Facing double amputation of his legs after totaling his car, Vimal Patel desperately wanted a second opinion.
So the California man’s brother-in-law typed “high speed car crash” into Google, looking for a doctor with experience in treating injuries sustained in motor vehicle accidents.
The first name to pop up? That of Dr. Brian Mullis, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at IU Health. Intrigued by the physician’s expertise, Patel and his family placed a call.
That call two summers ago would change the course of Patel’s life.
Instead of losing both his legs below the knee, the 47-year-old Orange County man has the use of both legs. He can now do almost everything he could before the accident. The only visible remnants of the incident are a slight limp as he walks and scars on both his feet.
Earlier this week Patel and his wife flew to Indianapolis from California for under 48 hours just to tell his surgeon how grateful he is for all he did.
“It meant everything to me because I got my life back, a second chance,” Patel said Tuesday, sitting in a boardroom at IU Health, with Mullis beside him. “I can’t imagine what my life would be like…especially if I were a double amputee.”
‘A high speed car crash’
On July 28, 2020, a friend dropped by to see the new gray McLaren Patel had brought home about two weeks earlier. They went out for a spin and Patel, he now admits sheepishly, wanted to show off for him.
“I went a little faster than I should have,” he said in an understatement.
Speeding about 140 miles per hour on a city street, Patel lost control, crashed into a light pole, and flipped the car. His friend wasn’t hurt, and neither was anyone else, but Patel’s feet sustained the brunt of the impact.
Patel thought he might have broken his ankle but his friend looked over at him as they awaited an ambulance and saw a bone sticking out. At a nearby trauma center, Patel learned the injury was far worse than a fracture. He had crushed both his heel bones, known in doctor-speak as the calcaneus. Four days later, doctors in California told Patel his only option would be to amputate both his legs below the knee.
Family members explored transferring Patel to another California trauma center but because of COVID-19 none of the hospitals were accepting transfer patients. They turned to the internet and found Mullis. The family figured he must have some connection to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, given the Indy 500, thought he might have expertise with car crashes.
Patel, who owns motels in California and Texas, flew out to Indiana in a chartered air ambulance.
It turns out the Patels had a misconception about the Speedway connection. Although IU Health does in fact operate a hospital at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mullis does not typically treat IndyCar drivers. But the surgeon has had extensive experience treating similar injuries. Mullis had served in the military, including a year deployed to Afghanistan, where he frequently treated victims of IED blasts who emerged with mangled extremities.
In civilian life, similar accidents are also common in motorcycle accidents, not car crashes. In such instances, patients face a choice between amputation and a long hard road to salvaging their extremities, Mullis said.
“We’re having that discussion every week,” he said.
Once Patel arrived, he did not like what he heard at first.
The California doctors gave you good advice, Mullis told him.
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Salvaging the limb would require multiple surgeries, Mullis explained, and each one carried with it the risk of infection. Bone does not have the same inherent ability to fight infection as other parts of the body, and Mullis estimated Patel faced at least a 20% risk of infection as he healed. Mullis leaned towards amputation.
“I thought this is not what I came to have,” said Patel.
But Mullis also asked his colleague Dr. Jan Szatkowski to proffer a second opinion. Contrary to what others had said, this doctor told Patel, prosthetics are not always simple. Why not try surgery, he asked Patel, take the long road and see how things go?
That, said Patel, sounded like the most appealing option to him.
For his part, Mullis views the decision in such cases as belonging half to the doctor, half to the patient. Limb salvage, he knows, is neither easy nor a guarantee and patients need to realize that if that’s what they choose.
“There’s not one right or wrong,” Mullis said. “It’s very patient specific…. Unfortunately just as good as his story is, we have an equal number of patients who don’t have as good an outcome.”
Long road to recovery
Saving Patel’s feet required the work of both Mullis and an IU Health plastic surgeon. And not all went smoothly. At one point, the wound of his feet was slow to heal. The plastic surgeon suggested both leeches and hyperbaric therapy.
The medical staff kept a close eye on Patel as he healed, watching him like a newborn. Slowly but surely the healing began. Still, in retrospect, he says he often feared he might need to have that amputation after all.
Almost every day, he said, “I thought this isn’t going to work,” he said. “As each day passed, I felt like it’s OK, it’s a little better.”
After about a month Patel was ready to leave IU Health and take another air ambulance back to California. Still, he had months of therapy ahead of him.
He spent the next three months in a wheelchair. In December 2020, he was finally able to stand on his own. He sat right back down 20 seconds later.
“It felt foreign just to stand again,” he said.
By January Patel was back driving – this time in a Tesla, though at first he found it difficult to push his foot down on the accelerator. Might it be PTSD? he wondered. Then he realized his foot was still weak from the injury.
Two years later, however, Patel said he is almost back to normal.
Aside from a slight limp that gets worse throughout the day due to arthritis and the scars on his feet, Patel shows few signs of all that he has been through. Over the past year and a half, Patel said, he’s walked through jungles and sand, swam in the ocean. He still can’t play basketball because his feet don’t move rapidly and he has trouble finding dress shoes that fit his feet.
But at least, he said, he has his feet.
Contact IndyStar reporter Shari Rudavsky at shari.rudavsky@indystar. Follow her on Twitter @srudavsky.