After surviving a tragic accident doctors believe should have claimed his life, 18-year-old Lance Vargas of Edison, N.J., hopes his still unfolding story of resilience and perseverance can inspire others.
Vargas was climbing a steel train trestle last October when he came in contact with a high-voltage power line, the electric shock pulsing a current through his body, which immediately caught fire as he plummeted 30 feet to the tracks below.
His friends smothered the flames and contacted a 911 operator, who dispatched paramedics and other first responders to the trestle, which runs parallel to St. Joseph High School’s 70-acre campus in Metuchen.
Vargas, who suffered burns across 54 percent of his body, was transported to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where doctors transferred him to the Burn Center at Saint Barnabas in Livingston, the only state-certified burn treatment facility in New Jersey and one of the largest in North America.
Vargas said his family received a grim prognosis and that his parents, four siblings, relatives and friends were ushered to his room in the intensive care unit “to basically say their goodbyes while I was in the bed.”
“I wasn’t expected to survive,” Vargas, a J.P. Stevens High School senior, said. “I think God was really there for me. I shouldn’t be alive right now. I know not everyone is as fortunate as I was, but I hope that they can pull through like I did. I hope to inspire people.”
Vargas endured a broken arm, a broken hip, a serious head wound and other injuries. He was placed in a medically induced coma. He suffered damage to internal organs including his kidneys and heart, both of which, according to Vargas’ mother, Cathy, miraculously healed themselves. Ten surgeries, the amputation of his left foot, multiple skin grafts and countless prayers from people all over the world who learned of Lance’s accident, Cathy said, enabled her son to not only survive, but be in a position to hopefully make a difference in the world after spending more than four months hospitalized.
“God spared him,” Cathy Vargas said during an interview at PSE&G Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick, from where Lance was discharged on Thursday following more than seven weeks of rehabilitation.
“He really feels that God does have a purpose for his life and he’s going to make the best of it and not look back at what he had and what he could have done and what ifs – but instead, how am I going to use my life and where am I going to go from here?”
“Being a wrestler really was a huge impact on my life,” said Vargas, who likely would have joined his younger brother, Nico, who as a J.P. Stevens sophomore qualified for this week’s Region IV Tournament, in the postseason had he not been critically injured.
“I think it’s the hardest sport in the world, always just straight grinding for months at a time. It’s true dedication. It’s super mental. It really teaches you to pull through, no matter any obstacles that you come to.”
With the aid of a prosthesis, Vargas said he hopes to soon be able to resume swimming, hiking, working out at the gym, running and engaging in other physical activities that occupied most of his free time before the accident. He will continue physical therapy as an outpatient, working toward realizing those goals.
A meeting at PSE&G Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick on Thursday with USA Paralympian snowboarder Dan Monzo of Vernon has already inspired Vargas to take up a new sport.
Monzo lost his left leg at the age of 15 in a dirt bike accident. He was treated for three months at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, where he learned to walk with a prosthetic leg. Two weeks after being discharged, Monzo, who was an avid snowboarder prior to his accident, returned to the slopes. He became a member of the first ever USA Paralympic snowboard team that competed four years ago in Sochi, Russia. Monzo now runs an adaptive ski and snowboard program. Monzo said he takes “individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities out in the cold to learn how to ski and snowboard and enjoy the fruits of winter.”
“I look at Dan over here and I see how he’s a Paralympic snowboarder and that’s inspiring to me,” said Vargas, who Monzo promised to take out on the slopes once the teenager is ready. “I really hope I can reach where he is at. It’s amazing.”
Monzo, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 270 pounds, presented Vargas with one of his Team USA Paralympics jackets, a navy fleece that hung loosely on the slightly built Vargas, who placed eighth in the Greater Middlesex Conference wrestling tournament at 132 pounds last season.
Sitting in a wheelchair with the remainder of his left leg heavily bandaged, Vargas spoke with Monzo for more than an hour, learning about prosthetic legs and receiving advice about adapting to the world without a foot.
“He’s going to face obstacles, and he’s going to notice some people taking these obstacles, and it’s going to be easier for them, and difficult for him,” Monzo said. “But you shouldn’t look at it like you can’t do it because of your disability. You look at it as a challenge to figure out how to do it. You have to adapt to new challenges and learn how to overcome them. Eventually – and its different for every person, from life setups to equipment – everyone finds their own little niche that works for them. That’s just the mentality you have to have. He’s got the right mental attitude. Anything that comes his way, he’ll be able to take it on.”
Vargas said doctors believe his positive outlook and sense of humor enabled him to survive his life-threatening injuries.
“You’ve got to look at the positives and the humor in any situation,” Vargas said. “What I said to my friends is, ‘If you guys don’t make fun of me for falling off this bridge, you’re not my friends.’ It (using humor) is an easy way to get through anything. You’ve got to look at the bright side.”
During a football game at J.P. Stevens High School days after Vargas’ accident, classmates honored him by wearing blue – Vargas’ favorite color – and with a pregame ceremony that appropriately reflected his personality.
“We would like to take a moment and recognize how important Lance Vargas is to so many of us here,” a student who commandeered a microphone from the public address announcer said. “He is quite an amazing person. He has so many significant qualities that make him the person that everyone loves. He is fearless, always wanting adventure. He is sympathetic, always offering a hand. And most importantly, he is Lance. In his honor, instead of a moment of silence, can everyone stand up and get loud. A moment of loudness for Lance.”
A raucous celebration that included hand clapping, foot stomping and members of the marching band blowing their horns and banging their drums ensued.
Vargas said he plans to approach life with the same vigor as his classmates displayed that Friday night last October.
Before the accident, Vargas was scheduled to make a mission trip to Nicaragua in June, a commitment he hopes to be able to honor. This weekend, however, he simply looks forward to sleeping in his own bed, bathing in his own shower, sitting on his own couch and eating a home-cooked meal instead of hospital food.
“It’s definitely impressive seeing a young person working to get over it so quickly,” Monzo said of Vargas’ optimistic approach. “I understand where he is at right now. Being young, it’s hard to look at the big picture, because everything is so in the moment, you’re not really planning out life events.”
Vargas, however, already is. Cathy said her son has applied to Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics, where Lance wants to learn how to fly an airplane.
Becoming a pilot seems like a fitting ambition for Vargas, who believes the sky is his only limit.