Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
When Mona Patel was 17 and a student at Cal Poly University in Pomona, California, a drunk driver struck her, sending her airborne. She was pinned between the vehicle and a metal railing, her right leg so mangled that her foot had to be amputated. She didn’t walk for about three years. Over the next seven years, Patel endured 20 surgeries as doctors tried to salvage the rest of her leg.
Seven years after her first amputation, Patel found herself at a crossroads: have more surgeries or have the leg amputated below the knee.
"I knew I wanted to have kids," she said, "and I didn’t want ... that quality of life – being in and out of hospitals and going through rehab all the time."
Before deciding to undergo a second amputation, she looked for amputee support services in San Antonio; she didn't find any. "I vowed to start a support group once I got back on my feet," she said. "That was 20 years ago."
In July, Patel got a phone call from a woman asking about her nonprofit organization, the San Antonio Amputee Foundation. As founder and executive director, she is used to outlining her mission, but after 20 minutes Patel asked for a name.
The woman identified herself as a Turner Broadcasting employee and informed Patel that she had been nominated as a CNN Hero of 2017. She did not, however, reveal who had nominated her.
Based on viewers' nominations, CNN each year honors people whose extraordinary efforts make a difference in the lives of others. Patel is among the 10 finalists who will attend the live-broadcast tribute show in New York City on Dec. 17. Voting continues through midnight on Tuesday, Dec. 12.
"It's been such an honor," said Patel, 45.
All finalists received $10,000, which Patel said will go toward a family vacation and her two daughters' college funds. Should she win the $100,000 grand prize, "100 percent of that will go to the foundation, as will all funds raised through the matching campaign" that begins the night of the tribute.
The San Antonio Amputee Foundation serves a diverse constituency, Patel said. Its members range widely in age, their level of amputation, the circumstances that led to their amputation, and where they are in their recovery – both emotionally and physically. Most are referred to her by physicians and rehab specialists or find her through internet searches and social media.
"It's been 20 years of building relationships with the [medical] community [to ensure amputees] are in good hands," she said.
The organization offers free, basic home modifications such as safety grab bars and wheelchair ramps, car modifications such as left foot accelerators and hand controls, advocacy and case management services, education, health and fitness programs, and prosthetic limbs for those who lack resources.
"When [amputees] apply, I meet with them and link them up to every community resource," Patel said. "If they exhaust those ... then the foundation will help them with the prosthesis."
But the organization's main tenet is support.
Having an amputation "is daunting and very scary," Patel said. "Your future is so uncertain. 'How am I going to work? When am I going to walk right? Is this pain going to be there forever? Am I going to be desirable to my husband or wife?' It's just question after question after question."
Having lived that hardship without any kind of peer support, Patel sees it as her calling to pay it forward.
"The emotional support is invaluable. Everybody needs it," she said. "I tell [members], 'You never know who is going to need your strength and your support.’ Everyone wants to feel needed, and that’s how I get people to come back month after month after month."
Her monthly support meetings grew from small groups of five to eight people in the late '90s to 50-60 people today. Her youngest member to date was 6 and the oldest in their mid-90s.
"If you don't go in with a positive attitude, you definitely come out with one," said 72-year-old Tom Brady, who joined the support group after he lost his right leg to a staph infection eight years ago and now serves as the foundation's treasurer. "It's uplifting."
Patel also offers individual support "in any setting – at doctor's offices, in nursing homes, in people's homes, pre- and post-amputation – wherever they need me."
In 2014, she registered her foundation as a nonprofit. Last month, Patel, a full-time social worker for a prosthetic company, hired a part-time administrative assistant – the foundation's first paid employee.
"It's now a 'one-and-a-half-woman show,'" she said. Her dream is for the foundation to offer 24-hour support, because "it can't ever be just one visit. It has to be consistent."
But that requires time and resources.
Patel speaks resources fluently: her support group meets in a donated space in a Medical Center hospital; she gets donated prosthetics – feet, knees, and body-powered prosthetic hooks – and supplies such as cushion liners from different manufacturers; the company she works for donates all labor – lab work, fabricating sockets and molds, and fitting and adjusting prostheses – and some prosthetic hardware; and a home modifications company gives her grab bars at cost and installs them for free.
The majority of the foundation's capital comes from individual donations. Her car serves as an office, and she stores donated prosthetics, wheelchairs, and walkers in her garage. But as donations increase, so does Patel's need for storage space – just last week she had to turn down two power chairs. She is seeking a donated storage space in the Medical Center that would allow her to expand services.
“People have known about my mission and my heart for the past 20 years, but the goal is to get some bigger sponsorships," she said. "We'll always find a way, but it would be nice to not have to worry so much about fundraising."
Chris Avery, CEO of James Avery Jewelry, met Patel about four years ago and has been supporting her foundation ever since. Before going into the family business, he worked as an anesthesiologist and knows how difficult coping with an amputation can be.
"Mona is awe-inspiring," Avery said. "She probably had no inkling she would be going that direction in life when she was 16, but she utilized an unfortunate event to ... help others and make a difference."
Patel helped make a difference in the lives of amputees across Texas when she led grassroots lobbying efforts to get the Prosthetic Parity Act passed by the State Legislature in 2008. The law removed special caps and exemptions that had previously put prosthetic care out of reach for many amputees.
"Now it's on par with Medicare," Patel said. "If Medicare would pay for it, every Texas-based commercial insurance by law has to pay" for prosthetics.
If an amputee encounters hurdles getting insurance benefits, Patel will advocate on the person's behalf, file complaints, and work to get the situation corrected, she said.
Despite having a disability, "you can still reach the same place you need to reach," Patel said. "We just have to get there a little differently."
In late 2015, Patel proved just that when she and eight fellow amputees ascended Mount Kilimanjaro. Supported by a four-man medical team, Cory Torres, who lost a leg to cancer, and Ian Warshak, a double below-knee amputee who also lost all 10 fingers, reached the peak's summit on crutches and custom-made canes.
"The transformations I saw [on the trip] were just phenomenal," Patel said.
Dr. Karwin McCain, a local physician specializing in rehabilitation and friend of Patel's, accompanied her on the trip to Tanzania. Months after they summited the mountain, he told her he had nominated her as a CNN Hero.
"I always teased her that she needed to be on 'Oprah,'" McCain said. "She has touched so many lives and helped so many people – I felt like more people need to know about that."
In January, Patel is taking a group on the foundation's second annual ski trip to New Mexico. Yvonne Llanes, a double above-knee amputee, will be among those skiers for the second year in a row.
"I had never skied – even with my real legs," said Llanes, who became the foundation's secretary in late 2016. "But Mona put my mind at ease. She ensured me it would be okay, and she was right about everything."
The two met when Llanes needed new prostheses upon moving to San Antonio in 2009.
"I was a mess," Llanes said. "I [had just recently had my] amputations, and I was depressed and anxious. Mona sat with me and held my hand, and I could feel that she genuinely cared. She talked to me about how my life would be different, but that it would be one of great measure and success."
Patel communicates that same message to her two daughters, 15-year-old Anaya and 12-year-old Arianna.
"Giving back is so, so important," Patel said. "The biggest thing for my kids is to see how blessed we are."
The two help out with the foundation's administrative work: Anaya manages the website and creates flyers, and Arianna does social media. They also regularly attend the support group and witness "how strong [people] can be [when they] face obstacles head on.
"We are stronger than any circumstance that comes our way," Patel said, "and they get to see that every day.”