Over the Edge and Back

A promising young personal-injury attorney, Joseph Huerta represented people who had been hurt in all sorts of devastating ways—and then it happened to him.

Photo by Jay B Sauceda

It was a sunny afternoon on March 13, 1998. Thirty-one-year-old Joseph Huerta was vacationing at a Colorado resort with his brother, David, his sister Lisa, and a family friend. It was the second day of their trip and ideal for skiing, with unbroken blue skies and the snowcapped mountains on the horizon. The air was crisp. They had finished up lunch on the mountain before they decided on one of the intermediate trails for their next run. Huerta went first. As he started to traverse the steep incline, he suddenly picked up speed. Midway down, he lost his balance on the ice. “He tried to recover,” recalls David, “but before he could, Joseph reached the edge of the trail.”

The edge dropped 15 feet into a ravine. Unable to stop, Huerta fell over the cliff and hit his head against a tree. When David and Lisa reached the trail’s border, they saw their brother lying facedown and motionless in the bottom of the gulley. The same kind of accident had killed Michael Kennedy, Sonny Bono, and countless others. The prospects, medics knew, were not good.

Immediately the ski patrol transported Huerta by snowmobile to the foot of the mountain, then he was driven to the nearest hospital. There Lisa Huerta saw the devastating magnitude of her brother’s injury. “His head was grossly swollen and deformed to the point that he was unrecognizable,” she recalls. “I was only able to see him for a moment before I got physically ill and had to run out of the room.”

Huerta was airlifted to the Denver Health Medical Center and underwent an emergency nine-hour surgery. Two one-centimeter holes were drilled into his skull, and tubes were inserted in order to relieve the immense pressure of the brain’s swelling. Surgeons drained the excessive blood from the initial impact of his brain bouncing against his skull. Then they removed some of the fractured bones and screwed in a titanium plate in order to hold his brain together.

“The doctors were truthful about Joseph’s chances of survival,” explains Robert Vela, a family friend and Corpus Christi physician who traveled to Denver with Huerta’s father after the accident. “During the surgery they said that his chances of surviving were very poor. And if he did survive, his chances for coming out of the coma and functioning were next to slim.”

At the time of the accident, Huerta’s life was in front of him: he had excelled in the Plan II Honors program at The University of Texas, then gone on to UT Law. In Austin, he practiced marital arts, earning a black belt in Tukong Moosul. He enjoyed creative writing and painting and had a penchant for action and horror movies. After law school, Huerta practiced personal-injury law at his father’s Corpus Christi firm. He represented people who had been injured in car accidents, shrimp boats, and even shootings. But he had never expected such an injury to befall him.

After the surgery, Huerta fell into a coma for 12 days. “Every few minutes his prognosis changed as Joseph’s body fought off the devastating traumatic brain injury,” Lisa Huerta says. “One minute, he was stable, and the next minute one of his organs would fail or his brain swelling would reach near-fatal levels.” The doctors cautioned his family not to be overly optimistic: when Huerta woke up, he would likely function at the level of a 2-year-old.

Two weeks later, Huerta was transported to Houston’s TIRR Memorial Hermann, one of the country’s foremost facilities for rehabilitation from brain injury, spinal cord injuries, and strokes. There Huerta underwent therapy that addressed cognitive, physical, neurological, and behavioral rehabilitation. He stayed in a room with a floor-level mat surrounded by a metal railing so he could move around without hurting himself. For the first year, he could barely speak.

But Huerta’s strong family and his own motivation to get better helped to support and fuel his ongoing, albeit slow, recovery process. “Joseph was exceptionally goal-oriented before the accident,” says Cindy Ivanhoe, a neurologist who directs the brain injury and stroke program at TIRR Memorial Hermann and who oversaw Huerta’s care. “Those traits certainly factor into someone doing well in their recovery.”

After three months, Huerta was moved to the Transitional Learning Community in Galveston. There he started to become more aware of his condition. “I remembered being scared,” Huerta recalls. “I remember feeling like I wasn’t in the right place.” After 28 days, he returned to Corpus Christi and started to undergo a series of traditional and nontraditional treatments in addition to regular appointments with Vela and Ivanhoe. Every day he saw chiropractor Michael Mauger, who helped to restore his ability to walk. As his movement improved, Huerta explored other ways to get stronger through Pilates and physical therapy.

Huerta was lucky to have had so many types of rehabilitation and care available to him, Ivanhoe says. He had good health insurance and the financial means to try different approaches. “A lot of people get what is dictated by the system and their benefits versus what their true needs are,” she says. “Joseph is fortunate in that he was able to access care. If he had not had that option, he would not have this outcome.”

Nowadays, 43-year-old Huerta lives back in Corpus Christi. At first glance, one might not detect that he is a survivor of a severe brain injury. Take a closer look, and a scar is visible through his black hair, stretching from ear to ear along his scalp. Another snakes into his left eyebrow. When Huerta speaks or walks, his disabilities are more noticeable: he walks with a considerable limp on his left side. His speech is slurred, making him sometimes difficult to understand. He no longer remembers his dreams. He doesn’t recall much of the two to three years after the accident.

Despite almost dying 12 years ago, Huerta lives a relatively normal life now—and given all he’s been through, his everyday routine is a triumph of will. He works out three to four times a week with a personal trainer, lifting weights and walking up and down a flight of stairs in order to strengthen the coordination and movement of his left leg. He lives by himself with three dogs not far from the manicured greens of the Corpus Christi Country Club. He shares partial custody of his 14-year-old son, Tristan. During his free time, he devotes energy to community projects such as Puedo, a college scholarship fund he created, and Mission of Mercy, a nonprofit providing medical care to Corpus Christi’s poor and uninsured. He drives himself up to Austin to visit friends from law school.

“All of the medical literature suggests that brain-injured patients reach a plateau after two years,” Lisa Huerta says, “but Joseph continued to make significant progress for years after his injury and continues to improve to this day. By all accounts, Joseph far exceeded his doctors’ expectations by making an astounding physical and mental recovery.”

Huerta also maintains part-time hours at the family’s law firm, sending e-mails related to his charitable work and setting up times to speak to other brain-injured patients. Though still licensed as an attorney, he no longer practices due to his speech impediment and occasional memory lapses. Ironically, his life shares a similarity to some of his former clients; Huerta received an undisclosed settlement from the Colorado ski resort.

“Everyone assumes that I knew what it was like to suffer from an injury because of my job,” explains Huerta. “I listened to my clients, shook my head, and said, ‘That’s awful.’ But it is different to understand an injury that happens to others and then experience it yourself. You want to grade it in your head, to understand how bad your injuries are. I couldn’t rate it because I got knocked out. I understand now that I’m a lucky client that got chewed up and then lived.”

On a recent Monday afternoon, Huerta visits the physical therapy room at TIRR Memorial Hermann. The dedication and expertise of its well-trained staff are on full display. Four physical therapists work with a young man who is secured in the harness of an unweighted treadmill; two therapists manipulate his legs to walk while another holds his back steady, and another collects data on the patient’s movements.

Huerta marvels at the orchestrated effort and then at the motivation of all of the patients working in the large, sun-filled room. “Everyone is trying to get better here,” he says with a glint in his eye. “Everyone wants to be alive.” One thing is certain: Huerta provides a powerful example of what it means to get better as he walks down the long, fluorescent-lit corridor, out the front entrance, and back to his life in Corpus Christi.


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