“It’s been a good life,” La Jolla Shores resident Linda Olson said of the one she’s built with the help of her husband after surviving an accident 35 years ago that left her a triple amputee.
Olson authored her first book, “Gone: A Memoir of Love, Body, and Taking Back My Life,” in which she details her career as a radiologist and professor of radiology at UC San Diego, raising two children with husband David Hodgens, and traveling the world despite her physical limitations. The book goes on sale Oct. 27.
Classmates at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and married in 1977, Olson and Hodgens were finishing up respective radiology internships in Los Angeles and San Diego in 1979 when they were vacationing in Germany with Hodgens’ parents, brother and sister-in-law.
Traveling “in a borrowed VW van” near Berchtesgaden, Germany, Olson said “the van stalled, and we could see a train coming. We were sitting on the track.” The men, sitting in the front, exited the van quickly but Olson couldn’t get her door to open.
Climbing into the front of the van, she rolled out the open door, falling onto the track. Hodgens ran to grab Olson just as the train hit the van, which knocked Hodgens off the tracks and pinned and dragged Olson underneath the van, severing both her legs above the knee and her right arm at the shoulder.
Olson was taken to a hospital in Salzburg, Austria, where doctors completed the amputations. “I woke up [from surgery] thinking about the future,” she said, recalling the statements she made to Hodgens when they were reunited a short while later: “I’ll understand if you don’t stick around.”
She said Hodgens, who suffered a broken ankle and cuts to his face, told her “’If you can do it, I can do it.’”
“That was the very beginning,” Olson said, of the teamwork that carried the couple through the next few decades and beyond, starting with a decision to keep the accident a secret, revealed within the chapters of “Gone.”
Olson and Hodgens returned to San Diego, where she endured hours of physical therapy and rehabilitation at the Naval Medical Center, receiving her first set of artificial legs within six weeks of the accident. She was able to walk a mile on the legs a few months later.
“One of my major goals was to become independent again,” Olson said, learning to do things alone during that first year before finishing her residency in Los Angeles.
Though she became proficient using her prosthetic legs, Olson never opted for an artificial arm.
“It took me so much energy and stamina to use my legs,” she said. “I realized what you use your other hand for is to hold things. So immediately I learned how to do things with one hand, and I realized I didn’t need to have that other hand as much as I needed to have legs.”
Hodgens, who worked in radiation oncology at Scripps Memorial Hospital for 30 years, marveled at Olson’s tenacity. “She worked to the point of exhaustion every day to learn how to get stronger,” he said. “It’s not easy to walk in bilateral prostheses. But she did it. She was strong enough to do it.”
“I wanted to be happy,” Olson said. “I wanted to have a normal life. From day one, that was what I wanted.”
Olson said much of her strength came from her family, which included daughter Tiffany, born in March 1981 as Olson prepared to take her board certification exams, and son Brian, born in 1984.
Initially hesitant to have children due to her disability, Olson said “they’ve given me a wonderful life. I’m the one missing everything, but I’ve got all these people on my team that are awesome. … Here is the proof that you can have a family.”
Olson also found missing limbs didn’t slow her love for adventure. “I grew up loving the outdoors,” she said, having climbed Mt. Whitney twice and descended the Grand Canyon. After the accident, she “was afraid to get back out into the wilderness. I thought I would be depressed by what I couldn’t do.”
Following weekly treks to the beach near Scripps Pier, a college friend cajoled her to Yellowstone in 1989 for a four-day camping trip. “I was insistent on looking normal,” Olson said of her bringing her legs.
Two trips later, she stopped caring about looking “normal” and left the prostheses at home, enjoying trips back to the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu in Peru, New Zealand and dozens of other outdoor adventures where she was carried, rode on dog sleds or was pushed in wheelbarrows. “We’ve done more than most people do. That was the goal.”
“That’s my message” in the book, Olson said. “Get out and go. If you’ve got the team that will do it with you, you can go anywhere.”
Not even a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 2015 has stopped Olson, who has continued in the last five years to speak to large crowds to encourage others to overcome adversity.
Olson was motivated to write “Gone” to “show people who have something bad happen to them that if they … work [with loved ones] as a team, they can have a wonderful life. It may not be the way they thought it was going to be, it might even be better than they thought it would be. Because they do it together.”
To pre-order “Gone,” $16.95, visit lindakolson.com.