both of Justin’s legs. An ambulance rushed him to a nearby hospital, where he then was helicoptered to another hospital for a double amputation.
The crash cost Justin more than just both legs. Because of his injuries, he had to give up a dream job as a firefighter in Virginia Beach.
He didn’t let it take more than that, though.
“After my accident, I knew people were going to say he’s going to give up,” Justin says. “That drove me a lot. I wanted to show everybody that I’m not just going to lay here in bed, or I’m not going to just sit in a wheelchair the rest of my life.”
Justin went through two stages of occupational and physical therapy at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Mercy. In the first, he needed to rebuild his strength, balance, and flexibility, and learn how to maneuver in a wheelchair.
He returned a second time with two prosthetic legs, where he stood and walked for the first time. Six months after the crash, Justin walked out of Mercy with just the aid of a walker.
Along the way, Justin’s determination and positive attitude during the rehab left a sizable impression on his therapists.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” he says. “If I want to do something bad enough, I can do it.”
Justin says support from his family, friends, now-fiancée, and therapists helped get him through the grueling rehab. The 25-year-old now is doing many of the things he loved doing before the crash, especially spending time in the outdoors.
He considers himself lucky – that if he hadn’t jumped, the crash would have killed him. A firefighter for 10 years before the crash, he’s still helping with training. And he wants to start a foundation to provide safety vests for the fire departments in his county, to prevent similar incidents in the future.
“Maybe one of those vests will help somebody from ending up like I did,” he says. “I just want to be able to help people. Maybe it’s just my way of helping others.”