For almost three weeks, doctors battled to save Ya-Wen Su's right leg, repairing it with healthy muscle from her abdomen and blood vessels from her left leg, which was severed when an allegedly drunk driver pinned her beneath the fender of an SUV.
But optimism faded with the growing danger of a bone infection, and on April 4 doctors amputated her remaining leg below the knee.
Interviewed yesterday from her bed at Inova Fairfax Hospital, Su, 28, a graduate student at American University, said she barely remembers the March 15 accident that changed the course of so many lives.
Cynthia Paulson, 45, the driver charged in connection with the crash, was released from jail hours after the accident and returned to her home in Great Falls, where she killed herself, police said.
Since the accident, Su has had nine surgeries on her legs and to repair a fractured arm. A tube was removed from her windpipe just recently, making it possible for her to speak with her parents, who flew from their native Taiwan to be at her bedside.
With luck, friends say, Su will be transferred soon to National Rehabilitation Hospital in the District, where she will undergo months of therapy and be fitted for prosthetic limbs.
Once an avid skier and field hockey player, Su said she is unwilling to give up the sports she loves. Hours before the accident, she was playing field hockey with one of AU's club teams. Already, friends have begun to supply her with books and articles about the accomplishments of disabled athletes.
"I feel positive about my future," said Su, who plans to resume her studies in arts management at AU and complete her graduate thesis ("How grassroots theater affects community development") in time for an August graduation. Physically, she said, "I feel okay."
Her determination and upbeat outlook amaze friends who have visited Su every day of her recovery.
"She's very positive," said Mark Roltsch, 42, who met Su shortly before the accident. The two were bicycling near his home in Reston when the accident occurred. "If it were me, I don't know if I'd be so happy."
Biking along Wiehle Avenue to a nearby park, Roltsch said, his first indication of trouble came with the piercing sound of skidding tires. He was slightly ahead of Su and looked over his left shoulder to see Paulson's car 15 feet away, barreling toward them. "It was miraculous that I was able to get out of the way," Roltsch said. "She missed me by a foot or two."
Su, he said, took the car's full impact and was pinned beneath a fender. Her left leg was detached, he recalled, and lying in the middle of the street. Roltsch and others worked to staunch Su's copious bleeding and calm her until paramedics arrived.
Friends say the cost of treating Su's injuries and providing rehabilitation will far exceed the family's ability to pay. Su said she hopes that Paulson's insurance policy will pay for at least some of her medical bills. Many other expenses, however, will be up to the Su family.
As a result, as many as four funds have been set up to help with escalating costs. Information on how to donate can be found at autsa.org/yawen/en/home.htm.
Venice Molivadas, who has rented Su a room in her Chevy Chase home for two years, said she plans to house Su and her mother when rehabilitation is complete. While the homecoming is months away, already she is thinking about installing a wheelchair lift in her home's stairwell.
"It's such a joy to hear her talk," Molivadas said, recalling her last visit after the removal of Su's tracheotomy tube. "Before, she could only smile and cry. It was very nice to go this last Sunday and see her looking animated and talking."
Su said she's spent a lot of her recovery listening to jazz as well as reading and watching television. Friends visit regularly, and fellow students from the AU's Taiwanese Student Association, where Su served as vice president, have chipped in to buy her a laptop to read the many e-mails that arrive each day from well-wishers.
When her recovery and studies are complete, Su said she will go back to Taiwan to pursue a career in community arts development. Just a week before the accident, Su, a certified nurse in Taiwan, had started an internship at the National Building Museum, working with a youth program that teaches city planning.
"Certain people take adversity and turn it into great accomplishments," Roltsch said. "You get that feeling from her."