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Crash survivor celebrates his 'staying-alive' birthday

December 16, 2022 | Kristina Lindgren
Jackson Gutierrez high fives a caregivers at the UCI Regional Burn Center during a reunion to thank the burn and trauma teams for saving his life after a fiery car crash in December, 2021.

Jackson Gutierrez visits the UCI Regional Burn Center, where he spent nearly two months recuperating from a fiery car crash, to thank the burn and trauma teams for saving his life. Photos by Karen Tapia

A Texas college student returned to Orange County to thank the UCI Health burn and trauma teams for saving his life after a fiery accident last December took both his legs and left him severely burned.

Calling the trip his "staying-alive birthday celebration," Jackson Gutierrez met Monday, Dec. 12 — the first anniversary of the car crash on Newport Coast Drive — with Dr. Victor Joe, chief of the UCI Health Regional Burn Center, and Dr. Jeffry Nahmias, a UCI Health trauma surgeon and surgical intensive care unit director, to express his gratitude for their care.

"This has been a full-circle healing experience for me," Gutierrez told the doctors during the visit, which was captured by NBC 4 News. "I wouldn't be here without them and all of the team. From the bottom of my heart, I want you to know how much I appreciate you. I should have lost my life."

Gutierrez was visiting a fellow Arizona State University (ASU) student from Orange County during winter break in December 2021. On the evening of Dec. 12, he said the classmate lost control of the car he was driving and slammed into a tree on the roadside near Sage Hill School, pinning Gutierrez in the front passenger seat.

His best friend, another ASU classmate who was riding in a second car, raced on foot to the vehicle as it began to catch fire and managed to pull Gutierrez out before the wreckage was consumed by flames.

The impact crushed Gutierrez' lower legs and the fire left him with third-degree burns on the left side of his body

The burn and trauma teams pose with double-amputee Jackson Gutierrez and his mother, Maureen Congelosi-Gutierrez, third from left, during a reunion celebration at the UCI Regional Burn Center. width=
"From the bottom of my heart, I want you to know how much I appreciate you," Jackson Gutierrez tells his UCI Health caregivers at a recent reunion.

After the 19-year-old was stabilized at Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, he was transferred to the Level I trauma center at UCI Medical Center, where he would undergo amputation of both legs — one just below the knee, the other above the knee — followed by multiple surgeries, skin grafts and other treatment over the course of two months.

Now 20, Gutierrez credits each person on the trauma and burn teams — including those who cleaned and treated his painful burns, physical and occupational therapists, pain management nurses, trauma surgeons, burn specialists, social workers and more — for preparing him for the physical and mental battle to survive such traumatic, life-changing injuries.

"A lot of people in Texas are jealous of the work you did," he told more than a dozen of his UCI Health caregivers at a reunion celebration on Dec. 9. As each one embraced him in turn, Gutierrez showed off his new prosthetic legs and demonstrated how he was learning to walk again with them.

Burn specialist Dr. Theresa Chin checked the left side of his face and talked about various laser treatments planned in Texas to reduce the scarring.

UCI Health burn specialist Dr. Theresa Chin, right, examines the burn scars on Jackson Gutierrez' face and discusses upcoming laser treatments in Dallas.
Dr. Theresa Chin, one of the burn specialists who cared for Gutierrez, examines how his burn scars are healing.

He called their encouragement empowering during those difficult and painful first months. 'You believed in me and helped me realize that my life is not over, that there are millions of things I can do. That's why I call it my staying-alive birthday."

Joe praised Gutierrez' "warrior spirit," adding, "To see what he has already accomplished is impressive. I have no doubt there are great things ahead for this young man."

His own religious faith and the example of his tenacious maternal grandfather led Gutierrez to make a crucial decision during those first bleak months in the burn unit. "I realized that I'm too young to just lay down and die."

It gave him the will power to give rehabilitation and recovery everything he had over the last year after returning to his home near Dallas.

"I'd be the first to say it has not been all rainbows and sunshine, but I've had a lot of blessings," says Gutierrez, crediting his mother, Maureen Congelosi-Gutierrez, sisters and father for their unflagging support. "At the end of the day, the biggest thing I learned is to never give up, to always bet on yourself."

He has gained 40 pounds and considerable upper body strength, which is essential to walking with the prosthetic legs. He is taking his college classes online for now, but hopes to attend ASU in person next fall. And he has decided to jettison his finance major for a career in psychology.

"As a psychologist," Gutierrez explains, "I can do a whole lot more to help other people with traumatic injuries."

He is also considering competing in the international Paralympics Games. Whatever he does, Nahmias says, the burn and trauma teams will continue to cheer him on, noting that the Gutierrez family is now "part of the UCI family."

Gutierrez knows he faces many more challenges ahead on his road to recovery, but the way he sees it, "I'm young and I'm healthy. There is no ceiling for me."

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