After their close encounter with death and months of painful and arduous rehabilitation away from home, automobile accident victims Pawinder and Geetika Virk are back in Los Altos.
Pawinder, 36, and Geetika, 33, are living and working in the city they longed to return to since being involved in a devastating car crash eight months ago.
“This is our second life,” Geetika said. “It’s so good to be back home, surrounded by our own things.”
The Virks – owners of Curves, a women’s fitness center in downtown Los Altos – spent the last six months with family members in Ann Arbor, Mich., recovering from their injuries. They returned to Los Altos last month.
“We wanted to come home,” Geetika said. “That motivated us to get better.”
The Virks have owned Curves for seven years after moving to the United States in 1997 from India.
It happened one night
The Virks were heading home from a family gathering near Oakland, traveling south on Interstate 880 at approximately 11:40 p.m. Feb. 10.
Pawinder was at the wheel of their new Chevrolet Impala and Geetika sat beside him, seat belts fastened, when a car traveling in the wrong direction hit them head-on. The grinding wreck left the Virks with severe injuries.
“I was conscious for a few seconds and was able to turn my head slightly and saw Pawinder unconscious, his head on the steering wheel and his forehead bleeding,” Geetika said.
The impact pushed the front section of the car back and jammed the dashboard and steering wheel into Pawinder’s chest.
“Thank God for airbags – that saved us,” Geetika said.
The 33-year-old driver of the other car, who registered a 0.24 blood-alcohol level, three times the legal limit, was declared dead at the scene.
The Virks suffered multiple fractures and tears. Pawinder’s ribs were fractured, his right leg crushed and his femur, thigh, shin and toes broken. His left leg had muscle and ligament tears, and his right arm was broken. Geetika suffered severe injuries to her left side and back, including fractures to her left arm and legs.
“Our car was so mangled, it took firefighters several hours to pull us out,” Pawinder said. “They closed the freeway.”
The ‘bionic’ couple
The Virks relived those few terrifying seconds of the crash day and night. Nightmares and cold sweats jolted them awake every night for a long time, they said.
After careful and thorough evaluation by trauma specialists, orthopedic surgeons operated on each of them several times.
“We have so many titanium rods, plates and screws inside our bodies,” Pawinder said. “Our doctors jokingly refer to us as the ‘bionic couple.’ We set off alarms at the airport and have to carry documents with us as we go through the metal detectors.”
After two weeks, Pawinder transferred from Oakland’s Highland Hospital Trauma Center to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Geetika followed a week later, delayed because her injuries required additional surgery and care. Traveling on the freeway again – even in an ambulance – was traumatic for both of them, they said.
“I held my family member’s hand tight during the whole trip, even though it hurt,” Geetika said.
Getting back on their feet
The “excellent care” in both hospitals notwithstanding, the Virks needed constant attention and assistance. They flew to Ann Arbor in March to live with Pawinder’s family while undergoing rehabilitation at the University of Michigan Hospital.
“We got a lot of love, help and support at (the University Hospital),” Pawinder said. “And my sister, brother-in-law and parents took great care of us at home.”
It was “exhausting just to lie in bed,” he said. Since their limbs had lost strength and muscle, they could barely stand without support.
Taking a step after being flat on their backs for nearly four months was a challenge and learning experience, the Virks said.
“It made me dizzy to take that first step about three months ago,” Geetika said. “I was scared and sweating all over.”
From lying in bed, they graduated to wheelchairs for short periods, then took steps with the help of crutches and walkers. After many months of healthful meals and intense exercise and therapy sessions, they now walk with only canes for support. While Pawinder drives short distances within town, Geetika still does not drive.
A little help from friends
Their treatment is far from over. More surgeries and therapy sessions are scheduled next year, but the Virks are thankful to be back and “immensely grateful” to everyone who helped them while they were away.
“We received more than 250 letters and cards from our members and friends,” Geetika said. “They helped us by keeping our business alive. It was always a thing of concern for us. They made it possible to keep it going.”
While friends and family members took care of their home, Curves members pitched in to help with their business, which they’ve owned for seven years.
Lois Baer, Los Altos resident and Curves client, said a social worker contacted her the morning after the accident with the news.
“She told me it was very, very serious,” Baer said.
Baer posted a sign outside the State Street gym explaining the reason for its temporary closure and established an e-mail group to communicate with members. Four days later, Baer and co-member Jan Ricker visited the Virks at the hospital and were shocked by what they saw.
“They were both in such terrible shape,” Baer said. “They both looked like they were drugged and it was difficult to communicate with them. They are both very, very dear people, so incredibly polite and kind.”
Ricker said she did “anything that needed to be done” to help the Virks reopen Curves and keep it running. Ricker and Julie Butner, a Los Altos Hills resident and Curves member, worked together to make that happen.
“I have a nursing background, so when I heard the enormity of their trauma, I understood the seriousness,” Butner said. “Both Jan and I have full-time jobs, so we were lucky enough to find people to work there.”
Members Nora Beltran, Margo Isola, Alice Loughry, Aditi Mukhopadhyay, Pat Rogers and Carol Stafford also helped a great deal, the Virks said.
Touched by the outpouring of support from their clients and friends, Pawinder and Geetika are eager to give back by paying the kindness forward.
Through October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – the Virks will waive the $199 new-member fee (with proof of a recently completed mammogram) or make a donation to cancer research, he said. The offer may be extended into next month, he added.
With their still-healing limbs affording them limited flexibility, daily chores like cooking and getting dressed are monumental and time-consuming, the Virks said.
They are slowly tackling other overwhelming issues like dealing with mounting medical bills and insurance companies and catching up with tax deadlines, bill payments and DMV renewals, Pawinder said. He has had to shelve his financial consulting career temporarily until he and Geetika recover completely, he added.
“But we are there for each other and help each other out,” Geetika said. “Like they say, ‘in sickness and in health.’”
While struggling through their daily lives, the Virks said, “things could be worse, and we’re staying focused and positive about moving forward.”
“God saved us for a reason,” Geetika said. “I know he has a plan for us.”