Justin Dawson heard the sirens at night.
From his room at UPMC Mercy, he could hear when the firetrucks from the busy station across the street would go out on a call.
The sounds comforted Justin, who was rehabbing after losing both legs when a driver hit him at his job outside the East River Mountain Tunnel in West Virginia. The sirens brought back memories of his own 10 years as a firefighter.
“I would sit up there in the window and just look down and look at the fire department,” Justin says. “It gave me a little bit of hope.”
The crash cost Justin both legs and his dream job—one he had just accepted in Virginia Beach. But it didn’t take away his spirit.
From the immediate aftermath of the crash in late October 2018 to now, about a year and a half later, Justin stayed positive. He didn’t give in to the injury or what he lost. He focused on what he still had.
Today Justin, 25, lives in West Virginia with his fiancée. He has two prosthetic legs that he’s working to master. He still wants to help people.
“You can’t give up,” he says. “Life’s not over after an accident. Everybody’s accident is different. You’ve got to figure out how to live your life again. You’ve got to learn to get back to it.”
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‘An Out-of-Body Experience’
It started as a normal work morning for Justin on Oct. 30, 2018. He worked with the emergency response team (ERT) for the Virginia Department of Transportation at the East River Mountain Tunnel, which connects Virginia and West Virginia on Interstate 77. His job included helping motorists and keeping the traffic flowing.
An hour into his shift, at around 7 a.m., Justin saw a motorist stranded because of car battery trouble. He decided to help and told the driver to pull over to a shoulder. Justin then called his co-workers, who drove the service truck to them for assistance.
After completing some other work, Justin returned to see if he could help further. He got out of his car, put on his safety gear, and walked to the rear of the service truck. As he did so, he looked back toward the tunnel and saw another car coming in the direction of the shoulder.
“It was like slow motion,” Justin says. “I’m watching him, and he’s slowly coming over on the shoulder, and in my mind, I’m thinking he’s going to swerve over or something – it’ll be OK.”
Except the driver didn’t swerve, and the car kept coming. At the last second, out of instinct, Justin grabbed the tailgate of the service truck and jumped.
The vehicle struck him in his lower body, pinning him to the service truck and severely injuring both legs. The truck rolled off the hood of the car, and Justin was dragged to the ground.
He knew instantly he was in trouble. In addition to his VDOT work, Justin was a volunteer firefighter in West Virginia, but he had just accepted a full-time firefighter job in Virginia Beach. Justin thought of that opportunity – his dream – and knew with his legs gone, the job would be gone, too.
Then he felt the blood on his right leg. He knew it was an arterial bleed from his first responder training.
“I remember just laying there, no emotion at all,” Justin says. “Just, I mean, what are you going to do? Everybody’s coming over there and they’re like, ‘Don’t look down, don’t look down. It’s so crazy, just like an out-of-body experience, just watching everybody around you.”
Justin’s co-workers rushed to action, applying tourniquets to both legs to stop the bleeding. An ambulance took him to a hospital in nearby Bluefield, Va. Then, a helicopter took him to Charleston (W.Va.) Area Medical Center, where doctors amputated his left leg above the knee and his right leg above the ankle.
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‘I’ve Got to Make the Best Out of What I’ve Got’
Justin remembers the reaction of his family and friends when he woke up in the hospital after his amputation surgery.
“Everybody was all around me, and asking me questions, and telling me it’s going to be OK, and crying,” he says.
His reaction was more muted.
“I don’t think I’ve once shed a tear or anything over the loss of my legs,” he says.
“It does me no good to sit around and mope, or cry, or complain, or feel sorry for myself because it’s not going to do me any good. Nothing’s going to bring my legs back, so it does me no good to be miserable all the time. I’ve got to make the best out of what I’ve got.”
As he was in the hospital, Justin told his girlfriend, Jessica Thomas, he wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to break up with him. She refused.
“I was just (saying), ‘I’m going to be there for you no matter what happens,’” says Jessica, now Justin’s fiancée. “‘No matter what obstacles we have to come across, I’m here.’”
The words touched Justin: “Support’s the biggest thing you need,” he says. “That’s what keeps you going. It gives you the drive that you need to wake up every day.”
Justin would need that drive to get through a grueling rehabilitation process. His uncle, who works in the emergency department at UPMC East, arranged for Justin’s transportation to the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Mercy.
The first portion of Justin’s rehab process involved two weeks of extensive physical and occupational therapy.
Phebe Lockyer, OTR/L, Justin’s occupational therapist at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Mercy, says Justin’s therapy required a team approach.
Physical therapy worked to rebuild his strength, speed, balance, and movement. Occupational therapy focused on the day-to-day tasks Justin needed to learn how to accomplish in his wheelchair. These tasks included safely getting in and out of bed, the shower, and a car, navigating his house, and more.
