Editor’s note: Mark Taylor was the patient honoree at the 2016 A Night for Heroes gala, an annual event that benefits UF Health TraumaOne, the region’s only adult and pediatric Level I trauma center.
Mark Taylor times his steps precisely, walking in a slow manner that allows him to successfully get from one point to the next. Lead with the left leg, follow with the right. It’s part of a process – one marked by fear and uncertainty while fueled by willpower and mechanics.
Amputation. Prosthesis. Those words sound scary, and probably quite foreign to many people. But for Mark, it’s reality.
He can’t just jump out of bed and immediately walk around freely. No, there’s a regimen. Mark has to carefully place a special protective sleeve over what remains of his right leg, which was amputated just above the knee. Then he meticulously puts on a custom-made prosthetic leg that’s been programmed to operate in concert with his upper body and other leg.
Mark can now stand tall and walk, stretching out his 6’5” frame skyward. His ability to get around is the result of many months of healing, rehabilitation, practice and patience. All the while, his prosthesis symbolizes both hope and despair – two emotions he’s openly juggled after being critically injured in a single-vehicle crash in 2014.
Since that accident, it’s been the extraordinary care by UF Health Jacksonville physicians, nurses and other staff, along with the love and support of his family, that has allowed him to regain independence and resume a life marked by vigor and love.
‘It looked really bad’
Shattered glass and other fragmented auto parts were strewn on the ground where Mark crashed his pickup truck alongside Highway 90 near Macclenny, a town about 30 miles west of Jacksonville that Mark has called home his entire life.
It was July 28, 2014. Mark was driving alone to a nearby hardware store. He put on his left turn signal to change lanes. Suddenly, the truck’s airbag deployed. He lost control, drove off the road and violently struck a tree.
His world went black.
“I just remember somebody opening my door, telling me I was in an accident and to be still,” he said.
Mark’s middle daughter, Masey, arrived soon after the crash. Even today, it’s tough for her to speak on what she saw. Broken glass, blood stains and bent metal. Her voice cracks and weakens at the retrospective visual.
“There was glass everywhere. It was never easy to see. I personally couldn’t handle it,” Masey, 18, said. “You could see the truck caved into the tree. All they would tell me was, ‘His legs are broken. His legs are broken.’ It looked really bad.”
Fractured bones, broken spirits
Mark was flown from the accident scene in Macclenny to UF Health Jacksonville, which has the personnel and resources to handle the most severe trauma cases. Trauma surgeon David Skarupa, MD, was the first UF Health physician to assess Mark’s injuries.
He had fractures in his legs, ankles, ribs and back. He was experiencing blood loss as well as significant pain throughout his body, especially in his legs.
“Mark came to us in a critically injured state,” Skarupa said. “We could clearly see that he was hurting. He had some serious injuries that were in many ways life-threatening and especially limb-threatening. We needed to address those in an expeditious fashion.”
Trauma personnel acted quickly. Mark was given breathing tubes and medication to combat the intense pain. A few hours later, he was in the operating room, where he underwent his first series of procedures to wash out and clean the fractured bones of any dead tissue and debris. Debridement was required before any corrections of fractures could occur.
Uncertainty weighed heavily on Mark’s family.
“At that point, we took it hour by hour,” said his wife, Melissa. “We didn’t know where things were going to go from one minute to the next.”
In the days and weeks ahead, Melissa and her three daughters did a lot of waiting, praying and hoping. Mark was in bad shape. He remained in the intensive care unit for three weeks and then in the critical care unit for four months. During that time, he underwent a fusion to correct his spine and multiple surgeries to stabilize and realign his legs and ankles. Orthopaedic surgeon Michael Harris, MD, performed most of the procedures on the lower extremities.
Many of Mark’s broken bones were straightened. But the impact from the accident left his right leg virtually unrepairable from the knee area on down. Mark had no blood flow there and lacked mobility. He was also experiencing infection issues with that ankle. There was no assurance he’d ever regain function in his right leg.
“The top of his tibia was smashed beyond reconstruction,” said orthopaedic surgeon B. Hudson “Hud” Berrey, MD. “From the first time I saw him, an amputation was a very serious consideration.”
A tough decision
In cases like Mark’s, Berrey says the initial goal is always to save life and limbs. But when a prognosis turns dismal and discussion of an amputation occurs, perspective is key.
Berrey said Mark’s right leg had essentially become an anchor. If Mark opted for reconstruction, it would be a years-long recovery process that would yield unsure results. Berrey has seen patients in the past pour much time, money, thought and energy into rehabilitating a limb that ultimately is unable to be fixed.
“I think what holds most people back is fear, fear of the unknown,” Berrey said about having an amputation. “We have amputees who go out and do miraculous things.”
