Mark Joye wheeled into Duke University Medical Center earlier this month hoping his doctor could quiet the sound of the clock ticking in his head.
Since the Irmo native lost one leg – and mangled the other – in a railroad accident in August, the 22-year-old has had hundreds of questions for the medical magicians who have worked on him. What is causing the itching where the skin grafts were taken? What is the best way to wrap this kind of wound? But mostly, he has begged to know when.
When can he start walking on the rebuilt left leg? When can he get fitted for a prosthetic right leg? When can he play golf again? When can he run?
When will his life get back to normal?
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“It’s hard to be patient,” Joye admits.
It might have been that urge to hurry that altered Joye’s life early the morning of Aug. 22, when he and a friend waved goodnight and left separately from a restaurant in Spartanburg, where they had spent several hours.
Joye was about to begin his senior year at Wofford College in Spartanburg, where he had entered on a golf scholarship. Classes had not yet started, but Joye had come to town for a visit.
After leaving the restaurant, Joye needed to get across a set of railroad tracks. A line of rail cars was sitting on the tracks, and Joye decided to climb over. Just as he did, railroad workers coupled the line of cars with another train and moved them forward.
Joye fell and was caught amid the cars. As the train moved, his right leg was severed above the knee, and the calf of his left leg was crushed.
He remained on the side of the tracks some 45 minutes before someone on a passing train reported seeing him. Police found him, and emergency workers took him to a local hospital.
There, doctors worked to save what remained of Joye’s left leg, but after a week, they arranged for him to move to Duke, which had more experience in the extensive reconstruction work that would be required for Joye to have a usable limb.
“He came in in devastating shape,” says Dr. Detlev Erdmann, Joye’s plastic surgeon at Duke, who usually sees this kind of trauma only in the victims of motorcycle accidents. “He had open wounds, exposed tendons and bones.”
Erdmann went about rebuilding Joye’s left leg using muscle borrowed from his back, skin from his thigh. Erdmann has done similar procedures for people with congenital malformations, and the first challenge is getting blood to flow into the transplanted tissue to keep it alive.
“I call it science-fiction surgery,” said Joye’s aunt Susan Amick, who made the trip from South Carolina with the family.
It took multiple operations and weeks in the hospital.
When he was released, Joye went home and he and his mom, Patty, learned what he could do and what she would have to do for him.
“I want him to be as independent as possible,” she said. “And he wants to be able to take care of himself.”
Using a wheelchair and requiring so much assistance has been an adjustment for Joye, a physically active finance major at Wofford.
Joye and a friend started playing golf in middle school and the more they played, the more they liked it, he says, especially when they started getting good. They played on their high school team and Joye won the first tournament he played in at college.
He was also a 20-mile-a-week runner and a regular at the gym.
“When can I start putting some weight on my foot?” Joye asked Erdmann at his appointment on Wednesday. “How long will it take to get a prosthetic?”
During his recovery, Joye has been reading about prosthetic limbs and is excited about the high-tech computer limbs and other appendages that athletes use to get them back into their sports. As a right-handed golfer, he only used his right leg for balance anyway, he says. With a prosthetic in its place to keep him from falling, he figures he can still be a threat on the golf course, maybe as soon as next summer.
He plans to go back to school next fall.
Joye’s determination has impressed Erdmann, whose skills as a plastic surgeon can do little for the patient who gives up in the face of such a life-changing injury.
“That guy is extremely strong and durable,” Erdmann said.
Because the skin on his left leg and foot hasn’t completely healed, Joye can’t put full weight on the foot. But Erdmann told him Wednesday he could start with “touchdown” on the foot, slowly adding weight to it as it continues to heal. When it can bear more weight, he can start walking on crutches.
The hospital gave him a set to take home.
“I know it will be hard, and I know it will take a long time,” Joye said.
In his mind, the clock ticked.