Jacqueline Truong of Phoenix, Arizona, is close with her family, especially her brother. The night she experienced her accident, she lay unconscious in the hospital while the doctors broke the news to her brother that her legs would be paralyzed. The doctors initially thought she would never walk again. When she finally woke up, she found her brother crying at her bedside.
“I asked him what was wrong,” she says. “Then I asked if the Arizona Wildcats lost in the semifinals.” They shared a laugh.
The Evening that Changed her Life
The evening had started out a lot better for Truong. It was March 2009, and she was just back from Ireland after a long airplane flight. She decided to drive to a cousin’s birthday party despite her jet lag. At around 10 p.m., she left the party and fell asleep behind the wheel.
"When I woke up, I realized I was about to hit a tree, and I tried to hit the brakes,” she says. “After the impact I tried to crawl out of the car. My legs were swollen and wouldn’t move. I knew something was wrong."
Truong honked her horn to hail a passing driver. At the hospital, she learned that she had fractured her T12 vertebra and suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury. At that point, Truong realized she had to put some of her life plans on hold.
Nothing Can Stop Her
She had recently graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in molecular cellular biology, and had applied to school to be a physician’s assistant. After her release from the hospital, Truong undertook daily physical therapy and learned to use a wheelchair.
Then, in October of that year, her physical therapist saw enough improvement to refer her to a clinician at Hanger Clinic to receive leg braces. Of course, her orthotist stressed the importance of waiting until the therapist helped her the next day, but Truong grew impatient that night while the braces leaned against the wall in the corner of her room.
"I was anxious to see if I could stand," she says. "I had my dad and my brother spot me. My legs were sprawled out, but I did it. Then I took a short walk down the hall. It was probably not the safest approach, but I had to try."
Truong’s braces were designed to lock at the knees, making her gait like that of a toy soldier. A little over a year later, she graduated to a more sophisticated brace that gave her a more natural walking motion.
Her next goal is to get low knee-foot orthotics (KFOs) on both legs, which would require greater quadriceps strength. "To hold up my own body weight with my knees in low KFOs would be really cool,” she says. Three years out from her accident, Truong is gaining back muscle strength by going to a trainer twice a week and spending hours in the pool. And she has gotten some feeling back in her legs. Because her spinal cord is not completely severed, there is hope that she could regain sensation and control. Currently, she can feel cool air from the knee up and a firm touch below-knee.
Truong says she has progressed quickly because of the encouragement of her friends and the strength of her family bond. Her parents both emigrated from Vietnam after the war and met while working as technicians at Honeywell Aerospace in Tucson. She is the first family member to graduate with a four-year degree, and she is applying again to medical school to be a physician’s assistant. "I always wanted to be a doctor," she says, "but I’ve seen physician assistants work more directly with patients. That’s the way I want to help people."