Teen Adopts USC’s Fight-On Rally Call to Tackle Injuries

Ask any member of the intensive care unit (ICU) at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford what the USC Trojans fight song conjures up for them, and they’ll likely say Josh Peterson—a Dinuba teen who fought on to survive a serious accident.

Josh Peterson

“It was the weirdest thing,” says Amy Peterson, Josh’s mom. “He’d thrash around from pain and fever and rip out his IVs, but when we played the fight song, he would just mellow out.”

When Josh was out of his mind with pain, he needed to be stabilized so that he wouldn’t cause more damage to his injured body. Amy and her husband, Darin, opted to hold Josh down themselves, rather than using restraints. They were all in when it came to caring for Josh.

A big University of Southern California (USC) football fan, Josh had attended a game between USC and Stanford University a few days before his ATV accident that launched a three-year recovery from a crushed leg and traumatic brain injury.

“One of the first things Josh did after his first surgery at Packard Children’s was to put up his two fingers for victory, like they do at the USC football games,” Amy says. “It stuck, and #FightOnJosh was born on social media and put on helmets of his school team, the Kingsburg Vikings.”

On August 29, 2016, Josh was riding his ATV down the country road in front of his house. He was off to catch tadpoles and crawdads—a common outing for the then-13-year-old. Turning in to his driveway, he was hit by a pickup truck that was speeding over 65 miles an hour. The driver tried to pass Josh and struck him, sending him flying 36 yards down the asphalt road.  

“We sometimes call him Ironman because he was the only thing that survived that day,” says Darin Peterson, Josh’s dad. “The truck, ATV and our brick pillar mailbox were all destroyed. But not Josh.”

Josh has endured close to 1,000 stitches and staples, 15 surgeries and hundreds of hours of physical therapy. Without the help of Packard Children’s doctors, Josh most likely would have lost his left leg, due to the severely crushed bone, muscle and skin. The first hospital tried muscle and skin grafts, but with such extensive damage they failed. Microvascular surgery was his only hope, or they would need to amputate. They offered three hospitals in California that could perform microvascular surgery, and Amy and Darin insisted on Packard Children’s.

“We were pushing for Stanford. It was our first choice,” says Amy. “I mean, Josh required microsurgery, and not every hospital can do that. We can’t imagine it going any better than it did.”

Arash Momeni, MD, pediatric reconstructive microsurgeon, and Jeffrey Young, MD, pediatric orthopedic surgeon, both of Packard Children’s, teamed up to care for Josh. Working in tandem, the two performed high-risk surgeries to save Josh’s leg.

First, Josh was fitted with a complex external fixator, connected to his leg bone through pins and wires, to stabilize and correct the alignment of the leg. Next, multiple surgeries were done to clean out the wound. From there, vein, skin and bone grafts were completed.

“Without adequate blood flow, tissue dies. Josh had injured his blood vessels and had lost skin, muscles, and 12 centimeters (5 inches) of his lower leg bone. The only way to salvage the limb was to perform microvascular reconstruction,” says Dr. Momeni. “I created what’s called an AV loop by taking a vein from his other leg, connecting it to a main artery and vein, then bringing it down his injured leg. That loop allowed me to transfer a skin flap and keep it alive.”

From there, Dr. Young filled the gap in the bone with an antibiotic cement, which delivered antibiotics to the contaminated area and created an environment that was favorable for bone grafting. In a second stage, the viable skin flap was elevated to complete the bone graft.

“I took bone from his pelvis, crushed it up to create a slurry, then put it in the gap,” says Dr. Young. “Josh had a wide gap in his bone, so there was a chance it wouldn’t heal, but fortunately it did. We did our part, and his family did theirs by supporting him really well. They’re amazing.”

For the first year of recovery, Josh was in a wheelchair. Missing his entire year of eighth grade and getting antsy, Josh wanted to roam his family’s orchards and vineyards with his three siblings—Jacob, John and Faith. Enter Tony and the Action Trackchair—a modified wheelchair with tracks instead of wheels and a strong electric motor. Tony heard about Josh and reached out to donate the chair.

Josh Peterson

“It was so encouraging that a stranger wanted to help like that,” says Josh. “It allowed me to cruise around the farm and go down the dirt avenues with my family while they walked and rode bikes alongside me. It also allowed me to get on Pismo Beach and feel the sand and water again.”  

In September 2017, Josh took his first steps without a walker, cane or boot. Soon after, he was cleared to walk with just a brace in his shoe. In March 2018, he endured his last surgery to date to even out the lengths of his legs.

“When I first saw Josh in the ICU, his leg was in bad shape and he wasn’t communicating well,” says Dr. Momeni. “In the past three years, he’s grown up to be a young man who walks into the clinic and carries on a pleasant conversation. To see that transition is remarkable and incredibly gratifying.” 

Amy and Darin are impressed by the Packard Children’s doctors’ skills and close, collaborative relationship. They appreciate how well the doctors communicated—calling, texting and using FaceTime to stay in close touch.

“I am very grateful to have them as my doctors. They saved my leg. I’m where I am right now because of them,” Josh says.    

Now 16, Josh is looking forward to starting his sophomore year at Kingsburg High School. He plans to rejoin the swim team. Last spring, he surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the 50-yard freestyle. The crowd erupted in cheers.

“It was a JV race, but it might as well have been the Olympics,” Amy says.   

Josh has a big following in the town of Kingsburg, where he is known as the Miracle Kid at the local school. Friends and families made wristbands, T-shirts and hats that said #FightOnJosh or the scripture verse Joshua 1:9 to raise money to help pay medical bills. They also donated medical equipment and remodeled parts of his home for wheelchair access. They even poured a wide driveway so that Josh could play wheelchair basketball with his family.

“Winning that race filled me with so much happiness and joy,” Josh says. “I received the perseverance award from my coaches, and they are talking about having me compete at state for the Paralympics next year.”

A collector’s football sits in a glass case in the Peterson family’s living room. It was a gift from the USC head coach Clay Helton, who heard about Josh’s accident and recovery.

“He invited Josh to come to a game and stand on the sidelines with him,” Darin says. “With 15 surgeries to get through, we didn’t get a chance to go. Maybe this is our year.”


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