On a summer night in 1994, Betty Uriegas was found trapped and paralyzed in her police patrol car, which was wrapped around a tree trunk in the Chicopee neighborhood.
Her neck had been snapped in the crash and she was unable to move her hand to radio for help — or ever again.
Uriegas’ daughter, Betsy Grunch, was 13 years old at the time of her mother’s accident and could never have imagined that it would be the catalyst that lead her to become one of fewer than 250 female neurosurgeons in the United States.
“She’s my inspiration,” Grunch said. “I think her injury gave me the perspective of what health care is like and how helping people can really change someone’s life.
Uriegas served as a Hall County Sheriff’s deputy, the first female member of the department’s dive team and the only female member of the department’s Honor Guard at the time. She was, in her own words, “a bit female chauvinistic” and achieved success in a career that is predominantly male.
On the night of the crash, she was on patrol when she spotted a group of people on private property. After she turned around to investigate, someone opened fire.
It is unclear whether the shooter was targeting Uriegas or another car on the road, but the shots caused her to swerve and sideswipe a tree. The rear axle got caught, which caused the car to wrap itself around the tree trunk. Unable to call for help, she was stranded in her car for some time until another officer happened to pass by.
Uriegas is now a quadriplegic, unable to move her body below the neck. Because she was injured in the line of duty, worker’s compensation pays for 24-hour at-home nursing care, without which she would have to live in a dedicated health care facility.
She is able to talk, operate an electric wheelchair and use her computer by utilizing a special pair of eyeglasses and speech recognition software, but is unable to dress, feed or care for herself.
Uriegas’ family rallied around her in the years since the accident. Her husband of 26 years, Gabriel Uriegas, designed a handicapped-accessible house in Flowery Branch and though they later moved to a smaller house, he still makes modifications to help her.
“He’s been in the battlefield with her since the beginning,” Grunch said. “He’s an engineer, so he builds a lot of adaptive instruments for her.”
Grunch spent her teenage years helping her mother and, when she was 15, became a certified nursing assistant, all while maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average at West Hall High School.
After graduating high school as salutatorian, she enrolled in the University of Georgia and majored in biology and pre-med. During her freshman year, she worked in Dr. Nabil Muhanna’s office. Muhanna had treated Uriegas after the accident and developed a close relationship with the family.
“He inspired me to look into neurological surgery as a career, and really reinforced my drive to continue in medicine,” Grunch said.
Neurosurgery is a male-dominated field. Only about 5 percent of practicing neurosurgeons are women; there are fewer than 250 female neurosurgeons in America. Fortunately for Grunch, her mother, who had also worked in a male-dominated field, was always available for encouragement.
“I never hesitated once to tell her, almost everyday, to never let anyone tell her that she can’t do something because she was a female,” Uriegas said. “Some people said that surgery was an all-male club and I think right then and there, she set her eyes on surgery.”
She graduated from UGA at the top of her class and then continued on to the Duke University School of Medicine, where she completed an internship and six-year residency program.
In 2006, before going to North Carolina for her residency, Grunch took a year off from school to spend time with her mother. During this time she worked for Muhanna’s partner, Bruce Nixon, who continued to encourage her to pursue neurosurgery. After 10 months there, she left to pursue her education.
“I asked her why she wanted to quit, she was doing a great job,” Nixon said. “And she said ‘I am going to go back to school to become a brain surgeon, then I’ll come back and work with you.’”
Grunch fulfilled that promise on Aug. 1, when she started her first day of work at The Longstreet Clinic, where she works alongside both Muhanna and Nixon.
“I’m glad she’s here. She has a new education and we will learn a lot of from her,” Muhanna said. “We are open-minded to learning new things.”
Grunch now lives about 5 miles away from her mother who is excited to have her daughter back in Gainesville. They talk two or three times a week.
“I think she is going to go on and do great things,” Uriegas said. “I am just going to sit back and watch.”