Transplant patient was trapped in a trench

A former soccer player, Victor Gonzalez, 22 sustained serious injuries when he was trapped in a trench on a North Carolina job site. Now he is seeking care at IU Health University Hospital.

He describes it as a freak accident.

Victor Gonzalez was working at a construction site near his North Carolina home. He was a utility pipe layer and on Jan. 30, 2018 his crew was working near a beach community. For the most part, the day started like any other Tuesday. Gonzalez, who had worked for the job for three years, headed into the trench box of the storm drain and as always, he was supposed to be the last one to exit.

But on this day, his boss thought Gonzalez was clear of the trench when he began operating the heavy machinery that would maneuver the concrete pipe in place.

“Somebody saw me in the trench and started yelling to stop,” Gonzalez remembers. It was too late. He became trapped between the excavator bucket and the pipe.

“It was a cloudy day so visibility was low. I’m just glad someone saw me or I wouldn’t be here today,” said Gonzalez, 22. The “here” he refers to is IU Health University Hospital where he in the care of Dr. Richard Mangus, a surgeon who specializes in liver, intestine and multi-organ transplants.

The road to IU Health spans 633 miles, 17 months, and multiple surgeries.

“They airlifted me to the nearest trauma hospital that was an eight-minute flight. I went straight into OR and that’s about all I remember,” said Gonzalez, the oldest child of Victor and Marisol Gonzalez. He has two sisters, Arlette, 7 and Sonia, 18. “They told my family I had a small chance of survival. I went through five surgeries in one week.”

The accident crushed his vertebrae and resulted in internal bleeding in his left leg. One of the surgeries was done to fuse his spine; another one was to amputate his leg above the knee.

A graduate of Franklinton High School in Franklinton, N.C. Gonzalez played soccer for the Red Rams and also played on a club team after graduation. As a midfielder, he competed in more than 40 games by the time he graduated in 2015. After his accident he spent three months – March to late June 2018 – at a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta where he received a prosthetic leg and learned to walk again.

His “can do” attitude on the soccer field kept him focused on his recovery.

“I’ve never felt sorry for myself. There were days when I could have been down but I just move on. I know I’ll be ok because I’m thankful I can walk. I met people in rehab with severe spinal cord injuries and I know I have it a lot better than they do,” said Gonzalez.

He came to IU Health in April accompanied by this cousin Vianca Valle, 21. The next phase of his recovery is repairing or replacing damaged organs.

One of his surgeries back home was to remove the majority of his small intestine and his left kidney. On Memorial Day Dr. Mangus performed a surgery to remove a fistula in Gonzalez’ small and large intestine. During his recovery he passed the time painting with art therapist Lisa Rainey. He’s also taken up cooking and he’s spent time working on his new white jeep – adding rims and tires.

“For the past year I haven’t eaten or drank. I never realized how much time I had on my hands when I couldn’t enjoy food. I had heard so much about IU Health and the great transplant program that I came here for a second opinion,” said Gonzalez. “When I met with Dr. Mangus he felt he could do surgery to get rid of the drains so I could live more comfortably while I wait for a transplant. I’ll need a small bowel and possibly a multivisceral.” A multivisceral transplant (MVT) includes the intestine combined with two or more abdominal organs. Since 2003, doctors at IU Health have performed an average of 17 multivisceral transplants annually. Last year, IU Health was one of only six transplant centers across the nation to perform more than five intestine or MVT transplants.

“I’ve learned to be patient and hope for the best. I’ve realized food is a big part of my daily life and I’m hoping I can start eating again soon,” said Gonzalez. “I really miss cereal – especially Cinnamon Toast Crunch and my mom’s cooking. She makes amazing smoked pork chops with beans and rice and in the summer I love drinking her Mexican horchata.”

Throughout his journey, Gonzalez said he has been overwhelmed by family support. His parents, older sister, cousin, and girlfriend, Dylan Harrison have been with him through all of his surgeries, doctor appointments and hospital stays.

While he waits for his transplant, he plans to move to Indianapolis and continue his recovery.

“I have been so amazed since I stepped foot into IU Health. These people have never once made me feel like my situation was critical,” said Gonzalez. “They know what they are doing. It’s been shocking – a whole different world. They have given me confidence and hope.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email