On Jan. 25, 2021, severe weather rolled through Mississippi and Alabama, destroying homes and causing severe damage in several communities. In Fultondale, the Hernandez family waited in their home for the storms to pass. But when an EF3 tornado touched down close by, Arnoldo Vasquez Hernandez realized his family could be in danger.
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After waking their three sleeping children, the family raced to the basement to take shelter. Hernandez and his youngest daughter were the last, and as Hernandez pushed her to safety, a large tree fell, crashing on top of the house. The tree pinned Hernandez’s left leg against his basement stairs.
Local firefighters and paramedics could not free Hernandez due to the 100-year-old oak’s compromising the structure of the home. First responders on the ground put in a call to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A team from UAB Medicine, including trauma and acute care surgeon Donald Reiff, M.D., emergency medicine physician Blayke Gibson, M.D., trauma and burn nurse manager Sherichia Hardy, and India Alford, director of Nursing Services at Gardendale Freestanding Emergency Department, rushed to the scene.
With the house on the verge of collapse, the team determined the only safe way to free him was to perform an on-site amputation. In the rain and darkness, in an unstable building, they removed his left leg.
Using the equipment on hand, the team freed Hernandez and transported him safely to UAB Hospital, where he underwent surgery.
Two days after the accident, Conley Carr, M.D., residency program director for the UAB Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, began treating Hernandez for post-trauma rehabilitation care.
“This was certainly a unique case,” Carr said. “He was the first patient I have seen who required surgery in the field after a devastating trauma.”
Carr specializes in overseeing patients during recovery from accidents and injuries and has a special focus with individuals who are dealing with limb loss. He also provides counseling and management of pain such as phantom pain.
During his care at UAB Hospital, Hernandez remained in high spirits, bringing smiles to those who surrounded him.
“He always looks at the positive,” Carr said. “He is definitely a ‘glass half-full’ type of person, which bodes well for his staying motivated during his healing process.”
After several appointments with Carr, Hernandez was cleared to begin seeing Brian Mueller, a certified prosthetist and manager of the UAB Orthotics and Prosthetics Clinic, to be fitted for a prosthetic leg.
On June 1, Hernandez was able to try on a sample prosthetic, allowing him to walk for the first time in five months.
Mueller and his team matched the top of the titanium carbon fiber prosthetic to Hernandez’s skin tone, creating him a customized prosthetic.
One week later, Hernandez, beaming with joy, walked out of his last fitting appointment with a new leg.
“Due to the traumatic nature of the accident, and how much of his leg was damaged, his injury was a little more difficult,” Mueller said. “It could be between six to eight months for him to get fully adjusted to this new normal; but he is already doing great, and I am confident that he will do well with his new prosthesis.” As he left UAB’s Spain Rehabilitation Center, Hernandez said, “My children keep asking me when we can go to the park again, and thanks to UAB, I can now take them.”