By Matt Petrero
We’re past that time of year when we all start making our “getting fit/losing weight” New Year’s resolutions.
Trust me, I am no different. What it takes to stay committed to that kind of resolution is a determination and discipline, not to mention a passion, for the physical activity one chooses to reach this goal. For many of us, we often look for any excuse to use for giving up on the resolution. One could sufficiently use losing half of an arm as said excuse…unless your name is Krystal Cantu.
Krystal is another in a long line of amazing people I have had the honor of chronicling here at Purpose2Play. I saw her story watching television one evening and knew immediately that I had to bring it on the pages of P2P.
Krystal had the drive for CrossFit training and was dedicated to the gym. However, on Friday, August 2nd, 2013, she and her boyfriend, Daniel Cuate, were in a serious auto accident.
While in driving from her home in San Antonio, TX to visit their families in the Rio Grande Valley, their Jeep blew a tire and flipped over. Daniel walked away without injury but Krystal wasn’t so fortunate. Her right arm was crushed under the Jeep as it was rolling. The end result was amputation below the elbow. Unfazed and determined, Krystal was back in the gym one month after the surgery. Not only was she still able to work out, but she came back stronger than ever. I had the privilege of conducting an interview with her via phone from her new home in West Palm Beach, FL.
“Maybe 30 minutes into the trip, we were already out of city limits, our tire just explodes,” Krystal said. “It pops, Daniel loses control of the vehicle. Once we hit a patch of grass, my truck just starts rolling. So in the process of it rolling, once it hit the top of the truck, all of the windows broke off. There were no windows on there anymore so when it came time for me to roll on my side, I wasn’t grabbing onto anything. My right arm just flung out the window and it was just crushed. The truck landed upright, thankfully. Luckily a couple had already stopped. I’m guessing that they were right behind us and they saw they saw the truck rolling. There was a woman raising her arms in the air saying, ‘It’s going to be okay…I’m a nurse!’ She wrapped up my arm with a towel that I had in the back of my truck. They kept me talking, they kept me awake. She secured my arm in that towel until the ambulance and helicopter got there, so I wouldn’t bleed out.”
No Time for Crying
There was no tears, no screaming, no yelling,” Krystal said. “My body was in a lot of shock. Thankfully, I wouldn’t have had any pain anyway, according to my surgeon, because all of my blood vessels were blocked off.”
To keep a positive outlook while she was laying there in the road, Krystal talked to herself more than she talked to the other people around her.
“I was just trying to get in my head to tell myself everything was going to be okay,” Krystal said.
Krystal tried to use more rational thought than emotion to make the best of her bad situation. En route to the hospital, she told herself,
“One of two things can happen here. You’re either going to lose your arm because it looked extremely bad, or we’re going to be able to save it, and you’re going to have to go through a ton of therapy to even get your fingers moving.”
She was trying to play everything out in her hear to get herself mentally prepared for what was to come.
“If you’re no mentally prepared, you’re not ready at all,” Krystal said.
The Pivot-point Moment
Krystal had to be air-lifted from the scene of the accident to the hospital and once in the ER, she was going to put her mental preparation to the test.
“In the hospital, they took a look at my arm,” Krystal said. “They took some x-rays. They pushed me to a corner because another car accident had happened and those people were ten times worse than I was.”
While waiting on the periphery of the ER, Krystal showed her compassionate side and found it in her heart to pray for the other accident victims, while praying for herself in her own traumatic situation.
Finally, the doctor approached Krystal with one of the two prognoses’ for which she had prepared herself.
“The surgeon finally came over and he didn’t sugar-coat it. He said, ‘Look, it’s got to come off.’ The surgeon continued with some explanation behind the decision: “The blood vessels don’t work. I don’t replace those, I don’t fix them…it has to come off.”
The doctor told Krystal that she was otherwise fine and healthy. There were no other injuries or health concerns. Only the lower part of her right arm would have to go. He told Krystal that since she was conscious, she would have to sign a permission waiver to give the okay for the amputation.
“Give it to me!” Krystal told the doctor.
She allowed herself a few tears prior to having surgery, but shook it off and got herself into a positive mindset before going under.
“I woke up without an arm, but I’m fine with it,” Krystal said. “There was no grieving. I was still alove and there’s nothing better than that.”
Full Steam Ahead
After three days in the hospital, Krystal returned to her apartment in San Antonio. Even though she had her parents and Daniel staying with her in her one-bedroom apartment, she got right to the business of learning how to live her day-to-day life with her new situation.
“In my mind, I felt great. I was walking around, eating, and doing all of my normal activities,” Krystal said. “Nothing was wrong with me other than the fact that I’m missing my right arm. I just started cleaning the apartment, doing laundry, doing dishes…it was just time to get the apartment clean.”
