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'So grateful': After gory car crash, Ms. America hopeful competes again

Tracy Rodgers was to compete in a beauty pageant when she was hurt in a horrific car crash. Five years later, she gets to finish her race.
/ Source: TODAY

Tracy Rodgers, 46, is a veteran nurse who lives in Henderson, Nevada. On June 23, 2011, she was preparing to represent the state in the Ms. America Pageant when she was involved in a horrific accident with a bus that crossed into her lane on Interstate 15. Doctors weren't sure if she'd walk again, but Rodgers has once again been named Ms. Nevada State and getting ready to compete in the national pageant. Here, she recounts her five-year recovery.

Update: Tracy Rodgers won the the Ms. America International 2017 title on Sept. 3.

I did my first pageant when I was 35 and had the time of my life. At 41, I was Ms. Nevada United States and prepared to go to nationals when my car accident happened.

My life changed in a split second.

I remember getting on the freeway. A tour bus decided to turn around in the dirt median — there’s a sign that says “No U-Turn”. It crossed my lane of traffic right in front of me and I hit it going at freeway speed.

When I came to, I was in the car. I had white pants on and I could see a bone coming through. There was a big blood patch on my right leg. There was white powder everywhere from the airbag.

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This is what was left of Rodgers' car after the accident on June 23, 2011.Courtesy Tracy Rodgers

I was wearing a seat belt and I still had nine fractures in my neck and four fractures in my lower back. I broke both arms and my left wrist was completely snapped off — it was hanging backwards and completely shattered. The doctor said it looked like a bag of crunched up potato chips.

My left side very much took the brunt. Both my legs were broken, my back, my pelvis. There were 21 broken bones total.

The trauma doctor told me later, “You have no idea how lucky you are” because I didn’t have any more extensive internal damage. But the first couple of days were really touch and go.

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Rodgers was seriously hurt in the accident.Courtesy Tracy Rodgers

My family was told it would be six to nine months before I would be able to walk again — if I ever walked again.

I had 29 surgery sites. They put a big rod in that right femur, plated the left hip and stabilized the left knee. My left wrist was completely rebuilt with cadaver parts, rods, pins and screws. They completely rebuilt my left knee.

At one time, I probably had more metal in me than most American-made cars. My doctor said, “Just know when you go through the airport, they are going to pat you down every time” — and they do. I set off the metal detector 100 percent of the time.

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X-rays show some of the rods and pins holding Rodgers' body together after the accident.Courtesy Tracy Rodgers

After the accident, I remember asking the doctor, “When can I walk?” And he said, “You need 11 weeks of non-weight-bearing time for your leg to heal.”

So after 11 weeks and one day, I stood for the first time and almost passed out. I started walking from there.

If the doctors had said to me, “She may not walk again,” I’m just that person who is like, “Watch me.” I hate it when people tell me “You can’t.”

I sustained foot drop during one of the surgeries and my left foot just dragged. It was like a little flipper hanging down there. I had to wear a brace, which was miserable.

At first, the doctors thought there was a chance that nerve might regenerate, but it didn’t. That was the first time — almost three years after my accident — that I had a teary breakdown. I was crying so hard that my contacts were bobbing around on my eyeballs.

But then I was like, OK, you’ve had your moment; no amount of crying will fix your leg. You get up, brush yourself off and just do the daily grind again. I ended up having a tendon transfer surgery for the foot drop and it worked. It got me out of my brace.

Friends, family and a positive attitude were key to recovery, Rodgers says.Courtesy Tracy Rodgers

Your whole mindset changes when you’ve been through something like this. You appreciate the smallest things, like being able to floss your own teeth. There were three weeks when I couldn’t do anything for myself.

A positive attitude was key in my recovery. It takes everything in you not to trek down that dark road, but if you let yourself go down the path of self-pity and negativity, you will stay there. Always try to find something in your life to be grateful for. There would be days when I would wake up and say, I’m grateful that I have air to breathe and the sky is blue. I’m so grateful I’m still here.

"I get to finish my race," Rodgers says about competing again.Terry Wright/Las Vegas Image Studio

Today, I feel great. To look at me, most people don’t know what I’ve been through. At the end of a long day, I usually end up with a little bit of a limp on that left side. My left knee and left lower calf are very atrophied. You just find ways to stand a little differently.

There’s still some pain. I’m a great barometric pressure reader. The day before it storms, I can tell you because my left knee and hip will ache and ache.

Competing in the Ms. America pageant is important because something that I started was taken away from me. Coming up on my five-year anniversary, it felt like this was a great time for me to go back. I get to finish my race.

Every day that my feet hit the floor and I get up, I think, this is a good day.

— As told to TODAY's A. Pawlowski