Though exactly two weeks after the fateful day at Winfield, Thanksgiving 2011 was the merriest for the van Santens — a true celebration of life and loved ones and blessings untold. The only “negative”: Van Santen is a serious cook, baker, host and server, and for the first time ever, he had to sit on the sidelines while others took care of those duties.

“Instead of serving people, I had to be served, and I was not happy with that situation,” van Santen says. “But I was glad I was alive to be served.”

Only once, briefly, in the weeks following the accident did depression threaten to wrap its suffocating cloak around van Santen. It was the second week in December, when a trip back to Birmingham to his medical team revealed van Santen had a staph infection in the wound.

He was hospitalized, put on round-the-clock intravenous antibiotics and on Dec. 12 underwent a fourth surgery in which surgeons had to shorten his leg 2 more inches to remove necrotic tissue. The van Santens were told that if in three days the infection had not cleared up, his leg would have to be amputated above the knee.

“Those were very tense, dark days — the not knowing what was going to happen,” van Santen says.

Pardon the overused phrase, but “faith, family and friends” pulled van Santen through that spell, and in follow-up surgery Dec. 15, surgeons found no sign of infection. Van Santen was on his way.

His recovery from that point on was one for the record books, thanks in large part to wife Vicky being right beside him every step of the way.
 By the time he got fitted with his prosthesis in mid-January, he already had some lofty goals.

“I told the occupational therapist I wanted to be able to walk two miles by my birthday,” he says.

His birthday’s May 3; he logged his first two-mile walk the last week in March. By that time, he was also swimming close to a mile most days. He was driving even before he got his prosthesis; he reacquainted himself with his bicycle; and he never stopped working. In fact, he was on his laptop from his hospital bed in UAB less than 48 hours after the accident.

“My left foot may be gone,” he wrote in a Nov. 13, 2011, memo to College of Ag faculty and staff and his graduate students, “but my mind is not, so graduate students, there will be statistics questions during your final seminar.”

Notice there’s been no mention thus far of the pain van Santen endured at the time of the accident, through the many surgeries and throughout the recovery. That’s because there really wasn’t much to speak of, van Santen says.

“It was uncomfortable at times, yes, but I’d say that on a scale of one to 10, it never got above a five,” he says, adding that he has an uncommonly high pain threshold.

Van Santen says the events of the past 13 months have taught him at least two extremely important truths.

“I’ve learned that a lot of things aren’t nearly as important as I once thought they were,” he says. “And I learned that I married the right woman.”