That’s the number of days Luke Acuña, a 9-year-old with a gentle gaze and the energy of a supernova, spent at Rady Children’s following a devastating accident last winter. A garbage truck struck him while he was skateboarding home from school, sending him to the Trauma Center at Rady Children’s Sam S. and Rose Stein Emergency Care Center at Rady Children’s with grave injuries.
Luke reports this number nonchalantly; his parents linger upon it pensively; his caregivers recite it solemnly – a sacred number: The number of days he spent at the Hospital. The time it took for Luke to find his way back from the edge of death. By the time Luke and his parents are telling his story, it’s Day 141. He’s on spring break. Relaxing. Playing with his brother. Building up his strength. Master of his wheelchair.
“Poppin’ wheelies!” Luke trills, before a dizzying demonstration. Then he challenges his brother to race. His parents can’t take their eyes off him, can’t stop smiling. It’s a good moment after so many difficult ones.
When Luke arrived at Rady Children’s, he was unconscious and bleeding to death. His pelvis was broken, and it would take multiple operations, including the amputation of his left leg, to put him on track to recovery, according to Dr. Andrew Skalsky, a rehabilitation medicine specialist.
While he was in the coma, the uncertainty was hard to handle, his mother, Dawneva, recalls. But after a few weeks, Luke’s parents noticed something amazing: A flutter? Was he waking up? A nurse put her finger in his hand. “Luke, do you hear me?” Luke squeezed her finger. He was back.
For the next months, Luke worked with Dr. Skalsky and a range of therapists to build strength on his right side and mobility on his left side. Luke admits that’s been difficult, but his progress has been outstanding. On Day 100, the Hospital threw a party for Luke and his classmates to celebrate his achievements, and when he left 13 days later, he was seen doing wheelies on his way out.
Luke’s parents say they are blown away by the quality of care at every stage and level, from department heads to the coffee cart staff. “They are our heroes,” says Dawneva, reciting the names of therapists and nurses by heart, like a prayer. How does she remember these details, months later?
“They gave us hope. We left here with our baby. And that was the best gift in the world.”
Anthony, Luke’s father, said the doctors set a high bar for his recovery and took the long view. “He’s going to have a fulfilling life,” he says. “They’ve given him a solid foundation for how to use his new body. He’s Luke again.”
Luke’s top priority now is building his strength. That’s because he plans to be the first person with a prosthetic to walk on Mars, or a professional athlete, or maybe both. His journey is still filled with hope.