On hot summer night in 1994, Betty Uriegas’ life changed forever.
For nine years, she had been a Hall County Sheriff’s deputy and served as the first female member of the department’s dive team. But in an instant, a violent car crash left her a quadriplegic, unable to control her body below the neck.
That fateful moment also changed the life of her daughter, Betsy Hughes, in ways that neither of them could have imagined.
Last month in Augusta, with her mother looking on proudly, Hughes walked across the stage at the Medical College of Georgia and accepted her diploma, having earned the right to put the initials “M.D.” after her name.
On July 1, she begins a six-year residency at Duke University, with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon who can help patients with spinal cord injuries.
“I feel I’ll be able to relate to patients and their families and understand what they’re going through,” Hughes said.
At the time of her mother’s accident, Hughes was just 14 years old, and her brother, Tony Uriegas, was only 5.
Until then, Hughes hadn’t really considered becoming a doctor. But she never dreamed that her active, athletic mother could be incapacitated.
Neither did Uriegas. “I was 35 years old and in top shape. I had been a lifeguard and a body builder,” she said. “And I loved my job as a deputy so much, I would have done it for free.”
At 2:42 a.m. on August 17, 1994, she was responding to a call about a suspicious vehicle on Atlanta Highway when a suspect apparently shot at her patrol car. Though the bullet did not hit Uriegas, it caused her to swerve, sideswiping a tree in the Chicopee neighborhood.
The back axle got caught, wrapping the rest of the vehicle around the tree trunk. The roll bar caved inward, snapping Uriegas’ neck at the C3-C4 vertebra.
“I was conscious, but nobody knew where I was because I couldn’t move my hands to work the radio,” she said.
Fortunately, another deputy was returning from a burglary call on Atlanta Highway. He drove by and saw the mangled patrol car with Uriegas trapped inside.
Rushed to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, Uriegas was confused about what had happened.
“I didn’t immediately realize it was a spinal-cord injury,” she said. “I kept thinking I had been shot, and my family kept saying, ‘No, it was a car accident.'”
Hughes vividly recalls getting the bad news.
“Dr. (Nabil) Muhanna (a Gainesville neurosurgeon) got our family together and told us all she would never walk again,” Hughes said. “We didn’t want to believe it. We hoped she would be that one miracle case.”
Uriegas spent two months at the Shepherd Center, Atlanta’s neurological Rehabilitation hospital, before going home to a completely different life.
“It was two years before I could move to a place I could get around in,” she said.
She and her husband, Gabriel Uriegas, an industrial engineer, had to design and build a new house in Flowery Branch with handicapped-accessible features such as wheelchair ramps and roll-in showers.
Building a house was relatively simple compared to the dilemma of finding someone to take care of Uriegas while her husband wasn’t home. Because she was injured in the line of duty, worker’s compensation pays for home health care. But at first, it was difficult to find reliable help.
“We were working with an agency in Atlanta, but they didn’t always have nurses available in Hall County, so my daughter and two sisters were handling my care much of the time,” she said.
At age 15, Hughes became a certified nursing assistant so she could perform tasks such as changing her mother’s urinary Catheter. But it wasn’t easy to adjust to the role of being a caregiver for her parent.
“I tried to stay positive for her, but it was really hard for me,” Hughes said. “I was having to deal with all the things a normal teenage girl would deal with, in addition to this.”
Yet somehow, she managed to maintain a perfect grade point average at West Hall High School, participated in sports, and graduated as salutatorian. She then enrolled at the University of Georgia, majoring in biology and pre-med.
The summer of her freshman year, Hughes worked as an assistant in Muhanna’s office and became interested in studying the nervous system. But after graduating from UGA, she deferred her entrance into medical school for a year so that she could spend more time with her mother.
“I knew that once I started my medical training, I would never have that opportunity again,” she said.
Hughes also spent that year working with Muhanna’s partner, Dr. Bruce Nixon. “He occasionally let me be in the operating room to watch actual surgeries,” she said. “Once I saw what neurosurgery was like, I knew I could handle it and that this was what I wanted to do.”
Like her mother, Hughes knew she was entering a tough profession dominated by men.
“There are fewer than 200 female neurosurgeons in the country,” she said. “A lot of doctors told me I could never do this as a woman. They said I’d never have a family, I’d never have free time. But Drs. Nixon and Muhanna encouraged me.”
So did her mom. “I have always told my daughter, ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because you’re female,'” Uriegas said.
As a deputy, Uriegas was never deterred by a challenge. In addition to volunteering for the sometimes grisly dive team duty, she was the only woman to serve on the honor guard at that time. But she never contemplated the challenges she now faces.
Uriegas can shrug her right shoulder just enough to move her hand slightly on the control switch of her electric wheelchair. But she cannot dress, bathe or feed herself. She must be turned every two hours to prevent bedsores. She cannot speak in long sentences because her diaphragm muscles are weak.
And because she is unable to exercise, Uriegas has gained a significant amount of weight and developed diabetes.
She said it’s hard not to become depressed when she compares her current situation to the vigorous person she used to be.
“What keeps me going is that I have to be here for my children,” she said. “They know that I am always available to listen. Betsy and I talk on the phone every day.”
Hughes said the family has always been close, and her mother’s injury drew them even closer. Still, she marvels at how Uriegas has coped with her Disability.
“She’s such a strong person,” Hughes said.
Uriegas also maintains a positive outlook by keeping up with research on spinal cord injuries, though she knows it’s too late for any breakthrough to help her personally.
“I think embryonic stem cell research is the answer that could one day lead to spinal cord repair,” she said.
Hughes hopes to be involved in some type of research during her residency.
“It would be naive to say I think I can cure spinal cord injury,” she said. “But there are already people doing work with actual nerve Regeneration. If I could prevent anyone else from going through what my family did, it would be worth it.”
By DEBBIE GILBERT