Seven months after losing her leg in a near-fatal accident in Haverhill, Paige Fortin is finally back on her feet.
The 18-year-old Amesbury resident has endured a hard road riddled with surgeries and setbacks, but within the past month her injuries have healed to the point where she could be fitted with a prosthetic, and now she’s able to walk for the first time since the accident.
Fortin was first fitted with her new prosthetic leg about a month ago, but wasn’t wearing it consistently until two weeks ago when she went to visit her stepsister at college in North Carolina.
“The day before that my physical therapist was like ‘it’s not going to stop hurting until you use it,’” Fortin said. “So I wore it the whole time, I just sucked it up.”
Since then, Fortin has been walking all over town, and her mother, Virginia Page, said it’s like she’s turned into Forrest Gump.
“She’s like ‘I’m going to run’ and then she just takes off,” Page said.
That kind of progress would have seemed unimaginable last September after Fortin and her boyfriend, Josh Zaino, were struck by a truck while riding on a scooter in Haverhill. The impact of the collision knocked both of them from the scooter and inflicted catastrophic damage to Fortin’s right leg.
Fortin’s doctors described the injuries as among the worst they’d ever seen, and her mother said her leg looked like something straight out of “The Walking Dead.” Zaino was not seriously injured in the accident.
“We have the injury photos and it actually looks like a zombie leg,” Page said. “It was twisted around, purple, it really was nuts.”
Page said her daughter likely had her leg caught in a tire rotation when the truck hit her, and the leg ultimately had to be amputated.
Beyond the damage Fortin suffered on her right leg, she also suffered a broken femur, broken ribs, a bruised lung and some road rash. Amazingly, she did not suffer any head trauma, a fact she attributes to her having been wearing a motorcycle helmet at the time.
Regardless, the injuries rendered Fortin unable to do anything on her own, and Page said it was like she was a newborn again.
“She stood for the first time, she walked for the first time, she went to the bathroom on her own for the first time,” Page said. “It was a humbling experience.”
The months following the accident did not go smoothly. Fortin endured seven surgeries along with two clean-up procedures after the accident, but her recovery was laced with setbacks. Her wound kept getting infected, and her father, Mike Fortin, probably put it best in October when he described the process as a one step forward, two steps back situation.
In spite of that, Page said her daughter’s positive attitude never wavered throughout the process, and added that the outpouring of support from the Amesbury community after the accident was unbelievable. Fortin said she got letters and gifts in the mail daily for five months after the accident, people cooked meals for the family through Christmas Day and beyond, people would constantly message the family to see how she was doing.
Eventually a Facebook page called “Lets Help Paige Fortin” was set up to keep supporters up to speed on Fortin’s recovery. That page has now been liked nearly 8,000 times and each individual post routinely garners hundreds of likes on its own.
There have also been dozens of fundraisers to benefit Fortin and her family, and to date over $40,000 has been raised to help pay for her medical bills.
Adjusting to all the attention and her newfound status as a local celebrity has been a slow process all its own, and Fortin said it was a little weird for her at first to be approached by people she didn’t know who were interested in hearing how she was doing.
“People would be like ‘Oh, can I hug you?’ And I’m like ‘sure?’” Fortin said. “I don’t want to be rude for not knowing who they are, but it was way too many people. I don’t even know 7,000 people.”
Fortin said one of her biggest worries after the accident was that once the headlines faded, people would forget about her and she’d be left alone. In some ways, that fear came to fruition in the sense that many people she considered to be her friends never wound up visiting her in the hospital.
“You definitely find out who your friends are,” she said.
Despite everything that has happened, both Fortin and her mother say that if given the chance to turn the clock back, they wouldn’t change anything. Fortin said her ordeal has given her a new appreciation for life, along with a sense of direction that she didn’t have before.
“I literally had no idea what I wanted to do and now it’s opened up my eyes to lots of different things,” she said. “There were a lot of signs just that week, it’s impossible that it wasn’t meant to be.”
Before the accident, Fortin graduated from Whittier Vocational Technical High School and had been accepted into Johnson and Wales’ culinary program, but she decided that wasn’t for her.
Now she is planning on attending class at Northern Essex Community College in the fall, and she said she’s considering entering the medical field, possibly to help others with prosthetics.
She also hopes she can be of some help to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings who had amputations themselves, but Fortin and Page each said they remember what it was like at that stage in the process and would prefer not to be intrusive.
In the meantime, Fortin’s most immediate concerns are her continued recovery, regaining her driver’s license and getting a new car. She is also back at work at both Flatbread Co. and Culinarium, where she works part-time when her physical therapy schedule allows.
At this point, Fortin says her new leg has basically become her new normal, and it feels like she was born that way. The new prosthetic even brings some benefits of its own: She joked that her new plastic foot is prettier than her natural one, and said she can still to wear flip flops and high heels. She can even still paint her toenails.
“I like it more than my other leg actually,” Fortin said. “Who wouldn’t want that? I think it’s pretty cool.”
Fortin still can’t run yet — the best she can manage at this point is an awkward, fast-moving limp — but she said she’s going to keep working at it and hopes to reach a point where she can run 5Ks and other road races in the near future.
But until then, just being able to walk again is good enough after everything she’s been through.
“It’s been seven months without it, and I said when I got it that I’d appreciate every step I took,” Fortin said. “So I have.”