Ty Wilson’s day begins when he straps on his $50,000 left leg.
It’s an Ottobock C-Leg, one of the most advanced prosthetics available. A carbon fiber leg socket fashioned after a human thigh, it tapers down into a microprocessor-controlled knee, which is Bluetooth-calibrated to the length, speed and frequency of Wilson’s footsteps.
Story by Bryan Rolli
Photos by Natalie Campbell
The sleek, all-silver design of the leg perfectly fits 22-year-old Wilson, whose lean, 5-foot-11 frame weighs just 165 pounds. It’s nearly impossible to detect under his form-fitting jeans and Nike tennis shoes, betrayed only by a slight limp in his step. The Radio-Television-Film senior tackles steep hills and staircases around the University of Texas campus with an ease that suggests he’s had the C-Leg his whole life. But it’s only been 11 months — and a little more than two years since the day that changed his life forever.
Every day, Wilson grapples with heartache over the loss of his twin sister, Jay. For 20 years, the two shared an inextricable bond that remained intact even as they pursued different passions and moved thousands of miles apart. But it was a bond that was shattered in a freak accident that took mere seconds to transpire. Medical technology makes it easier for Wilson to walk, but he carries more than just the weight of his body.
Wilson is still coming to terms with the loss. But time didn’t stop moving that day. Life continues as normal, and so must he.
So every day, he straps on his $50,000 left leg.
Wilson was born on Nov. 4, 1992 at 9:28 p.m. — 17 minutes before his sister, as he’s quick to point out. Growing up in Houston with their parents, Jackie and Todd, Jay and Ty shared everything from birthday parties to bunk beds. Divorce split the family up when the twins were 7 years old; their father moved to Miami while Wilson remained with his mother and sister in Houston.
Despite their closeness, Wilson and his sister always had different interests. Jay loved to read and cook; Ty rarely opened a book and would rather eat cereal. She watched chick flicks; he devoured experimental indie films. She seemed to change her wardrobe and add new splashes of color to her hair every week; he had the same solid color t-shirts and buzz cut his whole life.
But they still bonded over plenty. He graduated valedictorian; she was salutatorian. They were fiercely competitive, but it always remained friendly. They shared a love for Beyoncé and Michael Jackson. They both grew up as “church kids,” as Wilson deems them, singing in the choir at Houston’s Fountain of Praise, a mega-church where they found friendship, community and a lifelong support system.
In high school, Wilson and his sister were both on the debate team. He considered studying law, but a summer internship changed his mind. He turned to acting and film toward the end of high school, starring in his school’s first religious play and making a documentary about slavery.
Accepted to NYU and St. John’s among other New York film schools but unable to afford tuition, he begrudgingly applied to UT on the day before deadline. A full ride scholarship sealed the deal; he would start in the fall of 2011. His sister went to Johnson & Wales University in Miami, but the homesickness proved unbearable; she transferred to the University of Houston as a sophomore.
Wilson’s first two years at UT were, in his own words, “glorious.” During his first day of summer orientation, he met the Christian Students on Campus club. He started meeting with the Church in Austin, hosting Bible studies in his dorm room and finding family among fellow club members. “I’ve been a church kid, I guess, since I was so little, but I’ve never had the Bible opened up to me, and that’s what I experienced my first two years,” Wilson says. “I fell so in love with Christ. I was a new Christian, really.”
Wilson also worked as a student ambassador for the Dean of Students and an orientation advisor in the summers of 2012 and 2013. He even considered running for student body president, while continuing to hone his craft as a filmmaker with an interest in Christian-themed films. His modern-day interpretation of Cain and Abel was met with critical acclaim from the film department during his sophomore year, and he was accepted to the University of Texas Los Angeles program for the summer of 2014.
“It was something about that summer that I felt like all my stars were aligned,” Wilson says of the summer of 2013. “I was so involved with the Christian club, so good with that. I was starting to make films in the RTF department, and that was well received. The UTLA program was for the next summer, I already got it, it was planned. Everything was just so in line. I was so fulfilled.”
And that’s when everything changed.
Wilson never made it to L.A., and it would be three semesters before he returned to UT.