However, the decision was ultimately Mark’s to make. Initially, Mark believed he’d retain both legs and make a full recovery. Then he thought he may just lose a foot. But a sizeable portion of his leg, above the knee? Mark hated the idea. But the pain was so intense he decided to take Berrey’s recommendation and go forth with the amputation.
Berrey performed the procedure Dec. 15, 2014, less than five months after the accident. The operation involved taking cartilage from Mark’s kneecap and placing it on the end of the femur, where the amputation occurred. Berrey then took muscle from the back of the calf and folded it over the top of the cartilage and femur. All of that helps keep the thigh muscles intact and allows the bone to heal well. Mark was then placed in a temporary prosthesis with a foot, allowing him to start rehabilitating and learning how to walk the next day.
Two months later, Berrey performed a follow-up neurectomy – removing Mark’s sciatic nerve in his right thigh that was the source of intense phantom pain. Mark had been feeling an unpleasant sensation in a foot that was no longer there.
Mark then had a total knee replacement on the opposite knee, which had been surgically repaired but was still quite stiff and painful. Orthopaedic surgeon Edmund Brinkis, MD, performed the knee replacement, which enabled Mark to continue his rehab.
Dark days turn bright
Though the amputation was successful, Mark suffered immensely. Reality hit him when he left the hospital and came home. His leg was gone. He questioned his ability to ever work again in law enforcement or simply perform routine tasks around the house. He wondered how his daughters would view him and worried if his wife still wanted to be with him.
“After the amputation, it was rough. Worse than I thought it would be – mentally, physically, emotionally,” Mark said. “My mood changed by the hour. That was probably my lowest point.”
Mark sat on his sofa at home in Macclenny, reflecting on that period when he truly saw himself as less of a man. One particular evening, he breaks down into tears. He lowers his lead, takes a long pause to gather himself. A very long pause. He eventually regains perspective, knowing that those negative thoughts were just that – thoughts.
The reality is that Mark’s wife and three daughters love him unconditionally and do their best to show it, while trying to keep him in good spirits. The family has resumed many of their traditions, such as singing together. All three of the Taylor daughters are vocalists. Mark loves to accompany them in song with his guitar and harmonica. Music has been a healer during the tribulations.
“The amputation has changed us, but it’s brought us closer together,” said his youngest daughter, Markayla, 12, who also loves to go hunting with her father. “My dad has been my everything.”
Mark actualized his goal of walking Masey across the football field during her high school’s senior night in late 2015. Mark’s oldest daughter, Morrissa, smiles when reflecting on the moment, knowing the work he put in to get to that point.
“He strutted across that field like nothing had ever happened,” Morrissa, 21, said. “And I believe he’ll continue to improve and be the best dad that he can be.”
Mark speaks favorably of the care he received while a patient in the critical care unit at UF Health Jacksonville. He also thinks highly of the rehabilitation staff who assisted him in the transitional care unit. That’s where Mark diligently worked to regain strength and establish comfort and familiarity with his new prosthetic leg.
While the TCU staff concentrated on the physical component, a UF Health trauma psychology team, led by David Chesire, PhD, worked with Mark on his mental health. Chesire first met Mark during his initial hospital admission in July 2014.
Months later, as Mark focused on recovery and rehab, Chesire was there to help him gain perspective and not “get sucked into despair” about losing a limb. Chesire, who nominated Mark to be this year’s A Night for Heroes patient honoree, said he saw drastic improvement in his outlook.
“Life may change, but you’re going to be the exact same person you were before,” Chesire said. “Your interests, desires, passions – all of that will be the same.”
When Mark first received his prosthetic leg, he was embarrassed to be seen with it. But now, he embraces it, not worrying about what others may think. He knows his family loves him regardless. Yes, amidst the pain, doubt and uncertainty, Mark has found plenty of reasons to smile.
“Life with a prosthetic is what you make it,” Mark said. “It’s not easy, but nothing in life is. It doesn’t make me feel 100 percent like a man, but it definitely makes me feel better.”
Melissa says when the accident occurred, she didn’t know if her husband would survive. But seeing the strides he’s made in less than two years, she said the family feels blessed and is thankful for the superb medical attention.
“I thank everybody at UF Health from the bottom of my heart. I’m so appreciative of the care and everything he received there,” she said. “They treated Mark like he was family.”
Mark looks toward the future with excitement. Just as he walked across that football field with Masey on senior night, he’s thrilled about the idea of ushering Morrissa down the church aisle. She’s engaged to be married later this year.
And there’s a lot more Mark wants to do. Dance? Run? Sure, all of that is well within reason. He knows he just has to keep pushing and keep walking. One step at a time.
David J. Skarupa, MD, FACS
Associate Chief Medical Officer, UF Health Jacksonville