CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Dean Otto's story is one that could fill up an entire book. From his accident, to his recovery, to the incredible friendships that have been forged along the way, Otto now looks at September 24, 2016 as a day he's grateful for.
It was 6:20 a.m., Otto was riding his bike down Providence Road and was "lit up like a Christmas tree" with flashing lights and reflective clothing, all the way down to his socks. But it wasn't enough to stop a Ford F-150 from slamming into the back of his bike.
"I heard the impact of the brakes and that's when my lights turned out," Otto said.
Otto woke up unable to move his legs and was lying in the middle of Providence Road. The man who hit him was heading to a football game with his friend. "Did you not see me?" Otto asked the man. The man told Otto that his windshield was clouded with condensation.
Within minutes, Otto was in the emergency room at Carolinas Medical Center with a list of injuries that threatened to end every one of his fitness endeavors. The man who'd been running and riding bikes since childhood, would be lucky if he could even walk again on his own.
Dr. Matt McGirt, who works with Carolina HealthCare System's Neurosciences Institute, was the on call neurosurgeon the morning Otto came in to the emergency room. "Dean presented to me at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning as a level one trauma. Acute spinal cord injury, acute paralysis, with a large fracture dislocation of the spine," McGirt said.
Otto's spinal cord was severely pinched by his broken spinal column. Dr. McGirt and his team had Otto on an operating room table within two hours of his accident.
"I had given it to God at that point. I was never scared. I thought I was going to be OK," Otto said.
When Otto woke up, his wife Beth and several friends were by his side. Dr. McGirt asked Otto to wiggle his toes. Tiny waves of electricity and tears filled the room and Otto's toes responded to the request. "I was able to wiggle them. And he said, 'Dean, I know you're going to think I'm crazy, but I think there's a chance for you to make a full recovery.'"
Less than 48 hours later, Otto was up on his feet and putting weight on his legs by using a walker. He then made a request to the doctor that had used steel pins and screws to put his body back together. "I said, 'if you think I can make a full recovery, why don't you and I run a half marathon together and try and raise some money for spinal cord patients?" Otto said.
Dr. McGirt thought the chances were slim that Otto could ever run a half-marathon again, but hope was at stake, so he accepted the challenge from his patient.
Otto spent time as an inpatient at Carolina's Rehabilitation, slowly building strength back in his lower body. Week by week, Otto got stronger as he healed. Otto inspired everyone he met with his determined attitude and wished to make it to the half-marathon with the doctor who he now calls his friend.
But Otto made other friends on his journey of recovery too, including the man who was driving the truck that had hit him. Otto forgave 26-year-old Will Huffman before the he had even forgave himself.
"I don't want to ruin this kid's life just because of what happened. He didn't wake up on Saturday morning, September 24th, and say, 'you know what? I'm think I'm going to run Dean Otto over with my truck.' It was an accident," Otto said.
Huffman had a tough time after the accident, too. He used Facebook to track down one of Otto's trainers who'd posted about the accident. Huffman ended up contacting Otto's wife to ask if it was OK to come by for a visit.
The couple said yes.
An emotional meeting in Otto's rehab room happened next. When Huffman and his wife Janelle walked in, it was tense at first. "You could tell there was fear in their eyes when they walked in the room, but I just tried to welcome them openly. He sat down and we started talking and sort of hit it off," Otto said.
"Hit it off" is a phrase Huffman never considered would happen with the man who hit him with his truck.
"I never thought that we would have a friendship. I think in my mind I thought if he just gets better and we just part ways, I would have considered that to be huge, but I never thought we would have a friendship," Huffman said.
After their paths crossed in a most unfortunate way, the two have become friends. Otto then invited Huffman to run with him in a 5k just five months after the accident. "It was really powerful," Huffman said. "But I had to get over all these feelings within myself, that here's this guy who used to run 26 miles and now he's only running three, but I had to remind myself that, in and of itself, was a miracle."
Otto is planning to run a half-marathon in Sedona, California on September 24, 2017, which is exactly one year after the accident.
By Otto's side, will be the man who hit him and the doctor who put him back together. In front of them will be an unlikely friendship formed when a tragedy happened, but forgiveness followed.
Otto is using his experience to try and raise money for other patients with spinal injuries. You can find his website here.