The Houston sky was already thick with moisture on the morning of Aug. 19, 2013. The temperature had crept back into the 90s, with crisp night air nothing but a memory. Wilson was set to make the drive back to UT with Jay and his mother. His sister got up early to fix breakfast. The luggage was already in the car, a 2007 Mitsubishi Endeavor.
Before they got on the road, Wilson said a simple prayer: “I wanted more of Him this year in school. I wanted my capacity to increase for just gaining Christ.”
The trip from Houston to Austin is just shy of three hours without traffic. It’s almost a straight shot across Texas, as you start out on Interstate 10 for the first 70 miles before pivoting northwest on Highway 71, shortly after crossing the Colorado River near the small town of Columbus. But it was the longest distance Wilson had spent behind the wheel; he didn’t have a car of his own, and this was the first time his mother let him drive hers back to school. She sat in the back, and his sister in the passenger seat, engrossed in a Berry Gordy biography.
When they reached Bastrop, about 30 miles from their final destination, they decided to stop at Buc-ee’s, the oversized convenience store that dots the Texas highways with its mascot, a baseball cap-wearing, bucktoothed beaver, adorning its signs. As Wilson began making his way toward the exit on Highway 71, he lost control of the car. He still doesn’t know why or how. He swerved right, then left. His sister shouted his name: “Ty! Ty!” It’s the only thing he remembers hearing.
The car flipped over twice and landed upside-down in a tree on the side of the road, the roof caved in on the passenger side. Wilson’s door was ripped clear from its hinges.
Wilson doesn’t remember blacking out, but the first thing he recalls was seeing his mother in the distance. Despite suffering a broken rib, she had escaped the back seat. She was on the phone with her father, hysterically recounting the accident. Then, Wilson saw his sister next to him. Jay was silent, her face swollen beyond recognition.
Wilson looked down at himself. His knees appeared completely detached from the rest of his legs, clearly broken. He was covered in blood and broken glass, his shirt shredded. He wasn’t in pain. He didn’t know what to say. He thought he was dreaming.
Eventually, EMS arrived. Was it 20 minutes later, or 20 seconds? As he watched them pry his sister’s door open, Wilson felt a calmness wash over him — not the calmness one feels when everything is going to be alright, but when the events that just unfolded are too devastating to process.
He didn’t cry. He didn’t ask questions. All he could do was watch.
They removed Wilson from the car next. As they strapped him to a gurney and wheeled him to the transport van, he locked eyes with his mother. “How is Jay?” he pleaded.
Once in the van, an EMS worker put a brace on Wilson’s right leg to snap it back into place. Still no pain.
They only had one brace, so they couldn’t treat his left leg yet. Now, pain.
Wilson’s mother sat with him in the back of the ambulance. He couldn’t stop asking her the same question: “How is Jay?” Still, no answer.
EMS rushed Wilson, his sister and his mother to Seton Medical Center in Austin. Wilson had suffered circulatory damage in his lower body and immediately entered surgery that lasted well into the night. His sister was in a coma; she had broken her neck and suffered brain damage. Doctors shaved her head and performed surgery on her as well.
The twins occupied neighboring rooms in the intensive care unit.
Over the next two weeks, family, friends, coworkers, fellow church members and UT’s dean of students visited Wilson. His father flew in from Miami. The company kept his spirits up as doctors performed eight different surgeries to clean the open wounds on his legs and repair damaged nerves and vascular tissue.
He never stopped asking about Jay.
She woke up about a week later. “When she regained consciousness, my family started to look at what a miracle it was that all three of us survived,” Wilson says. “We were OK. This could be a lot worse. Everybody was trying to stay positive.”
On Saturday, Aug. 31, 12 days after the accident, a nurse told Wilson he could go outside. A machine hoisted him from his bed and sat him in a wheelchair. He wanted to visit Jay. Would she be angry?
She was watching TV with her parents. Her head was still swollen, and she seemed to be in a fog; Wilson thought perhaps she had just woken up or been under medication.
He rubbed her hand. “You look so beautiful,” he said, choking back tears. She didn’t say anything. She just smiled.
Wilson got up early for another surgery on Sunday, Sept. 1. When he awoke from the operation, his mother was by his side. “How is Jay?” he asked. “She’s OK,” his mother responded with unnerving stoicism.
He sensed she was hiding something, but he was still drained, so he dropped the matter.