Her family tried telling her to relax and take it easy, reminding her that she had just suffered a traumatic injury, but Krystal was only interested in getting back to the business of living life.
“I wanted to learn how to do things on my own,” Krystal said. “I put on my makeup just to see what it would be like to put on my makeup. I stared putting on earrings and necklaces; little things just to see how I would be doing it. There were moment where I would try to reach out for something with my right arm, but it’s not just there anymore.”
Krystal didn’t go through a mental breakdown or suffer from any kind of depression.
In looking back on the accident, Krystal, a self-described “weenie” said if she had time to sit and think about losing her arm in an accident, she might not have approached it with the toughness that she did.
“I would have never guessed, in a million years, that I would have reacted like this…because I am a big ‘ol weenie when it comes to a lot of things!” Krystal elaborated, “I hate to fly. I will literally have panic attacks in the plane. I’m scared of thunder storms. I’m scared of lightening. I don’t want to do haunted houses, even though I know that they’re fake…I won’t do it.”
Getting Back to Work…in the Gym
Krystal had started in the world of CrossFit a few months prior to the accident, but that was more than enough time to develop a passion.
“I went back to work, and CrossFit a month later,” Krystal said. “A little bit before I went back to work and CrossFit, I got a couple of dumbbells out and started doing some one-armed dumbbell snatches, doing some squats…doing some little things to get my endurance back up since I had been out of it for a month.”
Krystal couldn’t wait to get back to being physically active.
“Every time I would go see the surgeon, my question would be, ‘When can I go back, when can I go back?'”
The doctor told her that as soon as her stitches stopped leaking fluid, he would green-light her return to the sport that she loves.
A month later, Krystal was back at it. Her day consisted of putting in a full day at her IT job and then it was off to CrossFit training. Initially, she kept it light, working on getting her endurance back to where it was prior to the injury. And as is the prevailing theme, she just wanted to keep it normal and like nothing happened.
“It was an experience,” Krystal said. “Nothing to me was different other than the fact you’re being sworn off to do barbell work. It was so much fun learning all of these new things and having my coaches and my boyfriend look up videos of other adaptive athletes that were already out there. They were showing me that you can do snatches with the barbell, you can do overhead squats, you can do this, you can do that…so it was a fun experience.”
Achieving New Heights…and Weights
A fun experience quickly turned into accomplishing goals that Krystal could not reach prior to the accident. And this might be the most amazing part of her story. Her workouts have reached new heights since the accident.
“They (the weight maximums) definitely have gotten higher. In my mind, that has nothing to do with physical strength. It’s all mental.” Referencing an earlier part of the discussion, she recognized that it’s absolutely mind over matter.
How does she put her mind ahead of her matter?
“I now have a video on Instagram where I put a side-by-side of me cleaning 95 pounds with two arms versus cleaning 105 pounds with one arm.”
Krystal’s lifting form had to change, which made an impact on her personal records.
“My clean is probably my biggest achievement,” Krystal said. “It’s my favorite movement and something I love to keep working on. My recent clean press was 135 pounds.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, the clean is the lifting of a barbell from the floor to a racked position across chest from shoulder to shoulder. Additionally, the movement called “the snatch” (lifting the bar from the shoulders to an overhead position) improved from Krystal’s pre-accident best of 65 pounds with two arms to 65 pounds with one arm. Her dead lift (lifting a barbell from the squat position to a standing position with the bar finishing at the waist) went from 165 pounds to 205 pounds.
A Positive Spin
I have a good idea as to how many would see this accident from the outside looking in, but Krystal’s perspective is a brave one. One that caught me by surprise.
“Losing my arm is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Krystal said. “I still think to this day, I have gotten to experience a lot of parts of the United States that I wouldn’t have been able to before. I’ve been able to meet a ton of great people that I don’t think I would have been able to meet if I weren’t an adaptive athlete.”
I guess that you can either let a loss control your life or you can control the loss, and make your life more meaningful. Krystal does exactly the latter. Losing her arm has also gotten exposure for Krystal (and for adaptive athletics) on social media and on programs like Inside Edition, which is where I learned of her story.
One of the benefits of conducting these interviews is that in addition to getting to know some wonderful people, some give you a boatload of material to use. Sometimes you just cannot get it all into one article. Such is the case with Krystal. Check back here next week for part two. You’ll read about the importance of family, the Working Wounded Games, and how somebody as brave and inspirational is not immune to social media trolls.
You’ll also hear Krystal’s account from her own mouth on the premier of the new “Calling Audibles Radio” show. This podcast will give you an opportunity to hear the inspirational stories from the amazing people you read about!