The following story contains graphic descriptions of an automobile accident.
Notre Dame junior Andrew Daigneau has always loved speed — fast cars and motorcycles. He loves to tinker with both and has bought and fixed about a dozen, selling some.
But he’s positive he wasn’t speeding on his motorcycle after perusing the hot rods at a car show with family and friends. It was a warm June night last summer in his hometown of South Bend. Leaving the show, he gave his father a fist bump before heading the other direction.
It’s the last thing Andrew can remember.
“Most of my account is what I’ve heard from other people, because due to the shock and head trauma, there’s like three weeks that are just gone,” he said.
His girlfriend was driving a car closely behind him about a mile from campus when a Dodge Journey swerved across Andrew’s path. He braked and tried to turn, but it was too late. His bike hit the car and propelled him forward. His chin may have smashed into the roof, just below his full-face helmet. The impact folded his jaw through his mouth and toward one ear.
“I broke 15 teeth,” he said. “I had a traumatic brain injury. I broke my neck in three places. Top two ribs broken. My sternum. This arm was an open fracture.”
Pointing to a scar, he continued: “That’s where the humerus bone came out, and I’ve got four plates and a bunch of screws in that one. I broke my hip and pelvis, I broke this [left] tibia, and I tore everything in the knee … and then this leg was very bad.”
A business major, he recounts this list with a notable lack of drama in an office in Mendoza Hall in late October. It was actually much worse.
The femoral artery and nerve of his right leg had been severed, and he could have bled out if not for the fast action on the scene from paramedics and doctors at Beacon Memorial Hospital. His heart stopped for about 10 minutes. Even though the human body holds only five liters of blood, Andrew required 19 liters to save his life that night.
His father, Judd Daigneau, said it’s a good thing Andrew can’t remember because he went through half a day of hell. First, the chaplain told the parents about his heart stopping and said they should prepare themselves for the worst.
Then the surgeons told them that they couldn’t give Andrew pain medicine because it would lower his blood pressure, which was already too low and threatening to crater again. For 12 hours, every time he would gain consciousness, the pain would be so great he would pass out again.
“That’s tough to watch as a father,” Judd recalled. “The surgeons came to tell us, ‘Andrew’s hurt real bad. It’s going to be very touch and go.’ But in order to save his life, they were going to have to amputate his leg.”
Judd Daigneau, a pilot, had driven his own motorcycle home after the car show when he got the call about Andrew’s accident. He rushed back to the scene in time to see his son loaded onto the ambulance. He saw a family friend, Eric Beckham, a Mishawaka police captain who had stopped to help.
“I’m like, ‘Eric, that’s Andrew,’ and his face just goes white,” Judd said. “He’s known Andrew since fourth grade. He was his football coach and mentor.”
Beckham said he doesn’t usually go to accident scenes because there are so many, but he heard fear in the voice of the first officer to arrive.
“Where Andrew was laying, I saw his helmet and some gloves and a trail of blood,” Beckham said. “There’s times when I’ve had to deal with emergencies in my own family, and it gave me that same eerie feeling.”
At the hospital, Beckham saw a doctor reaching inside Andrew’s leg to hold his ruptured artery and slow the bleeding while calling for an intensive care room. One of the medics that Beckham knew well said that Andrew died once in the room but they were able to revive him.
The doctors had started the amputation when his blood pressure began to drop.
“Once they actually completed the amputation,” Judd said, “all his vitals started increasing very rapidly because his body was trying to devote so many resources towards this injury that it was actually killing him, and that’s the way the doctors explained it to us.”
The registered nurses in intensive care took to Andrew immediately. Teresa Cesavice, a motorcycle rider with a son Andrew’s age, traded shifts to be with him for 10 days straight.
“He was one of those kids that touched me — he and his family. I didn’t want to leave, because if you take a day off, you’re not guaranteed to get your patients back.”
“I usually work four shifts a week and I don’t pick up an extra because after that, I’m tired,” Cesavice said. “But he was one of those kids that touched me — he and his family. I didn’t want to leave, because if you take a day off, you’re not guaranteed to get your patients back.”
Cesavice said she and her husband usually don’t wear helmets. She has kept in touch with Andrew, and she recently texted him that they now wear their helmets. She said the hardest part of taking care of him was that he couldn’t say what he needed with his jaw wired shut, and he didn’t realize his leg was gone in his hazy and sedated conscious moments.
“Phantom sensation is very real,” Andrew said. “So when they put a blanket on me, I said ‘You’re not covering my other leg.’ I made them cover the whole bed.”
After those 10 days, Judd knew his son would soon be awake enough to learn the truth.
“I had to tell him about his leg,” Judd said. “That was my duty. My job as his father to do that. Which was not something I was relishing at all. All you can do is be honest. Tell him. You can’t sugarcoat it.”
Judd said Andrew listened calmly, though the shock visibly rolled through his body. A surgeon gave the medical explanation. Andrew raised his hand. The doctor didn’t understand, so Judd told him Andrew wanted to give him a fist bump to say thanks.
“Apparently the first night, I took it very rough,” Andrew said. “I don’t remember that one. But I came to terms very quickly with it. As I learned more about everything that happened, I was like, ‘I completely understand the decision.’”
