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From tragedy comes a fresh calling
Truett-McConnell cross country runner turns disfiguring car accident into a new career path
Vanessa Hurtado is a student at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland. Her plans for the future changed when she was involved in a serious auto accident. - photo by Tom Reed

As a runner on her high school's cross country team, Vanessa Hurtado was used to pushing herself to the limits to outmaneuver her opponents.

Sometimes the other runners were people she had raced against before; other times her opponents were new adversaries.

But on Dec. 13, 2009, she encountered an opponent that she never saw coming — a car accident that would change her life's scope and set her on a new path.

"I don't remember what happened at all. I woke up in the hospital," said Hurtado, a 2010 Banks County High School graduate.

"I talked with my family and they told me it had been raining that day and that I was on my way to work. They think my car hydroplaned, but I don't remember."

She may not be able to recall the how, but she definitely knows every detail of what the results were.

The impact from hitting the steering wheel and windshield of her car fractured nearly every bone in her face.

"The surgery to reconstruct my face lasted about eight or nine hours," Hurtado recalls.

"When I woke up from the anesthesia, it hurt. It hurt really bad. They gave me one of those (IV drips) that you can push a button to get morphine for the pain, but even with that, it still hurt."

To try and correct the trauma caused by the accident, surgeons had to implant screws and plates to realign Hurtado's facial features.

While managing her pain was a major feat, she still had another obstacle to overcome: looking in the mirror.

"I was curious about what I looked like, but I didn't want to look," Hurtado said.

"After about three weeks, they got me up (from the bed) and had me walking around. One day I got up to try and take a shower and I decided to look."

Even though she'd been preparing for that first glance for weeks, she still wasn't ready for the image reflected in the mirror's surface.

"It didn't look like me. It's hard to explain," Hurtado said.

"Everything was really swollen. To see that, my heart dropped."

The car accident may have blindsided her, but just as she drew strength from her track teammates in high school, Hurtado relied on the strength of her combined medical team to help her on the road to victory.

"There was one nurse who really stuck out. I can remember her coming in my room and telling me to not be discouraged and that God had a greater plan for me," Hurtado recalls.

"It was really encouraging."

The nurse also shared details about her own medical battle.

"She told me her story about how she had cancer and how she'd lost all of her hair and how that made her feel," Hurtado said.

"It just made me think, ‘Wow. I think I have it bad, but there are other people out there who are suffering, and who have suffered but overcame.'

"It gave me hope through everything that I was going through."

Although she's still undergoing surgeries today, Hurtado's in-hospital stay was much shorter than doctors anticipated.

"I recovered much faster than what they'd thought. They all said one month in the hospital was really good because they thought I'd be there for two or three," Hurtado said.

"I thought I'd be there forever."

Even though she seemed to be recuperating faster than expected, doctors still tried to limit the athlete's activity level.

"They told me that I wouldn't be able to run again or play soccer," Hurtado said.

Never one to concede defeat, she didn't give up hope. Instead, she did as she'd always done: challenged her limits in order to rise to the occasion.

"After I was released from the hospital, I was home-schooled for a while and then I moved up to half days at school," Hurtado said.

"Once I started going back to school full time, I started going to soccer practice and was able to play on the soccer team my senior year."

After hearing the dangers of what could happen if a soccer ball struck her face, some may question why Hurtado was so gung-ho about getting back on the field.

"Part of it was because I really like playing soccer," Hurtado said. "But the other part was about proving to myself that, ‘Hey, I can do this. I'm going to be OK.'"

Despite the setback, Hurtado was able to graduate from high school on time and enroll in college. Prior to the accident, she was set to enroll at a military college and pursue a degree in criminal justice. After the accident, she had a change of heart.

While still in high school, Hurtado had made contact with the cross country coach at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, when she attended a sports camp at the school. During her senior year, he had offered her a spot on TMC's cross country team.

"With my wreck and being told that I wouldn't be able to run or play soccer again, that just really made me want to run," Hurtado said.

"I was afraid that the coach wouldn't want to sign me anymore after my accident, but thankfully he didn't do any of what I thought."

Today, Hurtado is in the midst of her second semester at the biblically-centered liberal arts college and a proud cross-country runner.

Though she was well on the road to healing, Hurtado's car accident changed her life again during her first semester in college when she decided to change her major to nursing.

"I had been deterred from TMC (in the past) because I thought it was only for people called to minister full time and I knew I wasn't called to be a pastor," Hurtado said.

"After reflecting upon my accident, I realized that I do have a calling. It is helping and giving hope to people in the hospital just like those nurses did for me."