The Fourth of July is a time of annual celebration.

Patricia Figueroa leads fitness and wellness programs at Clemson.

Patricia Figueroa leads fitness and wellness programs at Clemson.
Image Credit: Clemson University

It’s a celebration of the independence and freedom enjoyed by Americans from coast to coast.

For Patricia Figueroa — Clemson’s assistant director of fitness and wellness for Campus Recreation — the national holiday will serve as an annual reminder.

A reminder of a missed turn. A reminder of pain and suffering.

But ultimately, it will serve as a reminder of perseverance and hope.

Day Zero. It was a few days before the holiday, and Figueroa was vacationing with her girlfriend’s family in a small Florida town located near the Gulf of Mexico. An airboat ride gave way to an afternoon all-terrain vehicle expedition.

Figueroa, still fairly new to operating an ATV, decided to take part in the fun.

As the speeds increased and the trail turned into rougher terrain, she suddenly found herself up against a hard-left turn. Figueroa missed it, and what happened over the next few seconds changed her life forever.

“I was a little braver than I should have been,” she admitted. “We were riding on some big gravel that I wasn’t used to. I missed the turn and went straight into the woods, ending up in a palmetto bush.”

The ATV had corralled on top of her, leaving her unconscious for a short period of time until help arrived at the scene.

Figueroa would later reminisce on those critical moments from what she calls “Day Zero” in a personal blog entry.

Feeling large rocks under me. Still not being comfortable using the brakes. Going straight instead of making the left turn. Black. Crazy thoughts. Seeing bloody legs.

What happened next is what turned a frightening episode into a surreal realization.

Being asked to get up and move. Calmly realizing I could not move my legs. Back pain. Back pain. Back pain.

Figueroa had little to no feeling below her groin. When emergency personnel arrived at the accident site — some 20 to 25 minutes after the crash — it did not take long to realize something was seriously wrong.

“They had a helicopter waiting for me, and flew me to Shands Trauma Center at the University of Florida.”

Returning to Gainesville. Figueroa never dreamed of returning to her alma mater in this capacity. A group fitness instructor for the Gators’ RecSports Department as an undergrad, she earned her degree in tourism, events and recreation management.

At Shands, it was determined Figueroa had fractured the T12 and L1 vertebrae in her spinal cord. She was quickly wheeled into the operating room, where a five-plus hour surgery awaited.

“The doctors inserted metal rods into my back that goes from the T10 to L4 vertebrae,” she explained. “They put a bunch of screws in my back to secure it. I’m really lucky my spinal cord was not completely severed.”

Word of the accident traveled quickly to Clemson. Within a short amount of time, colleagues Kelly Ator and Victoria Roberts — along with close friend Addy Hale — were on their way to Gainesville to lend support. They even swung by her house and brought her cat, Matilda, to see Figueroa.

“They stayed in the hospital room with me the entire time,” she said. “It was really meaningful for me that they did that. They also sent a jar of encouragement, which includes little notes to brighten my day when I need a pick-me-up. I don’t have the words to explain how great everyone has been on the staff, including the students.”

Patricia Figueroa in a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, Colorado

Figueroa began rehabilitation 10 days after her accident at Craig Hospital in Colorado.
Image Credit: Patricia Figueroa

The Road to Rehab. Following 10 days at Shands, it was time to transport Figueroa to a rehabilitation hospital. After looking into several options specific to spinal cord injuries, a close friend offered the suggestion of Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado.

One of 14 national model hospitals related to spinal cord injuries, Craig offered an immediate chance for Figueroa to begin the long road to recovery.

“Craig is really far away, but if this is the place that will help me recover and eventually walk again, this is where I want to be,” she said.

After acclimating to her new surroundings, Figueroa was introduced pretty quickly to a rigorous rehabilitation schedule.

She begins each day with a wheelchair class, learning to maneuver obstacles, an essential skill for rehab patients. She has a mat class that includes stretching, working on balance and regaining core strength. She gets massage and dry needle therapy. She meets with a physical therapist and occupational therapist, and takes part in educational sessions related to spinal cord injuries.

Patricia Figueroa learning to walk with the assistance of a Lokomat robotic medical device

Figueroa’s rehab includes learning to walk with the assistance of a Lokomat, a robotic medical device.
Image Credit: Patricia Figueroa

On July 31, she was put on a Lokomat training machine, essentially a robot treadmill designed to provide physiological gait training.

“My first day on the machine, it was set to 80 percent, so my body did 20 percent of the work,” Figueroa said, proudly.

A few days later, however, she was headed into surgery for a second time. Some of the screws inserted into the metal rods during the initial procedure were revealed to be in potentially invasive areas.

Though the timetable for her rehabilitation at Craig is unknown, doctors are optimistic Figueroa will fully regain the use of her legs in the future.

“It’s impossible to say when I’ll walk again,” she said. “The doctor at Shands told me, ‘I’ll see you walking into my office in six months.’ I take that with a grain of salt, because I know it will be a long process.”

Staying Positive. Figueroa is a big believer in the “wellness wheel,” eight dimensions of life that make up an individual’s overall health. Enhancing that day by day is her primary focus as she recovers.

“If your cup is full, you can overcome absolutely anything,” she said. “One of my favorite sayings is ‘Take care of your body, and it will take care of you.’ I’m going to make it through this with that helping me.”

She’s continued to receive help from her Campus Recreation family.

Department directors Dave Frock and Chris Fiocchi made the decision to move Jenny Rodgers into Figueroa’s role on an interim basis, until a prognosis for her recovery is better known.

“Until we know what Trish’s capabilities are, Jenny will step into her role,” Fiocchi said. “It’s Trish’s program, and that’s our message moving forward. We obviously want her to focus on her recovery first.”

Within days of her accident, Figueroa began sharing daily thoughts in a personal blog. Ator, who made the drive to Gainesville and back to see her friend and colleague, said it’s served as an inspiration throughout the department.

Patricia Figueroa in a wheelchair at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado

Figueroa posts daily updates to a blog and Instagram page, sharing her progress through the recovery period.
Image Credit: Patricia Figueroa

“One of her favorite hashtags is #ExtraRepsForTrish,” Ator said. “Because she’s not able to be active right now, she is still encouraging others through social media. When we went to visit her, she told our staff to do more reps for her.”

Returning to a sense of normalcy is the motivation that fuels Figueroa’s positive outlook. She misses the interactions with students, and is eager to create programs that meet the needs of the Clemson community again.

It’s what drives her to give her best effort each and every day throughout the rehab process.

“What happened to me is incomparable to some of the injuries I’ve seen here in Craig,” she said. “There’s a potential for full recovery, so I’m going to work my butt off to get that. I can’t change what happened. It was an accident; it’s no one’s fault.

“This is just another challenge for me to beat. That’s just the way my mind works.”

And it’s that mindset that allows Patricia Figueroa — battling the biggest setback of her life — to maintain a positive outlook, one rooted in perseverance and hope.