Plastic surgery helps traffic accident victim regain self-confidence
It was a much-anticipated outing outside in Los Angeles during the pandemic lockdown for skateboarding enthusiast Brittany Castaneda.
"Everybody was stuck inside," said Castaneda. "I hadn't left my apartment in so long. I finally was going to leave my apartment just to go skating, literally a block away."
It wasn't a skateboarding accident that changed her life dramatically, but the walk there.
"I was holding my skateboard," said Castaneda. "I wasn't even skating. I went to cross the street, and I'm a very cautious person. So the person in the car... it was a big van, massive old school van. He signaled us to cross, so we started walking. Then, as soon as we started walking and we were in front of the car, he started driving. It hit me, ran me over and then dragged me for 40 feet, going 30 miles an hour."
Castaneda was unsure if she was going to survive being hit by the drunk driver.
"When I was underneath the car, I was completely conscious," said Castaneda. "I remember everything about that situation. I had to accept that that was how I was going to die. Then, at some point, I somehow became free from underneath the car. They laid me on the sidewalk. I was just in the most agonizing pain ever."
She mustered the strength to comfort the friend she was with who was panicking.
"Even though it was the worst moment of my life, I'm like, I'm fine," said Castaneda.
The damage done to body and mind
She was alive but missing part of her ear and most of the skin on her stomach from road rash, which is similar to having third-degree burns.
"Everything was scraped off, and it was a large portion of my stomach," said Castaneda.
Healing her body was difficult, but healing her self-confidence after the accident was even tougher.
"I worked really, really hard to be a confident, positive person because in high school I wasn't," said Castaneda. "Then, when my accident happened, I was really insecure."
She struggled with how her body now looked.
"There's a difference between looking at your body and getting PTSD from your own body," said Castaneda. "I would look down at myself and just be reminded of those events. I was immediately reliving what I went through. Now it's connected to your body."
She said pop culture, like horror movies, tends to demonize people with extensive scarring, like Freddy Kruger in "Friday the 13th." She said she felt like a monster for some time after the accident.
"You can't help but look at your body and have this negative idea about yourself," Castaneda said. "You feel depressed, but you can't sit in that sadness, though, because it's constant."
Planning for plastic surgery
Ariel Ourian, MD, was the on-call surgeon that night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center who was brought in to evaluate Castaneda's injuries after the accident. He developed a two-part plan, starting with skin grafts and moving on to tissue expanders to help Castaneda heal.
"We're going to be friends for a long time," Ourian told Castaneda. "We're going to reconstruct your abdomen. You're going to be wearing a bikini again. You're going to be wearing crop tops again. It's just going to take a little time until we get there."
"Dr. Ourian completely changed my life," said Castaneda. "I feel like, especially what I've been through, it's easier to be a negative person and see the world as a bad thing, especially getting cyberbullied three days after my accident."
Castaneda continued to struggle with her self-image through the long healing process.
"The only thing I could do was either be sad and give up or be strong," said Castaneda. "I felt like trying to allow myself to be okay. I'm sitting in sadness and kind of had some faith things would eventually be better. During that time, you can't really see when things would be better. You just don't see that happening."
She found inspiration from other survivors on social media.
"How I felt better was looking at other people," said Castaneda. "I was on TikTok consciously looking for other trauma survivors, looking for people with burn scars, similar things to me that made me feel comfort."
It took a year for her body to heal enough to address the scarring and begin part two of the plan. Ourian added tissue expanders to her abdomen to increase the amount of healthy skin. He then removed 99% of the skin damaged in the accident.
"She is the definition of courage, of hope," said Ourian. "That inspires me when I treat other patients. Those experiences I can pass on and tell my other patients we can help. I've been in this situation before with other patients, and I can help you get out of this stage that you're in, reconstruct parts of your body that were affected by either trauma or cancer and really get back to normal life as you knew it before."
Almost two years later, Castaneda is slowly returning to the life she knew before.
"I can't even express how much joy I feel just to take a shower by myself and not feel horrified by my own body," said Castaneda.
Castaneda has even started skateboarding again.
"I'm really grateful that now I can actually be able to do the things that I enjoyed before," said Castaneda. "I'm still working my way up to having the muscle strength to do that stuff, but the fact that I'm even able to enjoy things, I feel like I cherish it even more so."
Sharing her story
Castaneda now helps other reconstructive surgery patients understand the journey to healing by sharing her story.
"I feel like that was something I had to do," said Castaneda. "It was part of the reason this happened to me. I was like why would something like this happen? I feel one of the reasons that we go through struggles in life is that when we overcome them, we can kind of help others going through the same things."
"Nothing is more powerful than a patient who has gone through this," said Ourian. "Patient to patient, I've gone through this. I know what you're feeling. I've been there."
Castaneda is speaking with other patients not only one-on-one but also through using social media. She made a TikTok video to document her transformation to inspire other trauma survivors and give them hope. The video went viral and has more than 5.7 million views.
"I want to be that comfort for other people," said Castaneda. "The only way that can happen is if I share my story."
Castaneda also had an impact on Ourian, becoming one of the most influential patients in his career.
"I met her at arguably one of the lowest points in her life, and we grew together, and we went on this journey together where we took this horrible situation, and we turned it into something that changed her life," said Ourian. "That was really meaningful for me to see that I have the ability to change someone's life, to take tragedy and to make it into something that patients can survive."
To find a qualified plastic surgeon for any cosmetic or reconstructive procedure, consult a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. All ASPS members are board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, have completed an accredited plastic surgery training program, practice in accredited facilities and follow strict standards of safety and ethics. Find an ASPS member in your area.