They told her there was nothing they could do. They would have to amputate her leg, since there was only a 1% chance of saving it.
“And I was like, ‘So you’re saying there’s a chance?’” said Amberly Lago, best-selling author and TED speaker. “Well then, there’s still a chance, and we’ve got to find a doctor who is going to be willing to take that chance with me.”
Lago had just woken up from an induced coma following a life-altering car accident, and although she was still foggy, she was determined. Eventually, she found the doctors who were willing to take that 1% chance, and she bounced back in a big way.
Lago sat down with On Your Terms host Erin King to discuss life before and after the accident and how to pivot when your world turns upside down. Read on for the story, or listen to the full podcast episode:
From beast mode to survival mode
Lago hardly remembers her 40th birthday. She was in full-blown survival mode, undergoing a relentless series of surgeries—34 in total to recover from the horrific accident she suffered when she was 38.
It was a far cry from where she had been before the SUV had T-boned her while riding her motorcycle. She built a successful career in the fitness industry. Nike was sponsoring her. She had moved to California to be a professional dancer. She was modeling and generally living the life she wanted to live—the one she had worked really, really hard for.
“And everything changed in the blink of an eye when I was on my way home from work,” Lago said. “I wish I could tell you I don’t remember it—that I blacked out or I was knocked out. But I remember every detail from that moment.”
She was thrown 30 feet and remained conscious. She saw her foot “dangling off,” and she had no idea that her femoral artery was severed. Her time was suddenly and quickly running out.
“Thank God I had this guardian angel,” Lago said. “This guy came over and immediately ripped his belt off and put a tourniquet on my leg. He saved my life.”
She was rushed to the hospital and put into a coma. When she woke, doctors delivered the news that she would likely lose her leg. That’s when survival mode began.
She had a team of doctors who would huddle each day as if they were about to play a championship football game. And she worked even harder to make recovery happen.
“I was just in and out of the hospital so much,” she said. “I would prepare as if I was going to war. So, everything I could do—mentally, spiritually, physically, everything I ate, everything I consumed—had to be for the best so I could be the best and get through that surgery because the risk of infection was so high, and I was fighting so hard to keep my leg.”
Learning to love the scars
During recovery, Lago faced a tough moment with one of her doctors. She expressed how excited she was to run and train her clients again, but the doctor said that would probably never happen. In fact, she would probably never wear shorts again with all of the scars that remained.
“And I felt like I had been kicked in the gut,” she said. “But that was still one of my most motivating moments because it took me two years, but I actually ran again. And despite having so many scars, I did a lot of deep healing, a lot of work, a lot of crying, a lot of accepting and I got comfortable in my own skin. And I wear shorts. I wear a bikini on the beach.”
That was a long journey. And by the end, Lago wasn’t sure whether she looked different or she had learned to love the scars. In any case, she felt better about herself.
Better start digging
The scars were just one challenge. After nearly two years of hard recovery work, she found out she had a serious and permanent nerve disease called complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), also known as the suicide disease.
She was told she’d be bound to a wheelchair. That she would never walk again—not to mention the pain.
She cried all the way home from that doctor’s appointment. But when she got home, she changed her clothes and went straight to physical therapy. She didn’t have an appointment, but she remembered something her grandfather had always told her:
“He used to say, ‘Amberly, you’ve got a shovel in your hand. You can lean on it and pray for a hole, or you can start digging,’” she said. “And I was like, well, nobody is going to walk for me, so I had better get to it.”
The formula for grit
Despite the naysayers and the odds stacked high against her, Lago walks. She can even run. She has a busy and successful professional life. So, what went right?
A lot of things went right, but for Lago, the host of the podcast True Grit and Grace, much of it comes down to grit.
“The formula for grit is vision and purpose,” she said. “And it’s fueled with belief and optimism and powered by faith and hope. And it’s driven by love and sustained with stubbornness—and a little bit of fear of failure and a little bit of needing to prove yourself.”
The accident flipped Lago’s world upside down in perhaps the biggest way possible, yet grit was the way she turned things right again.
Just start, and ask for help
Coming as far as Lago has in the face of such adversity may sound like a tall order, or even a one-in-a-million story. But it all comes down to just taking the first step and never being afraid to ask for help.
Lago wanted to write a book about her experiences to help others, but she didn’t own a computer. She barely knew how to use one. So, she bought a computer and took a class.
“I was raising my hand asking for help every five seconds, and the instructor stopped and said ‘we’ve never had anybody take a class here that raises their hand so much or isn’t embarrassed to ask questions,’” she said. She didn’t mind that a bit.
If she had started with the goal of getting a book published rather than the smaller task of first learning to use a computer, she might never have done it. But the decision to get started and ask for help got her from step zero to best-selling author.
“You just have to start, and you don’t have to have it all figured out,” Lago said. “You just have to start, and you have to keep your eye on the prize and celebrate your small victories along the way.”
Hear the full conversation between Lago and King in the latest podcast episode of On Your Terms.
Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.