When Kristina DeJesus left her home in New Jersey for a girls’ trip in Austin, Texas, she didn’t expect she wouldn’t be able to perform basic tasks like cooking and doing her hair when she returned.
In October 2017, the nurse by training was enjoying an afternoon on a motorboat in the expansive Lake Austin with three of her best friends from childhood when she unexpectedly was “pulled through the propellor of the boat,” DeJesus, now 32, tells PEOPLE.
The machine ripped off her right arm at the shoulder — but she didn’t know that right away.
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As she kicked and flailed to stay afloat in the deep water, she didn’t feel any pain, she recalls, but she did hear her travel companions screaming, which made her realize something had gone wrong.
“My best friend jumped in immediately. She thought I was drowning,” DeJesus says, adding that her other friends quickly followed suit.
“I didn’t even know what happened,” she continues. “They just told me to swim.”
Then, DeJesus explains, a college student who was jet-skiing nearby, and who happened to be a certified life guard, saw the group of woman struggling. He swam to them and helped DeJesus stay afloat until a speed boat, luckily, with two Army vets aboard, passed by. One was a mechanic and the other was a master resiliency officer — “perfectly” equipped to help motivate everyone in the dire situation, according to DeJesus.
The three men helped her climb onto their boat, and only then did she realize that her right arm was gone. “It was very hard to see and believe,” she says.
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But DeJesus barely had any time to take in her loss before her experience working bedside in an intensive care unit took over.
“I convinced myself to just think like a nurse,” DeJesus recalls. She tried to stay calm and told her friends and the Good Samaritans to lie her flat with her legs up and apply pressure to her wound. Shockingly, she was barely bleeding because “the artery was kinked” and it was a clean cut, she explains.
The boat docked, and paramedics brought her to an ambulance, which drove her to a playground so she could be airlifted to Dell Seton Medical Center. She underwent emergency surgery for the wound, and a week later, she flew home for three months of physical and occupational rehab at Morristown Medical Center.
But DeJesus’ path to recovery has been far from simple. In the 15 months since the accident, she’s endured seven surgeries, including a reconstruction of her right side, and “terrible phantom limb pain.”
One of the hardest parts, though, she says, was being on the other side of the traumatic medical treatments she’s seen over and over as a nurse.
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“I’m very much a doer, I like to be up and active,” DeJesus says. “It was hard to be patient with myself and not to get frustrated, but I learned how to adapt slowly as a patient and not be the one teaching.”
With the help of a myoelectric-controlled prosthetic arm — which she’s currently looking to replace with one that fits better — DeJesus has already returned to work in two different New Jersey hospitals, though she’s no longer bedside like before.
And while it took months of practice and assistance from her husband, Blas Barquin, 35, DeJesus can now write left-handed, cook, and put her hair up with one hand. What’s more, she’s “accepted … and learned to live with my new body.”
“During the whole time in the water I thought, if I’m going to live, I’m going to do good things,” DeJesus muses. “You never know how strong you are until you’re in it. When I look back, I can’t believe all I’ve accomplished … The longer time goes on, I forget what it was like to live with two hands.”
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