On the one-year anniversary of the motorcycle accident that claimed one of his legs and part of the other, Radley Gillis spent the day like any other. He woke up, went to the gym and then class, giving himself only a moment to reflect on the fateful night last April.
“It’s just weird to think about,” He said. A smile, with a hint of sadness, flashed on his face as he looked down in his lap.
Gillis, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Central Florida, wheeled across the back patio of the Student Union, having taken off his prosthetics for the day. “I was starting to get sore,” Gillis said as he rubbed his right leg, which was amputated several inches below the knee.
On April 4, 2017, Gillis and Jake Adler, a friend and Phi Delta Theta fraternity brother, closed up the Lake Eola restaurant the two worked around 11 p.m. Gillis drove his motorcycle while Adler followed behind him in his truck, the two traveling along State Road 408 heading east. While coming up on a turn, a combination of a slick road due to rain and a miscalculated left turn caused Gillis to run into a metal guardrail, where the impact removed parts of Gillis’ legs and opened his torso from hip to hip.
“I just didn’t think it was real,” Adler said, remembering the accident. “I thought I was going to wake up from a nightmare, but I never did.”
Adler jumped into action, calling 911, who instructed him to cut off circulation to Gillis’ legs, using his suspenders as amatuer tournequets. He also used Gillis’ backpack wrapped in a shirt to stop the bleeding from his left side. Gillis credits Adler with saving his life.
Once the paramedics arrived, Adler followed the ambulance to the Orlando Regional Hospital. It was then that word began to spread of accident and Gillis’ fraternity brothers and friends began to show up, and soon the waiting room of the hospital was filled with 50 of Gillis’ closest friends, according to Adler.
“…Everyone kind of came together because we were all worried if he was going to make it,” Adler said. “And when Radley’s parents got there his dad led the group in prayer and we were all there for this family and each other.”
During his time in the hospital, his friends, fraternity brothers and the UCF community raised over $93,650 for Gillis’ medical expenses through a GoFundMe and events in his name.
Gillis guessed said he endured over 35 surgeries. It was the kindness of his loved ones though, that made the immeasurable pain more bearable.
“There was this little procedure the doctors had to do every two or three days. And I just dreaded it. I hated it so much, it was probably… I remember there was a ‘worst day,’ but this was the worst pain I had to constantly go through,” Gillis said.
The procedure was called vacuum-assisted closure of a wound, or wound VAC, and is a type of therapy that decreases the amount of pressure on an open wound, allowing it to heal quicker, according to John Hopkins Medicine Health Library.
“It felt like they were tearing my skin off,” Gillis said, motioning to his torso with a ripping gesture. He paused, and laughed bitterly. “I hated it so much.”
“When they did the car wash [fundraiser] they did a video, I just saw them washing the cars and having a good time, and doing… interviews about me… every time the doctors did [wound VAC] to me, I’d watch that video on repeat, over and over and over, and it just helped me get through it,” Gillis said. He still watches it every now and then.
Gillis stayed in the hospital for two months and then the Hubbard House, a Orlando Regional Hospital affiliated living facility, for another two. His Fraternity brothers were there with him when he came home after the accident, and he now lives with four of them, including Adler, in a house nearby campus.
When he first arrived home, they drove him to doctors appointments, helped him with household chores, cooked for him, took care of him when he was sick and assisted him at the gym. Though a year later he’s now able to do most of those things on his own, he still has the support of all 140 or so of his fraternity brothers when needed.
“All of the roommates and pretty much any fraternity brother is always there with a helping hand, but honestly at this point he’s come so far he barely needs any help these days, even though we’re all here to support him anyway,” Adler said.
Just months out of the hospital, Gillis was encouraged by the former vice-president of his fraternity to run for president of Phi Delta Theta.
“He brought it up a couple times, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do it?’ I was thinking about it, I’m the best man man for the job, I should do it,” Gillis said. “I never wanted this [accident] to prevent me from doing anything… I would have done before, when I had my legs.”
He began shadowing the former president, Gary Burns, to understand the position better. He went to meetings and watched Burns, learning the duties and role of the president. Leading up to his speech at the election’s open forum event, Gillis practiced on his new prosthetics every day to be able to stand. He said he envisioned himself standing before his brothers, giving a speech that would secure his position as president.
In a powerful display, Gillis debuted his new prosthetics the day of his speech. “I walked in there, stood up, and gave my speech answered all their questions and got to be president. It was really cool,” Gillis said, remembering the event with a smile. “My [fraternity] brothers did so much for me, and I’m glad I can do this for them.”
Since the election, Gillis has worked tirelessly running and overseeing Phi Delta Theta.
“At first I thought he was crazy for putting on all that responsibility so soon, but I was proud of him, and now he’s doing a great job,” Adler said. “He’s definitely a fighter and doesn’t give up, no matter what happens. He always says ‘It’s the way you react in tough times that show your true character.’“