Nicholas Collins, guitarist in Fowler's Mustache, will be fitted for a prosthetic leg this week.
Nicholas Collins, who survived a serious car wreck, will learn to walk on a prosthetic leg over the next few months.
Six months in a hospital bed is a long time for anyone. But for a man who was supposed to be laid up for 18 months, six months was a reprieve.
Nick Collins, III still faces a long road to recovery. But his positive outlook on what lies ahead surpasses all understanding for those who've never suffered the type of physical trauma that he has.
Collins was injured in a car accident Aug. 3. The accident happened at about 2:30 a.m. on I-526 when Collins was riding in an SUV that bounced off two retaining walls. The wreck caused Collins, who was in the back seat, to be thrown from the vehicle onto the interstate's eastbound lanes, police said.
The driver of the SUV received head injuries from the impact of the airbag, Collins has said, while a third passenger was uninjured.
The accident itself was not what caused the most damage to his body. It was when after the initial accident, a truck ran over his lower extremities, that Collins' life changed forever.
In an interview Saturday at his parents' home, Collins said had that truck not run over him, he would have walked away with bruises, cuts and a gash to his head. But in that one instance, his left leg was mangled beyond repair, having been twisted to the point where no muscles or tendons could have been salvaged. It was amputated just below his hip. His left Gluteus Maximus had to be rebuilt via skin graphs from his other leg and muscles from his thigh and hamstring.
The heel on his right leg was shattered and both bones in his lower leg snapped in two. Doctors performed a Fasciotomy on that leg, a limb-saving surgical procedure where the fascia is cut to relieve tension or pressure commonly to treat the resulting loss of circulation to an area of tissue or muscle.
“Ninety-eight percent of the time I wear a seatbelt,” Collins said. “I don't know why I didn't that night.”
Collins remembers very little of the evening. He doesn't know how he flew out of the car. He knows he almost didn't ride with his friends. He was going to catch a ride with another buddy, but at the last minute decided to go with his friend who was celebrating a birthday.
The skin graphs are healing and the pain is finally beginning to subside, he said. When he woke up from the coma after two months, he was in brutal pain. They treated him with Dilaudid, sometimes up to ten milligrams.
Once Collins awoke from the coma, his father told him the story of what had happened. He went through all of the surgical procedures, finally ending with the fact that his leg had been amputated. This story was told to him three times. Collins could not retain much in his memory bank. His parents became worried that a brain injury may have occurred.
He began reading the Caring Bridge page his sister created for worried friends and family. He said it was like reading a book about him and not recalling any of the events that happened to him.
In addition, Collins experienced phantom pains and sensations, common in all amputees. He described it as having no clue his leg was gone. He still felt extreme pain where his leg should have been. Just recently, he woke up in the middle of the night to scratch his knee, a knee that no longer existed.
During those days in the hospital, Collins' mother Sally slept on an air mattress or a chair every single night. It wasn't until he was moved to the new Kindred Hospital facility in Mount Pleasant that she was told guests could not stay overnight.
Collins was moved from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) to Kindred Hospital, back to MUSC, back to Kindred and finally to Roper for rehabilitation in the span of six months. Each move felt like he was starting all over with the nurses, trying to explain his pain management regimen. “It was like having the same conversation over and over again,” he said.
Now that Collins is home, he can't wait to personally thank the doctors and nurses he came in contact with over those six months. He is also overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support he has received from friends and family and perfect strangers.
By the time he was able to use his computer again, he had more than 800 Facebook notifications from well-wishers. In addition, his band and community members organized fundraisers for Collins, bringing in more than $130,000.
He believes in miracles and prayer too. So does his family. A stone sits in the front flower bed as a reminder. It reads: Miracles do happen.
Floyd Brace Company of Charleston is where Collins heads this week for a fitting for his new prosthetic leg. It will be adjusted and he will be able to give it a whirl at the office. Collins hopes they'll let him take it home for a while to practice putting it on and taking it off. The next step will to begin learning to walk with it. It is a Helix Hip C Leg with hydraulics and computer sensor devices that monitor and regulate stride, stance and much more. He is one of a few people in the United States with this kind of set up, he said proudly. It is a weight bearing device, he said, in which the thrust of his hip controls everything.
