He was told he would likely never walk again, but Dean Otto sprinted across the finish line of a half marathon, flanked by the surgeon who rebuilt his crushed spine and the driver who accidentally ran over him.
The 52-year-old long distance runner was on a bike ride last September when Will Huffman, struggling to see through a steamed-up windshield, plowed into him on a North Carolina Road.
Huffman, distraught and guilt-ridden, tried to help, but Otto told him to leave him be. He couldn’t feel anything below his waist and he knew his spine was injured.
At the hospital, he met surgeon Matt McGirt, who told him he had a 2 percent chance of walking again. His spine was in pieces, his pelvis was broken, his tailbone was fractured and a leg had snapped.
He also had several broken ribs.
The injuries were catastrophic.
Otto wasn’t having it. “I’ll run a half marathon with you and I’ll whip ya,” he told the doctor.
One year later, Otto, McGirt and Huffman finished the 13-mile Napa Half Marathon in Northern California last month.
“It was great; It was amazing," Otto told InsideEdition.com Tuesday. "The whole town was really behind us,”
Days later, the region suffered its own tragedy as wildfires devoured the area.
“That poor place is really destroyed," Otto said. "Those poor people. They were so kind to us.”
Otto’s race goal was to finish in under two hours. He crossed the line with seconds to spare.
McGirt kept up an unending stream of encouragement, Otto said.
“He kept asking, ‘Are you OK?’ I lied and said, ‘Yeah,’" he added, laughing.
The software salesman told InsideEdition.com that he "sprinted my brains out” and while he was in pain from the race, it wasn't in his back.
Huffman, meanwhile, lagged behind. He and Otto had become friends after the man visited him in the hospital, apologizing profusely.
Otto forgave Huffman in an instant. He didn’t want to be eaten alive by bitterness.
During the race, Otto said Huffman “bonked,” the runner's term for running out of gas.
He and the surgeon had steadily trained for the half marathon. But Huffman was suffering. “It was hot as hell.”
Otto and McGirt had already crossed the finish line when they saw Huffman falter. So Otto, with McGirt in tow, went back to get the man who had run over him.
Then all three finished the race together.
“I felt such a huge sense of accomplishment,” Otto said. “I felt like Matt and I did what we said we were going to do after the surgery.”
What McGirt did during surgery was to build a spinal scaffolding under Otto’s skin with titanium rods and metal ties.
Otto, who is married and has two children — 15-year-old Grace and 20-year-old Will — does not begrudge one moment of pain or his excruciating rehabilitation.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “I’m just part of a plan. I’m doing what is put in front of me. I found out how many people loved me, lying in that hospital room.
“You don’t get to see that in life. You might get that kind of crowd at your funeral, but you’re dead and you won’t hear it.”