“They had a pin through my heel, one through the top of the foot and one through my shin,” van Santen recalls. “I came out of there looking like an Erector Set.”


Vicky van Santen wouldn’t have cared if he had looked like Lincoln Logs, as long as he was breathing. It had been mid-morning at Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine that she had been called out of a Ph.D. candidate’s dissertation defense and given a message that her husband of 33 years had been in an accident.

“I knew he and Van had left early that morning for Winfield, so I was thinking a traffic accident,” says the professor of pathobiology. “Then I was told that his foot had been cut off — which wasn’t exactly right, because it wasn’t completely severed — and finally I talked to Van, who told me he was conscious, and I was just glad to know he was alive and had no internal injuries.”

Fortunately, Christina van Santen Hierath, the eldest of the van Santens’ three children and herself a 2003 College of Ag agronomy and soils/biosystems engineering alumna, and her then-6-month-old son Carl had just arrived in Auburn from their home in Germany a couple of days before the accident, and she and the van Santens’ youngest, Katharina, a grad student at Emory University, drove their mother to Birmingham. They were there when van Santen woke up from the surgery.

“I honestly didn’t know how I would react when I finally saw him, but his positive attitude was unbelievable; it pulled me through,” Vicky van Santen says. “He was so upbeat. He knew what it was going to take to get past this. People would say, ‘Oh, you’ve done great through this,’ but I was doing great because he was doing great.”

Two days later, surgeons operated again to ensure there was no infection, and then they gave van Santen his options: They could do restorative surgery, in an attempt to save the foot, or they could amputate. The physicians clearly explained the pros and cons of both options, and to the van Santens, the cons seemed to outweigh the pros on the restoration option — it would involve four surgeries over a 12-month period, leave the left leg about 1 inch shorter than the right and carry the inherent danger of associated infections.

“We also learned that, if you have to amputate, it’s better to do it earlier than later, because you’re in better physical shape,” van Santen says.

“So I asked Vicky, ‘It comes down to this: How much do you like my left foot?’” 
The amputation was performed Nov. 16, with surgeons removing van Santen’s foot up to about 4 inches above the ankle.

“It wasn’t any big production,” van Santen says. “No crying; no looking back; no sitting around trying to figure out exactly how the accident happened, no what-if this or what-if that. The damage had been done. There was only one way to go, and that was forward.”

The van Santens — all of them — were at home in Auburn for Thanksgiving 2011, not only the two daughters and grandson Carl but also son Jakob and his family, including baby Peter, who had traveled from Wisconsin.

“Having my two grandsons around was the best ‘medicine’ I could have asked for,” van Santen says. “Their smiles made my frowns disappear.”