- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2016

PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. (AP) - Talk about a graduation.

A year after catastrophe, a year after losing both his legs, a year after pain and struggle and hard work, Carlos Bell graduated from Pleasant Grove High School on May 26.

But that’s not even the story. Not all of it.

Because Thursday at the Alabama Theater, Bell did not simply receive a diploma. He stood up, surprising his family and friends, and walked across the stage to get it. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“It was crazy,” Bell said. “I shocked everybody.”

Moments before the moment, Bell wasn’t sure he could go through with it. “I had butterflies in my stomach,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to walk, I’m going to roll.’”

But, very much like he has for the past year, Bell pushed through. “In my mind,” he said, “I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”

It was just one year and two weeks ago that Bell’s life forever changed. After working his shift at Footaction in Hoover, he left the Riverchase Galleria on Mother’s Day 2015 to deliver gifts to his mother, Kendi Bell, and grandmother in Pleasant Grove. He visited for a while, and then left to go spend the night with his father, Carlos Bell Sr., where he was supposed to babysit his little sister. “I just felt a weird feeling,” Bell said. “I didn’t know exactly what it was.”

He would soon find out. He and another sister were driving on Interstate 59 when he saw another vehicle darting in and out of traffic. Bell, who remembers he was going 53 miles per hour, was in the far left lane and there was really nowhere to go. “The car in front of them slowed down, which made them hit me,” he said. “They clipped my passenger’s side and it spinned us around.”

“I put my arm around my sister and told her to hold on,” he recalls. “We hit the guardrail and turned over and landed on my side.”

Bell remembers it all. “I was still conscious and I wasn’t panicking because my adrenalin had kicked in,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, I just had my first wreck.’”

His OnStar screen told him help was on the way. “I was looking around and I saw my bone sticking out of my right leg,” he said. “I had broken my arm before so I wasn’t really thinking it was that bad. I had a shirt in the car so I grabbed it and laid it over my leg. I just wanted to get my sister out of the car.”

When paramedics arrived, they pulled his sister, not seriously injured, out of the car through the sunroof, and then pulled Bell out through the windshield. “When I got in the ambulance, I kept asking for water but they wouldn’t give it to me because they didn’t know if I was bleeding internally,” he said. “Then I finally passed out.”

When he awoke, it was nine days later and he was in UAB Hospital. “They had put me in a medically-induced coma,” he said. “When I woke up and tried to sit up, my mom and dad were in the room. She was like, ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’”

She broke the news to him that doctor had amputated his right leg just below his knee. “I’m thinking that everything is OK with my left leg,” he recalled. Still, he was agitated and they knocked him back out.

“When I woke back up, I tried to move my left leg,” he recalled. That’s when he learned his left leg had been severed from just below his hip in the crash, and was gone that day. “That shocked me,” Bell said. “I wasn’t expecting that. The way I woke up was not the way I had fallen asleep. I was not whole anymore.”

He made the decision right then and there he would move forward. “To this day, I have never cried,” Bell said. “I know God has a purpose for me, because if He didn’t, I wouldn’t still be here.”

Bell was hospitalized from May 10, 2015 until July 2, 2015, and he started his senior year on time. In October 2015, he got his right prosthetic leg, and then got his left the next month. “I never needed any special treatment,” he said. “The only difference at school was I had to take the elevators. I feel like I’m the same person I was before.”

“My mind is strong,” he said. “I’ve been at peace with it. I was just happy that I was still here.”

Bell had hoped to walk publicly for the first time at his senior prom, but he wasn’t ready. That’s when he set his sights on commencement. His physical therapist and two of his friends knew of his plan, but no one else. “We had practiced a couple of days before,” he said.

When the time came, he almost backed out. But then he thought of his cousin, who died in March. “He used to tell me, ‘We’re never going to look at you different, and I can’t wait to see you graduate,” Bell recalled.

He also thought of his grandfather, who was diagnosed with liver cancer this year and lived only three days after that diagnosis. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do it. The people who I was really doing it for, they took over and helped me do it,” he said.

Bell’s therapist had hidden a walker behind the stage’s curtain and they quickly made the switch right before his name was called. “I was looking for my mom and dad but I didn’t see them,” he said. “But I felt their energy, and I heard them.”

Bell got a standing ovation and shouts of support as he made his way across the stage. “People who were trying to record it were crying,” he said. “I was just thinking, ‘I did it.’”

The teen plans to attend Shelton State Community College where he will study audio engineering and computer engineering. After two years there, he will attend the University of Alabama. A GoFundMe account for Bell was started shortly after his accident, and donations are still being made and accepted.

“The moral of my story is no matter what you go through, any situation, just pray to God and keep your faith strong and never let anything get you down,” he said. “People told me what I never could do again. but I never let it get to me. I think I built my success on that negative talk.”

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