Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) worker Justin Dawson was only 24 when his life changed in a horrifying crash. Only on the job that day for just one hour, he was helping a stranded motorist on Interstate 77 when a car drove onto the shoulder and pinned him against a VDOT truck.
Justin was whisked by ambulance to a hospital in nearby Bluefield, West Virginia, then airlifted to Charleston Area Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his left leg above the knee and his right foot above the ankle. His uncle, who works in the emergency department at UPMC East, encouraged Justin’s family to consider moving him to Pittsburgh for continuing care.
Two days after the Oct. 30, 2018 accident, Justin was transferred to UPMC Mercy, where he underwent additional surgery and received treatment for his injuries. A month later, he was moved to the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute at UPMC Mercy.
Justin spent the next 10 days in therapy rebuilding his strength, going through mobility training, and learning techniques for independent living.
“Everyone at UPMC was amazing. I couldn’t ask for better care from the physical therapists and occupational therapists,” says Justin. “They taught me how to live my life again as an amputee.”
Justin left the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute in early December, returning home to Hinton, West Virginia, to continue outpatient therapy and healing while waiting for his prosthetics. He returned to Pittsburgh four months later.
“I was excited to get back to UPMC and see all the therapists and nurses. And I was eager to learn how to walk again,” he says.
His primary physical therapist, Janelle Walbert, PT, says Justin was motivated from the start and always ready to “take it to the next level.”
“His positive attitude and effort were contagious. The other patients looked to him for inspiration,” she adds.
Over the next two and a half weeks, Justin learned how to use his high-tech prosthetics. Both are equipped with microprocessors in the knee and ankle joints that make automatic adjustments when sensing weight shifts and uneven surfaces. Therapists worked with him on walking, standing, and balancing with his prosthetics, as well as dressing and other daily living activities. They also worked closely with a prosthetic specialist who recalibrated the microprocessors to help him with balance and to achieve a more natural walk.
“It was hard in the beginning, but I kept pushing myself. I had an end goal: to live my life again,” says Justin.
While at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, Justin came up with a mantra: “Only you can set limits for yourself — without those, the possibilities are endless.” He used it to motivate himself as he set goals while struggling through therapy and learning to control his new legs.
“Standing up again and seeing my feet move was a really big milestone,” says Justin. “I felt a sense of accomplishment and freedom.”
On April 12 — less than six months after the accident — Justin reached another milestone by walking out of UPMC Mercy aided only by a walker. “I wanted to walk out of the hospital and I did. It felt great,” he says. “I’m slowly getting my freedom back. Driving will be another huge step forward.”
“I have no doubt Justin will do all the things he wants in his life,” says Janelle, who admits she cried when he walked out of the hospital that day. “He’s incredibly inspiring and a wonderful guy.”
Justin looks forward to traveling and returning to outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, hiking, and kayaking. He’s also considering a career helping others — perhaps as a motivational speaker, counselor, or rehabilitation worker.
“I’ve seen the impact that my physical therapists and occupational therapists have had on me and I’d like to give back,” says Justin. “I owe my life to them. They got me back up and vertical, and I’ll always be grateful.
“Now it’s my turn,” he adds. “I should have died that day on the interstate, but I think I’m here for a reason.”