Metro rider, struck by train, is “back on track” to walk, return to work

December 26, 2011

Victor Robinson had been missing one of his most treasured possessions during his months in a District hospital: a silver Superman ring, a nod to the nickname his friends had given him.

One recent morning, his mother passed the ring to him as he sat in his wheelchair and stared at a pair of parallel bars at United Medical Center in Southeast Washington.

He thanked her and slid it on his right hand, smiling at the familiarity of the tarnished metal touching his middle finger. He bit his lower lip and then used his arms to push himself up, balancing his 220 pounds on his left leg. His right leg dangled in his gym pants; it had been amputated just below the knee.

“Good job, Victor,” physical therapist Kevin Colvin said. “Now do 20 lifts to strengthen that hip and thigh.”

Four months ago, a Metro train struck Robinson, 42, after he had an epileptic seizure and fell onto the track bed at the Friendship Heights station. He says he remembers nothing of the accident and knows only what his family, friends and doctors have told him.

The last thing he recalls from that day is calling his mother at their Petworth home to tell her that he was going to get his watch repaired after leaving his work as an advocate for the disabled at an area nonprofit organization. He told her he’d be home later.

The next call his mother got was from Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. She was told her son had been in an accident. Robinson’s right foot was severed by the train, and later his lower leg would have to be amputated.

Robinson is one of 13 passengers struck this year by Metro trains, according to the transit authority. Many of those hit by trains are killed or die days later, and Metro often reports that the person was on the tracks intentionally. Robinson, however, was just waiting on the platform.

Seizures have struck Robinson without warning his entire life. A few weekends ago, one interrupted his favorite pastime: watching a Redskins game. “There was only four minutes left,” he said.

Since the accident, Robinson has undergone four surgeries to relieve fluid buildup in his left leg and to repair a broken right wrist. He’s been outfitted for a titanium and carbon-fiber prosthesis and spends two hours each day doing physical therapy to strengthen his muscles. He has worked on transferring his body from his bed to a wheelchair, wheeling himself around, attaching his prosthetic leg and using a walker.

It’s all progress after he spent two weeks in a medically induced coma. His twin sister and parents took turns at his bedside, and as he came to, they asked him to respond to simple commands.

At the start of his physical therapy, Robinson had a bit of an attitude. He didn’t want to do exercises, a reaction typical sometimes of patients who have lost limbs or been in a tragic accident, according to the medical staff treating him.

But as he started to see progress, Robinson became more upbeat, outgoing and like the Victor his family and friends had known.

“They say I’m doing fine,” Robinson said. “They say I’m making progress and improving. It feels good to move, to stand, to balance by myself and try to walk.”

Each day he chats with hospital nurses, therapists and other patients about his plans to return to his job at Quality Trust for Individuals With Disabilities, where he has worked for four years as an advocacy outreach specialist.

His boss, Phyllis Holton, visits him almost weekly. Holton said Robinson “envisions himself doing everything he ever did.”

“Victor has epilepsy, but he doesn’t let it define him or limit him,” she said. “He strongly believes that whatever life deals you, you can withstand it.”

In October, Robinson left the hospital for a day to attend Quality Trust’s annual meeting. He received a standing ovation, cheers and handshakes when he entered the ballroom at Gallaudet University.

“I’m back on track,” he told well-wishers.

One of Robinson’s colleagues, Donald Clark, said, “This is just another challenge that has been thrown at him.

“He has no time to wallow in the situation,” said Clark, who also works at Quality Trust as an advocate. “He wants to get back to living his life.”

Robinson still has a way to go in terms of his recovery. No date has been set for his release from the hospital. But his parents are considering retrofitting their rowhouse to fit an electric chair to get him to the basement, which they plan to convert to a bedroom.

Robinson is confident that he will return to work. And he wants to return to traveling across the country as an advocate for the disabled.

He also plans to keep using Metro’s trains to get around town. He and many other disabled Metro riders say they find the transit authority’s door-to-door shuttle service, MetroAccess, less reliable and would rather have the freedom to make their own schedules using trains and buses.

Although Robinson had hoped to be at home with his family for the holidays, he said he’s grateful for his progress.

“I’m not upset about losing my foot,” he said. “I’m happy I’m getting a new one. And I’m thankful I’m alive.”

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Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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