Gina Arnold says the seat belt cut deep into her abdomen during a car crash
Warning: The following story contains graphic imagery.
Gina Arnold was driving home from work in the rain when she lost control of her car and flipped over seven times in October 2017. Although the seat belt saved her life, the device sliced through Arnold’s abdomen, leaving her with injuries doctors in Michigan had never seen before.
“I was grateful that it saved my life, but it was hard to wrap my head around all the injuries the seat belt caused,” Arnold, 22, tells PEOPLE. “I just call it a freak accident. I can’t believe the seat belt did that to me.”
Arnold, of Macomb, Michigan, was in a coma for three days after the accident and suffered several broken bones and huge lacerations, she says. She had to learn to walk again, and the seat belt injury left her with no abdominal wall to protect her major organs. She was in recovery for more than a year and has undergone 21 surgeries.
“When I left the hospital … I wasn’t expecting to be in constant pain every single day,” Arnold says. “It was really frustrating being a 21-year-old and not being able to do the things a 21-year-old could do. I had the energy of a 90-year-old. I definitely had my days when I was extremely down. But I went to therapy and I kept reminding myself, ‘I’m alive, something good is going to come out of this.’ I tried to keep my spirits up.”
On Dec. 3, 2018, surgeons performed a rare, eight-hour surgery to place mesh where Arnold’s abdominal wall used to be. But she says her future remains unclear.
“There is no plan B for if my mesh does tear. If my mesh tears, they don’t know what do after that,” Arnold says of doctors at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak.
“Then I’ll be left with no abdominal wall again,” she says. “It would tear the remaining muscles I have and that would be extremely painful. So I have to be extremely careful every day. This is my one mesh and I don’t have another one. This was the first time [the surgeons] have done something like this.”
Arnold says she’s only now reaching a sense of normalcy in her life. Still, she’s unable to lift over 15 lbs., she had to give up her dream of becoming a nurse because she’s no longer able to stand for long periods of time, and she has had to change the way she eats as a result of her stomach injury.
“I’m finally going back to college at [Northern Michigan University], so I’ll finally be able to live away from home without constant medical care,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m learning what I can and cannot do. My body is using all those other muscles besides my abdominals, so my body gets worn out quicker.”
Arnold says she hopes to become a sports psychologist to help athletes prevent and deal with serious injuries.
“I was an athlete before this accident and it’s something I’ll never do again,” she tells PEOPLE. “I want to teach students that you never know the last time you’re gonna play, so take advantage of the sport that you’re in.”
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She has recently started driving short distances. And Arnold says she’s sure to wear her seat belt.
“I wear it all the time. For a while I put a pillow in between the seat belt and my stomach because the seat belt just gave me a weird feeling. It made me anxious,” Arnold admits.
“It took a lot to be able to not use the pillows anymore, and get used to the seat belt,” she adds. “But I do believe that without it, I wouldn’t be here today. So despite all my injuries — yeah, it’s a freak accident — but I can’t take away the fact that it did save my life and I am here today to tell my story.”