Around that time, he was transferred to the pediatric ICU to allow more space in the adult unit. Nurse Heather Berry took care of him there.
“Even though I had heard about his injuries, it almost wasn’t real,” Berry said. “Here’s this healthy 20-year-old man just kind of helpless. It was a bit personal, because I have a son who’s an athlete, and I thought about what this would have done to my son.”
Berry finally heard Andrew speak on his last day in her care, but she could already tell from his patience how resilient he was.
“His case reminded me of why I do what I do,” Berry said. “I was in a position where I didn’t know if I wanted to keep doing this. And it kind of renewed that passion in me, like maybe I really am making a difference.”
Andrew said he lost count of the number of surgeries at around 16. For three months, he could only eat liquids. Blended waffles and syrup for breakfast. Shakes and blended food for dinner. He lost significant weight, on top of the lost leg. Visitors often brought gifts of food he could only stare at.
The doctors said he may not be able to stand up and crutch around for a year. Some thought he might have to go away to a full-time rehabilitation facility.
His actual progress shocked everyone but those close to him. He told his family that he wanted to return to Notre Dame in the fall, and that he planned to graduate with his classmates.
“I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to end up walking across the stage for graduation,” said his girlfriend, Madison Boothe, who pushed him out of the hospital a month after she went there with him. “That meant a lot to him. And I don’t think he realizes how much it meant to me, because it kind of came full circle. We were really, really scared.”
Andrew was born in Memorial Hospital but soon moved to Lexington, Kentucky. He returned at age 6 to Granger, near Notre Dame, where his mother, Sherry, is from. He has baby pictures in Irish gear. He described himself as the kind of kid who would look at a ramp and decide to launch his bicycle off it to see if he could do it.
After a Christian school and some homeschooling, he went to Penn High School to play sports — football and rugby. He and Madison began dating there. “He’s always been super positive, super optimistic,” she said.
He began working at Crowe LLP, an accounting and consulting firm originally founded in South Bend but now worldwide. He made enough money to start buying, fixing and selling cars, a hobby he continues despite losing the tip of one pinkie fixing a car. He currently owns three, all of them manual transmission — stick shifts and clutch. One is a drag-racing car with a parachute.
Andrew went to Holy Cross College freshman year through the Gateway Program, and also advanced to a full internship with Crowe. With money coming in, he decided to buy a local house that summer. As a finance major with a minor in constitutional studies, he figured he might as well start building equity and credit.
“My parents helped with the down payment because they wouldn’t have to pay room and board, but I picked up the mortgage,” he said. “I applied and got into Notre Dame as a transfer, but then they tried to get me to move on campus. I was like, ‘I bought a house.’”
Judd said his son’s love of cars and motorcycles was a big part of his identity. Judd got back into riding so they could go together, always wearing full gear: helmets, boots, padded jackets, jeans.
After the accident, his parents said his attack-life approach has been a blessing. “It comes down to this,” Judd said. “He made it easier on his mama and me, or as easy as it could be, because of his attitude. He’s just embraced his new life.”
The road back
At vocational rehab, Andrew said he learned that most people with his level of brain trauma never return to work. But one of his first questions after fully waking up was, “What about Notre Dame?”
Judd said Andrew received visits from Notre Dame well-wishers, from priests and staff to Mendoza Dean Martijn Cremers. ”The way Notre Dame has surrounded Andrew and us has been amazing,” he said. “It’s been heartwarming to say the very least.”
Andy Wendelborn, assistant dean of undergraduate studies in Mendoza, said he first met Andrew in the hospital in July. By August, Wendelborn said Andrew made it clear that he wanted to return to classes part-time, which is not usually allowed.
“I felt not allowing him would be detrimental to his recovery,” Wendelborn said. “He was beating doctors’ deadlines. I wrote a note on his behalf and said I wish I could bottle his spirit and share it with other students and people who struggle. It’s a positivity and hope and joy I can’t say I’ve seen very often.
“He’s in the first cohort of the Business Honors Program. The reason I pushed to get him part-time was for himself, but I also wanted his cohort to see what he’s doing, so he could rub off on them. The students who complain about, say, their cell coverage — I’d say, ‘Look at Andrew.’”
Despite having a surgery on the first class day and an average of two doctors’ appointments every day, Andrew took seven credits in the fall semester while living at his parents’ home. By October, he was driving himself to school in a van that could accommodate his wheelchair. He sits slightly angled in the seat to use his left foot on the gas and brake pedals.
In November, he was fitted for a prosthetic leg. It includes a computer with different modes that can be changed on a cell phone or by tapping the foot — for walking, riding a bike and other activities with different bending needs. It can even sense a stumble and emergency lock the knee. Using parallel arm bars, Andrew practiced walking for the first time in five months.
On Dec. 1, he drove to school and directed his motorized wheelchair to an office in Mendoza Hall, where he parked the chair and switched to crutches. He took the elevator to the third floor and maneuvered into his seat in the back corner of Foundations of Marketing. He flipped his prosthetic leg in a circle and told a classmate it was his new party trick.
