On September 24, 2016, Dean Otto was out for his usual early morning bike ride when his life would change forever. Despite wearing a safety vest and light, the Charlotte, North Carolina father of two was hit by car and immediately lost all feeling in his legs. He regained consciousness and found 27-year-old Will Huffman, the man who hit him, waiting by his side, and, despite just beginning to understand the severity of his injuries, Otto recalled feeling a strange sense of calm. In that moment, he made the decision to forgive Huffman.
“I felt a calming presence. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I just gave it to God,” Otto told NBC News. “I also knew I had to forgive Will for hitting me because if I carry that resentment around, it is going to eat me alive.”
While Otto didn’t have a chance to convey his forgiveness to Huffman in the moment, neurosurgeon Matt McGirt of the Carolina Neurosurgery and Spine Associates—the doctor responsible for Otto’s treatment—believes that act of letting go proved to be a “critical” part of Otto’s miraculous recovery.
When Otto arrived at the hospital is spine was nearly severed, and he was paralyzed from the waist down. As ABC News reported, his spine was fractured. His pelvis, tailbone, and ribs were broken. And he could not feel his legs. McGirt and his team believed there was but a one to two percent chance he would ever be able to walk on his own again, but Otto, an avid runner and athlete, was determined to prove them wrong. He vowed that he would not only regain the ability to walk but also run.
Just three days after the surgery to repair his spine, Otto used a walker to take two of the most painful steps he has ever endured.
“It was hard, really hard,” he told PEOPLE. “But I did it.”
It was then that Otto issued a challenge to his doctor: once his mobility returned, the two would run a half marathon together. McGirt, still not convinced walking was even in the cards for Otto, agreed.
Otto began an intense rehab program that included working out three times a day, and, one day, he received an unexpected visitor. Huffman had come to formally apologize to the man he nearly left paralyzed.
“That didn’t make it any easier – as much of an accident as it was, it didn’t make it any easier – you still know somebody is badly hurt because of you whether it was an accident or not. That was tough,” Huffman told PEOPLE.
The visit gave Otto a chance to express his forgiveness.
“He said to me I’m gonna be fine and you have to do the same thing, you can’t let this hold you back,” Huffman recalled. “It was those conversations pulled me out of what could have been a tough emotional recovery. Not only did he say I’m gonna forgive this guy, but he said I’m gonna be friends with him and he’s gonna help me tell this story.”
On September 24, 2017—a year to the day after the accident—Otto, McGirt, and Huffman approached the starting line of the Napa Half Marathon in California. Otto impressively finished the race in under two hours with his doctor close behind. Overcome by the heat, it was unclear if Huffman would be able to complete the race, but Otto and McGirt were determined to get him through. The three men ultimately crossed the finish line together.
“It was a very emotional time for all of us. He was the guy who hit me in the truck, and I’m down on the ground,” Otto told NBC News. “And now it is our turn to go back and help him get across the line because we got him into this.”
“To be able to do that with my doctor Matt McGirt as well as Will Huffman, the guy who was driving the truck that morning on September 24, was fantastic,” he concluded.
(H/T: ABC News)