Dean Otto remembers the exact moment he was hit while riding his bike early one Saturday morning last September – and despite having no feeling in his legs, he remembers chatting with the guy who hit him while waiting on the side of the road for the ambulance.
“I said a prayer and I forgave the kid who hit me. It was an accident – there was condensation on his windshield – he didn’t see me for a split second,” Otto tells PEOPLE.
That split second changed everything.
Otto, a father of two from Charlotte, North Carolina, was an accomplished athlete who, among other things, had run the New York City marathon.
And despite being paralyzed when he got to the emergency department, told his neurosurgeon he would run again.
Dr. Matt McGirt Of Carolina Neurosurgery and Spine Associates was the neurosurgeon on call when Otto came in. “He was paralyzed from the waist down but had a tiny bit of sensation. His only shot at any type of recovery was really measured in minutes. We had to get him right into surgery.”
Otto, a successful software salesman, had a two percent chance of walking on his own again.
But just three days after surgery at Carolina’s Medical Center, he took what he calls the two most painful steps of his life using a walker. “It was hard, really hard. But I did it.”
He was so excited that he challenged his doctor to a half marathon.
McGirt, a father of four, had never run more than three miles but agreed to his patient’s proposal.
“He said, ‘I tell you what when I beat this, we’ll run a half marathon together.’ And I remember thinking, ‘if you can run a half marathon after what you’re going through, then heck yeah, I’m there,’ ” McGirt told PEOPLE.
Otto was working out three times a day while in rehab, and fully believed he would walk again.
“I wasn’t scared, I just always knew. And I knew I had a small window to get better and it was like a race for me to do everything I could to get back as much as I could.”
While in rehab, he had a visitor – the man who’d hit him had come to apologize.
Will Huffman, a 27 year old from Richmond, Virginia knew it was just an accident – he couldn’t see out his front window- but still he agonized over what happened.
“That didn’t make it any easier – as much of an accident as it was, it didn’t make it any easier – you still know somebody is badly hurt because of you whether it was an accident or not. That was tough,” Huffman told PEOPLE.
So he was shocked when Otto repeated what he’d said on the side of the road.
“He said to me I’m gonna be fine and you have to do the same thing, you can’t let this hold you back. It was those conversations pulled me out of what could have been a tough emotional recovery. Not only did he say I’m gonna forgive this guy, but he said I’m gonna be friends with him and he’s gonna help me tell this story.”
Otto has set up a website and is hoping to raise money for other people with spinal cord injuries.
Last month he hosted a fundraiser that he called “Finish My Ride.” He literally re-traced his route the day of the accident along with dozens of other riders – Huffman among them. And when he did finally finish his ride, his neurosurgeon was there to greet him.
All three men will join together once again on the anniversary of the accident next month as they run that half marathon that Otto hoped for when he was still paralyzed.
“I don’t know that I’m ever going to be the old Dean as far as my speed but I’m walking, running biking swimming – everything else in my life is back to normal and I know I’m going to run that half marathon – and I’m going to finish it. I’m using it to help other people. That’s what this is all about now.”