“It’s not an easy thing, and he really took everything in stride,” says Lockyer, who worked closely with Justin’s physical therapist. “There’s frustrating days and frustrating times, but he was so positive and took everything in stride and kept his sense of humor about it. He’s a pretty rare kind of patient that we get to work with.”
Justin, who stood 6-foot-2 before the crash, was learning how to operate at half that size.
“One of the big things that I had to overcome in the beginning was just learning how to ask people for help. It’s intimidating once you get in the bathroom or the kitchen or something because it’s so much harder. You can’t just bend down and reach into a cabinet anymore.”
The other difficulty Justin dealt with was phantom pain, a condition in which amputees feel severe pain in the limb that is no longer there. Although the exact cause isn’t known, doctors believe it may come from mixed signals in the spinal cord and brain.
Justin didn’t feel pain after the crash itself. But the phantom pains brought it to him full force.
“It felt like I was getting tortured,” says Justin, who still feels the sharp pains now but not as often. “It was absolutely miserable. I’d lay up there in my hospital bed and bury my face in the pillows. I’d just holler and hoot and holler because it hurt so bad, but there’s nothing there.”
‘It Gave Me a Little Bit of Freedom Back’
Justin returned to West Virginia in early December 2018 as he awaited his new prosthetic legs. After receiving them, he came back to Pittsburgh for another round of rehab.
The second round of rehab focused on using his new legs, getting used to balancing, and walking.
“The feeling you get from standing up after being in a wheelchair for so long is just crazy,” he says. “There’s some days where you think, ‘I’m never going to walk again. This is hard.’ And there’s times that you want to stop, but you can’t.”
“That first standing up alone was a big thing. And (my doctor) was like, ‘All right, take it easy. Don’t push yourself.’ But I was like, ‘I want to walk. Slowly, like a baby giraffe it looked like, but I’m wobbling down through these bars and taking my first steps. The feeling of that was amazing. It gave me a little bit of freedom back.”
Justin’s prosthetics presented another challenge because they include computer processors in the knees and ankles to help him adjust while balancing and walking, Lockyer says. Justin needed to learn how to use those.
As his rehab progressed, Justin steadily increased his prosthetic “wear time” – how long he spent in them each day. It started at an hour and kept increasing.
“Every time I would go to therapy, I could see a difference,” he says, “and each time I would leave, I would be able to tell a difference from the last time.”
Justin’s positivity stood out to the rehab specialists. He made it his goal to not set limits for himself.
Lockyer called him “one of the most special patients I’ve worked with.”
“I get emotional just talking about it,” she says. “A patient like Justin, to be a part of his journey and help him achieve his goals, it’s why I do what I do. It was just an incredible experience, and I felt lucky to be able to work with him. He did everything we asked of him.”
She continues, “It’s not easy. It’s a physically grueling process to walk with prosthetics … and he was incredible. Everything we threw at him, every challenge we gave him, he just said yes and went with it. I couldn’t ask for a better patient.”
In mid-April, just six months after his amputations, Justin walked out of UPMC using only a walker. Lockyer says it caused tears among the rehab team because of the overall emotional journey.
“I’m so proud,” Jessica says. “He’s had a positive attitude and a positive outlook the whole time. I can’t believe how positive he has been this whole time.”
‘I Can Do Anything That I Could Do Before’
One question still mystifies Justin: why the crash happened in the first place.
“That’s one of the hardest parts, is just trying to wrap your mind around why this happened,” Justin says. “I trained for 10 years of my life trying to be a better firefighter, constantly training, 10 years of work and dedication. It was gone in 30 seconds.”
Justin is trying to turn his negative event into a positive. He still is volunteering at his home fire department, helping in training and around the station. He also plans to start a foundation, with his first goal to buy safety vests for the firefighters in the seven departments in his county.
His ultimate goal is to raise awareness for road safety, showing people the consequences of careless driving.
“I don’t want to see anybody else go through this,” Justin says. “I really want to help people to pay attention while they’re driving.”
He also wants to show people that losing his legs doesn’t mean losing his life. He considers himself lucky – he believes if his instincts didn’t cause him to jump before getting hit, the crash would have killed him.
An avid outdoorsman before the crash, Justin isn’t letting his prosthetics slow him down.
“I can do anything that I could do before,” he says. “I’ve already been kayaking, rode four-wheelers. You’ve got to learn how to do stuff differently. After the accident, I had to relearn to live. It’s not the fact that you can’t do something. It’s the fact that you just have to figure out how to do it.”
The UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, we strive to improve your function after injury or illness. We treat functional, pain-related, and neurological conditions, helping with both physical and emotional disorders. We provide inpatient therapy at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, and we also operate several outpatient clinics throughout western Pennsylvania. We also are a leader in research to develop new technologies and tools for the highest quality care.