The next morning, Wilson awoke to his mother, father, uncle and great uncle in his room. His mother grabbed his hand and broke the news: Jay had slipped into a coma on Saturday night and died Sunday morning. His family had previously removed his phone, iPad and laptop from his room so he didn’t find out online. He needed to hear this in person.
“I felt like I did not have a heart,” Wilson says. “My heart just was in so much pain that it just stopped beating.”
But his grief was peppered with guilt. Was it his fault? What did he do wrong? What if he hadn’t been driving?
His family stressed that it wasn’t his fault. The car was totaled; nobody should have made it out alive. “I’m reading all these things about survivor’s guilt, survivor’s remorse, and the fact that he was the one that was driving the vehicle when the accident happened,” says his uncle, David Washington. “We really paid close attention, to do what we could to make sure he didn’t sink into depression.”
Wilson still had one more surgery in Austin the following week. When doctors transported him back to Houston, he and his mother listened to Prince — another one of his sister’s favorites — the whole way back in the van. For Wilson, who was wrapped up in his own thoughts, the two-and-a-half hour trip seemed no longer than 30 minutes.
Jay Wilson’s funeral took place at the Fountain of Praise on Sept. 14, 2013. Ty was still in the hospital, so the church streamed the service online. Friends, family and coworkers packed the sanctuary, and the church drill team performed a medley of her favorite songs, including those by Bruno Mars and Michael Jackson. “I haven’t been to many funerals, but it felt like a celebration of life,” Wilson says. “Of course it had its sad moments, but it was a spirit-filled time.”
Pastor Remus Wright delivered the sermon. He looked straight into the camera for his final words: “Ty, I know you’re listening, and I know you saw this funeral. I want you to live for you and for your sister.”
Wilson had reconstructive surgery the next day. Doctors worked for nine hours to repair the vascular damage in his left leg. He spent several weeks in the hospital recovering. In early October, doctors discharged him. “I just remember leaving the hospital, looking out the window like, God, it’s time to move on,” Wilson says. “What’s the next chapter of this life?”
Wilson stayed at his grandparents’ house while he recovered. His mother took off work to tend to him. The rest of his family visited constantly.
There were setbacks. Wilson’s mother recalls his frustration when they went to the mall and he struggled to reach a restroom with his walker. “I let him get it out. I said, ‘Son, look, I’m not rushing you. You do what you can do,’” she says. “I was just a shoulder for him to cry on and vent when he needed to. We both would say God is gonna take care of us. He’ll bring us through this. And He has.”
Wilson started physical therapy two weeks after leaving the hospital. It was a welcome escape from the house three times a week. He felt like he was finally moving on with life.
His uncle asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He wanted to walk. On Nov. 5, 2013, one day after his 21st birthday, Wilson took two steps during physical therapy — his first since the accident almost three months earlier.
Wilson underwent two more major surgeries over the next six months. By April 2014, he was walking without crutches. Doctors told him he could start summer school in June.
He signed up for two summer classes — film editing and communications studies — with plans to continue physical therapy three times a week in Austin. “The first day, I was there like 30 minutes early,” Wilson recalls of his first class in more than a year. “I felt like a freshman in high school, it was just so new. I missed school. I missed tests and projects and deadlines and syllabi.”
He also picked up a part-time internship with Christian Students on Campus, where he met incoming freshmen at their orientations, attended outreach events and spoke at Bible studies. After being isolated for months, Wilson relished the opportunity to rejoin the club and share his love for Christ with new students. “I just felt, wow, I am here again, speaking about the Bible,” he says. “It was a shock. The Lord still has me here, even through this year, that I can still speak Christ. I still have this ability — or even this will — to do it. He still needs me to speak. He still needs me to be useful to Him.”
On the morning of July 1, Wilson felt nauseous, but he went to class anyway. He tried napping it off and went to meet his friend, José Luis Escobar, for lunch. When he threw up, Escobar insisted they go to the hospital.
They went to St. David’s Medical Center, just north of campus. Doctors found Wilson had developed osteomyelitis, a bone infection in his left knee that had spread to his bloodstream. Previously, Wilson had always noticed swelling in his leg when he had complications. But this time, there were no telltale signs. Doctors said if he had waited 12 more hours, he would have been dead.