It won't be long before he can leave the confines of his home and venture out a little. By August, Collins hopes to undergo hernia surgery and have his colostomy bag removed.
As Collins spoke with the Moultrie News Saturday about his progress, a fellow survivor did too. He asked not to be identified, for the sake of maintaining his privacy. But this survivor came along to assure Collins that life would one day go back to almost normal, or rather a new normal.
This survivor was injured on Sept. 11, 1997 when a drunk driver ran over him while he was riding his motorcycle along Coleman Boulevard. The survivor saw the impending impact and jumped his motorcycle onto the sidewalk. But it was too late. He was run over, dragged and pinned beneath the car. The driver of the car was running from police at the time. Fortunately help was on the scene in minutes. And while this man's life was spared, it was not how he wanted to remember his birthday every year.
This survivor's leg was amputated below the knee. His spleen ruptured and had to be removed as did some of his small intestines. He has eight bolts in his hip and a pin in his leg. He agrees he is luckier than some.
He sympathized with Collins about the costs involved with the injuries and the lifelong maintenance that must take place on the body and the prosthetic. “It's not cheap. I had to get a new leg each year for the first five years. Your stump changes and you'll have to continue to get refitted.”
But this survivor came to give Collins more than just advice. He came to give him hope.
“I was running six months after I got my leg,” he told Collins. “The technology and therapeutic advances they have today will make your life so much easier.”
He explained that there are a lot more people with prosthetics than you think. The way limbs are made today, he said, you can hardly tell someone is wearing one.
And of course he told Collins about trying real hard not to forget you don't have a leg. In the middle of the night when you wake up groggy and have to go to the bathroom, you've got to be very careful, he explained.
Fifteen years ago when this survivor went through his ordeal, he spent four months in the hospital and one year at home on bed rest. His parents stayed with him around the clock, relying on others to run their family business. But being a round-the-clock caregiver can become overwhelming. The survivor told Collins and his mother Sally how important it is for the caregivers to step away every now and then.
“Once you heal, you'll be as good as the average Joe,” he told Collins. “You can even have some fun with it.”
He explained that they make skins, out of bathing suit material, that cover the prosthetic when you go to the beach or out in the boat. They come in all sorts of designs like flames, dollar signs, skull and cross bones and more. This survivor even has one that looks like wood. When he wears them, he explained to Collins, it takes away anything embarrassing about having a prosthetic, especially for little kids or people who don't understand the disability.
But then there are the not so fun moments, he said. For example this survivor was once chastised by a man for parking in a handicapped parking spot.
The man threatened to call the police.
The survivor showed him his prosthetic leg and the conversation came to an abrupt halt, just before it became heated. “You'll have people give you hell about that until they see your leg,” he told Collins.
“A lot of people give up,” the survivor told Collins. “You can sit here and do nothing and mope or you can get off your ass and do something. There will be obstacles and bumps in the road. But you'll still be able to do everything you did before. Putting on that leg in the morning will just be one extra step in your process of getting ready for the day.”
In other words, “Go have a normal life because it's possible.”
Have a normal life
Collins is ready to get back in the swing of things. He played his guitar while in the hospital and even tried to write new lyrics between nurse and doctor interruptions. Now that he's home, he's made more progress in that regard.
He received a Fendor Banjo for Christmas and has been teaching himself how to play that, as well.
He has every intention of getting back on stage with his band, Fowler's Mustache, and getting back into doing his solo acts. The band is planning a CD release party this spring, and Collins just might be right there with them performing as their guitarist.
He hasn't practiced with the band in six months, so that's priority number one.
Then he'll have to determine if he is better standing or sitting and how he is going to use the pedals on his musical equipment while performing. As if he doesn't have volunteers at the ready, Collins said he will also have to determine how to get his musical equipment from point A to point B. He's confident it will all fall into place.
“I just want to learn how to deal with this as much on my own as possible. I want to be able to do for myself,” Collins said.
Collins said his mental attitude is in the right place and he's ready to learn all the tricks of the trade as an amputee. He has no doubt that the new normal will be as good, if not better than the old normal.