During the class, Professor Scott Griffith introduced Andrew’s presentation on purpose brands with evident emotion. Afterward, Griffith explained by email: “The kid wasn’t supposed to survive. He was told he would miss the semester. And here he was in the term immediately after the accident, walking down to deliver a presentation ... awesome.”
Andrew said the silver lining of losing his leg has been meeting a whole new community of remarkable people. He was introduced to a weightlifting champion with one leg. He joined a group playing wheelchair basketball.
He’s already noticed that he can inspire others too. “It’s going to be an uphill battle, especially as I get my prosthetic and learn how much harder it is to do some of the things I used to do,” he said. “But I can just impact people in a way now that I couldn’t before. I think that’s what helps me keep going along, is seeing other people smile and motivated to see me doing well.
“Why I don’t feel bad for myself for losing the leg, is the recognition of how close I came and the 99.95 percent chance that I was going to die. I’m fortunate enough I get to go sit out and watch my sunsets and say, ‘Wow ... It’s good to have one, rather than not having one.’”
In mid-December, Andrew returned to the spot where the accident happened. A believer in cold weather acclimation, he wore a T-shirt and shorts and used a crutch to point to where his motorcycle collided with the car. He displayed the helmet he was wearing, which was far less scratched and broken than his body.
A month later, Andrew drove to a biweekly physical therapy class at Memorial Outpatient Therapy Services. Jennifer Cunningham, a therapist, helped him into a harness that prevents him from falling as he practices walking without any crutches for the first time. He told her strapping into the harness makes him think he’s going skydiving.
The harness hooks into an overhead support system that runs on a track around the therapy room. Cunningham pushed him to load weight onto the prosthetic foot and roll it forward, because that process tells the onboard microprocessor to bend the knee.
The motion is jerky, tiring and painful, especially to the skin where his leg was amputated. Even with a lining at the connection, it takes time and repetition to accustom the residual tissue to a heavy load it wasn’t designed to bear. Above-knee amputees use 50 to 75 percent more energy than other people. Andrew rests when “what’s left of my hamstring is trying to cramp.”
Other exercises include keeping his standing balance while throwing bean bags or twisting his core to punch Cunningham’s open hand. Climbing steps requires a whip kick back to get the knee to bend. It takes practice to land on the exact height of the next step.
“I know it wasn’t pretty, but it felt much better this time,” he said.
To make up for his part-time semester, Andrew signed up for seven classes in the spring, two more than the normal load. They range from Investment Theory to Liberal Education and Good Citizenship.
“I’m basically pre-law, but this has definitely changed my perspective,” he said. “I've gained a new respect for the medical field since my life was saved. I know there’s a joint MBA and JD program here where you can get both in three years. Then I could use the law and business knowledge to benefit the medical field.”
Despite progress, this semester included some steps backward as well. At the end of January, he had another jaw surgery for replacement teeth implants that necessitated a month-long return to the liquid food diet. In March, he reverted to the wheelchair after discovering that his residual femur bone had grown, pushing against nerves and causing extreme irritation walking on his prosthetic. He had another shoulder surgery in April.
Andrew is excited about the future of prosthetic technology, and he will help make some of the advances a reality.
He’s intrigued by a new procedure called osseointegration, where a rod is inserted into what’s left of the femur and sticks out for a direct connection to the prosthetic. This gives the user better control and eliminates the problematic juncture between the skin and prosthetic.
Over spring break, a specialist in New York determined that Andrew was a good candidate for osseointegration. Rather than feeling crushed by his return to a wheelchair, Andrew said the femur irritation increased the odds that insurance would approve the operation, which should occur over the summer.
This summer, he plans to volunteer in the Wearable Robotics Lab with Edgar Bolívar-Nieto, a Notre Dame professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering. The lab researches motion control and prostheses, developing software and hardware prototypes that can perceive the desires of prosthetic users and provide powered assistance. Bolívar-Nieto met Andrew at an amputee support group and thought he would be a perfect test case.
“Andrew is an excellent candidate given that he is very active,” Bolívar-Nieto said. “He has a state-of-the-art prosthesis, but it can be improved. Those processes are passive, so they don’t have mechanical energy to support you when you stand up, when you go up stairs. There are some challenges we hope to overcome with our prosthesis and control algorithms.”
For example, rather than switch modes on a phone, an advanced version could sense when the user wants to bend down and pick up an object — and help accomplish that. With better software, the motor weight could be reduced, improving the user’s stamina and relieving back pain.
“The other thing with Andrew is that he has an entrepreneurial spirit,” Bolívar-Nieto said. “After we have a prototype, we may start our own company. It would be so cool if he takes our ideas and pioneers some kind of entrepreneurship.”
Andrew is just as enthusiastic about the possibilities in his future. “I’m very hopeful because I recognize 20 or 30 years from now, technology is going to be light-years ahead of where it is today,” he said. “No, it will never truly replace a leg, but I’m confident I’ll get a lot of my life back.
“Even with today’s technology, I have a friend that’s going to teach me how to surf with a prosthetic. He also has a friend that does ski courses for amputees. So there’s lots I’m going to figure out how to do again.”