PROVO — For 31/2 years, Doug Padilla fought a painful battle to keep his shattered leg. On Tuesday afternoon he celebrated his recovery the only way he knew how: He ran.
Some 25 family members, friends, coaches and old teammates came from as far away as Salt Lake City just to watch him perform the seemingly simple task of running a mile in BYU's Smith Fieldhouse. They applauded and shouted encouragement after each lap, then held up a sign at the finish: "You Did It, Doug."
Once one of the swiftest distance runners in the world, it took Padilla 11 minutes to cover a distance he once ran in 3 minutes and 54 seconds. He had to stop and walk three times to catch his breath. His four children, including a 6-year-old, tagged along. The lungs and legs that once set American records and carried him through two Olympic races, burned and ached. But Padilla finished and made his point: His recovery was complete.
The five laps around the field house were the culmination of an agonizing recovery process in which Padilla refused to give up. As track coach Willard Hirschi so eloquently put it, "It was a marvelous struggle."
The struggle began when Padilla was struck by a car at an Orem intersection in the summer of 1996 while out on a training run. The car was traveling 40 miles per hour, and Padilla bounced off the windshield, cartwheeled over the car and landed 70 feet from the impact. His face was so covered in blood that only his eyes showed, but the real problem was lower. A bone protruded from his lower left leg and was broken into pieces, and his foot was pointing the wrong direction.
Not even doctors foresaw the long and winding road to recovery that lay ahead. Maybe the pain of those 5,000-meter races against the Kenyans, when his lungs were on fire and his head throbbed, were the only thing that could have prepared Padilla for the pain and persistence that would be required to keep his leg.
"It was an exercise in discipline and optimism," said Hirschi. "It was an arduous grind that never seemed to end, and then he didn't know if he would be able to keep the leg. But he never let it get him down."
Padilla required 15 surgeries in all. At first, doctors pieced the shattered tibia together like a jigsaw puzzle, using 15 screws and metal plates, but then infection set in and a game of medical chess was begun. Padilla was tethered to a vacuumlike device attached to his leg to help heal a gaping, infected hole that refused to close. The infection persisted, and for more than a year Padilla had a low-grade fever. "It was like having the flu constantly," he says. He carried an IV bag in a fanny pack, with a pump that automatically dispensed an antibiotic at regular intervals through a needle in his arm. And still the infection persisted.
In March of 1997, to help fight the infection, doctors removed the screws and plates and attached an external fixator around his leg, consisting of five, halo-like metal rings connected to wires that ran through the flesh to the bones to hold them in place. Two months later they removed the "halo." The infection eventually abated, but the fractures weren't healing. Doctors took a muscle from Padilla's abdomen and attached it to the front of his shin to promote blood flow to the bone. They performed three bone grafts from his hip, trying to fuse the fractures. They didn't work, and throughout the ordeal the possibility of amputation hung over Padilla's head.
"The doctors were pushing amputation as much as anything," says former teammate and friend Blaine Andersen. "Doug said there's got to be another way." Even if that way meant constant fevers and pain and long days and nights of lying around his house.
After another two-month wait, Dr. Steven Scott began a bold new plan. Rather than try to fuse pieces of the shattered bone, he would grow a new bone. He removed a 7-inch section of the tibia — beginning about five inches below the knee and ending three inches above the ankle—and reattached the halo. This time vertical rods were attached to the rings. Under Scott's direction, Padilla was instructed to tighten screws attached to the rods one quarter turn each day, pulling the rings (and thus the bones) closer together until the bones met and fused.
It took nine months for the bones to grow seven inches, the wires slowly cutting a trail through the skin down to the bone as they progressed along the shin. It took another 18 months for the bones to knit somewhere in the middle. On Oct. 30, 1999, the halo was removed. Six weeks later, Padilla was allowed to walk without crutches. Dr. Scott told him he could run after another six-week wait. Padilla circled the day on his calendar: Feb. 1.
He planned to make his first run in the field house and mentioned it to a few friends. Word spread. As the small group gathered on Tuesday, track coach Craig Poole announced on the P.A. system what Padilla was about to do and then fired a starter's pistol. Padilla jogged awkwardly around the track, accompanied by former training partner and Olympic teammate Henry Marsh and his family, while BYU athletes stopped their workouts to watch and call out his name.
"I'm so fortunate," said Padilla afterward, looking over at his friends. "I don't know if I'm worthy of this."
Padilla, whose sweet, guileless temperament won friends throughout the country during his competitive days, was the recipient of many such kindnesses during his recovery. When the medical bills began to pile up for Padilla, who was left unemployed and without insurance after his running career ended, strangers sent money or organized fund-raisers. One man sent $8,000 in stock certificates; another sent $5,000. Andersen helped organize a foundation that raised some $70,000. Today, Padilla has no bills and a job as an administrative assistant to the BYU women's track team. He also has a sound left leg, albeit one that is badly scarred and misshapen, but one that can walk and run and stand again.
"The doctors didn't know if I'd be able to keep the leg until recently," says Padilla. "It was a long shot. Usually you encounter enough problems that it doesn't work. We really beat the odds."