They performed surgery the next day to drain the fluid from Wilson’s knee. It was the worst pain he had experienced since the accident. There was no way he could make it back to school, even though it was finals week. He had to drop both classes and take incompletes.
Wilson returned to Houston at the beginning of July, defeated. “I was doing so well. Everything was OK,” he says. “I was trying to move on with life, and another setback.”
Wilson withdrew from the world outside his home. He disconnected from social media. He stopped taking phone calls. He didn’t see his friends. The brace was back on his left knee.
He started meeting with different doctors to survey his options. There was only one way to prevent future infection: amputation.
It was also the option with the best recovery time. Wilson could do physical therapy in the fall and return to school in the spring of 2015. He considered his options and prayed with as many church and family members as he could reach. Finally, his uncle asked him: “Do you want to live for you, or do you want to live for your leg?”
The night before his surgery, Wilson prayed on the phone with his best friend, Connor Robinson, for half an hour. He was calm. He was prepared. For the first time, he was making the decision entirely on his own.
“You’re my hero,” his uncle told him.
The next morning, doctors amputated Wilson’s left leg, cutting three inches above his knee. It was his 14th and final surgery. The date: Aug. 19, 2014 — exactly one year since the accident.
Within weeks, Wilson was resuming physical therapy and meeting with a prosthetist to learn what a new leg would look and feel like. He got the C-Leg on Monday, Oct. 20. Four days later, members of Christian Students on Campus were going to the College Conference, a bi-annual weekend retreat in Latham Springs, Texas, and their biggest event of the year. Hundreds of students from across the country would join them for three days of fellowship and praise.
It didn’t matter if Wilson showed up on crutches; he had to go. “That conference felt like a revival of my spirit,” he says. “It wasn’t even a back-to-normal feel. It was a new beginning feeling, like this is a new level I’m on with God. He and I are on a whole other journey right now, and I have so many brothers and sisters here to help me through it.”
Wilson completed physical therapy in December. He could swim, run, climb stairs and even play basketball. As his movements became more natural every day, Wilson recalled his therapist’s advice: “Don’t waste your time thinking about things you can’t do. Think about things that you can do.”
He was more excited than ever to return to school in January. But before going back, he and his family treated themselves to something they had been talking about for years: a five-day cruise to Mexico. “I think that was almost a trip of healing, because it was a fun trip, and we know Jay would’ve loved to go with us,” Wilson says. “Seeing everybody outside of hospital rooms, outside of funerals, outside of therapy, outside of the sadness that we were facing that last year-and-a-half — 2015 brought a whole new year.”
It also brought a whole new semester. On Jan. 20, 2015, Wilson walked into his new RTF class, his first in almost two years. He sat in the front row.
“It’s been helpful for the family to see that I’m trying to move on,” Wilson says. “I’m trying to get back to life. They see me progressing, and I think that’s encouraging everybody.”
But despite returning to school and regaining his physical capabilities, he’s hardly the same person now. “I’m used to him being my little boy,” his mother says. “But I guess now I’m seeing that he’s really a young man.”
Wilson’s family talks freely about Jay now, laughing about old memories and telling his young cousins stories about her. Their grief is less oppressive, but they still feel her absence. “It’s like you forgot to put on a sock,” Wilson says. “Something’s missing from the core. We’re always aware of that.”
The first of every month always hurts, as Wilson reflects on Sept. 1, 2013 — the day he lost Jay.
“It’s that feeling, like you can’t do anything,” he says. “You just feel so helpless. I don’t know, I think I’m still kind of dealing with that.”
But Wilson knows it was out of his hands from the beginning. “I lost control of the car physically, but I was never in control of my life from a spiritual standpoint,” he says. “God ordered every step, and He just laid out the cards like that.”
He won’t allow himself to be consumed by guilt. “I’m trying to remember the positive in knowing that I had 20 years to have a twin sister, rather than think about that one day that I could blame myself for,” he says.
So every morning, after he wakes up and before he leaves his room, Ty Wilson straps on his $50,000 left leg.
Then he walks.
He walks out the door. He walks to class. He walks to Bible study. He walks for himself, and he walks for his sister.
It’s a choice Wilson makes every day, because that’s what Jay would want.
And it’s a choice that separates a life of meaning from a life of mourning.