LAKE MARY, Fla. - A college student, just a month into a job at Disney World, was paralyzed and nearly killed after being struck by a drunken driver.
Gabby Murillo was stopped at a red light near Orlando in June of 2019 when the driver hit her from behind at full speed, causing her vehicle to slam into a concrete wall.
"They were hit at full speed by a drunk driver," Gabby's sister, Jennifer Murillo. "He actually fled the scene. The cops, luckily, were able to catch him."
Murillo sustained fractured vertebrae and nerve damage; her sister says she is now paralyzed from the neck down.
The driver of the other vehicle was ticketed for careless driving with serious bodily injury, according to the police report.
Working at Disney was a big goal for Murillo, who got an internship with the company through Gateway Community College, where she studies early childhood education.
Murillo spent weeks in intensive care and underwent multiple surgeries. Now, she is doing her best to walk again as she is working on her recovery at a rehabilitation center in Altamonte Springs.
Eighteen months later, the 23-year-old Murillo is still paralyzed from the neck down. Yet, something amazing is happening at a Central Florida neuro-recovery center.
“I can flex my bicep a little bit, and I just feel a lot stronger," she explained. “At therapy back home, they told me I can’t stand up because of my bone density. But the first day I was here, they stood me right up!”
Murillo is making progress at a place called NextStep Orlando.
“It’s so amazing! It gives me so much hope that anything is possible,” she said.
NextStep uses what it calls an aggressive exercise-based recovery program with electrical stimulation to help people living with paralysis regain function and movement, thereby increasing the quality of life. It's a mission near and dear to co-founder, Amanda Perla.
“I was in a car accident myself in 2007 when I was a senior in high school,” Perla said. "They actually told my mother to put me in a nursing facility. A nursing home!”
Perla’s facility is stunningly busy, with stories of near-death in every corner. Kelly Whalen is one of those stories. Almost two decades ago, a horrible car accident left her paralyzed with a broken neck. She used to be in a wheelchair just like Murillo, but through consistent training at NextStep has recently become independent and is walking now.
“It’s going to be a long haul and I think that’s why it’s so hard for me to see that -– to see her [Murillo] in that position – I feel like I’m right back in that position. And I know what she’s going to have to go through,” Whalen said.
It’s the question that might be the most difficult for anyone at Next Step to answer: Will Murillo ever walk on her own again?
“There’s no other answer but to say yes. You have to think so. You have to think so. I think that’s the only way and there’s something huge in that. I think you can get far with a thought.”
Murillo likes to spend time mouth painting when she’s not exercising, but she so desperately misses her independence.
“Being able to wake up, jump out of bed, take a shower, or get out of bed just to walk around for a second. Fix my hair, do my makeup.”
Her message to the rest of us?
“Never take anything for granted.”
And to society at large?
“Don’t drink and drive.”
NextStep sessions cost $100 an hour, and they are not covered by insurance. It’s why so many patients fundraise to afford the aggressive treatments. Murillo does her fundraising online at www.GabbyStrong.com.