Conner Paez, who has starred in track and cross-country for Penn, is studying for a career in medicine, which means he might see some gruesome sights during his training.
But there definitely won't be any sights quite as horrifying as the way his left leg looked in August 2011 after the motorcycle on which he was riding was struck by a car at an intersection in his hometown of Solon, Ohio.
"When I looked at my leg, it was terrifying," recalled Paez, a junior at Penn. "The tibia in my left leg had broken in three places, and one of them was sticking out of the side of my leg. I broke every metatarsal in my foot, five of them. The one in my big toe was sticking out of the bottom of my foot."
Doctors briefly considered amputating the leg from the middle of his left shin. During treatment, the main focus was helping him walk again in some form. Running was out of the question, and competing as he had done so well for Penn during his freshman year likely was gone forever.
However, despite six surgeries, an infection that slowed the healing of his bones for six months, countless hours of rehabilitation and endless weeks of emotional highs and lows, Paez raced again on April 6 for Penn about 20 months after the accident.
He ran 4 minutes, 19.27 seconds for 1,500 meters in a meet at Cornell and lowered that time to 4:14.44 two weeks later at the Widener Invitational. The times, while not fast, were phenomenal considering everything that Paez has been through.
"It's miraculous considering where he started," Penn track and field coach Steve Dolan said. "You see someone like Conner who is super-talented and has had this kind of challenge, but he still wants to run. He still wants to find out what he's capable of. He's inspirational to all of us."
Paez, a district and regional cross-country and mile champion in high school, made an impact after enrolling at Penn in the fall of 2010, finishing tops among freshmen at the Ivy League cross-country championships. He followed that up with the Quakers' fifth-fastest time ever in the indoor 3,000 meters and a solid season outdoors.
But then came the accident, caused by a motorist who didn't see that Paez's motorcycle had yet to clear the intersection before he made a left turn. Paez spent time at his hometown hospital. But after he returned to Philadelphia, a surgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania flatly told him "No" when he asked if he'd ever run again.
"Running is the thing I love most in life," Paez said. "I have so many more things I want to accomplish running so that was hard to deal with."
The recovery process was tedious. In September 2012, one full year after he was told he'd never run again, Paez received the green light to jog. But he limped badly, and his physical therapist told him to stop so as not to develop injuries to other parts of his body.
"I'm thinking now it's over," Paez said. "The whole process is like a huge roller-coaster. You think you can run after surgery, and then there's another surgery. Every single time I'd go to the doctor's office, I didn't know if he'd be telling me good news or terrible news. It was really hard on my parents, too."
But he kept at it and got the OK in December to run, from a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile every other day. The workouts slowly increased to a point when, in mid-March, Dolan said Paez was ready to run in competition and looked to an April 6 meet - Penn and Cornell against British schools Cambridge and Oxford.
"I was so incredibly nervous," Paez said. "I didn't know if I was going to finish. I didn't know if I'd be 200 meters behind the second-to-last person. I had no idea what to expect."
He stayed with the pack for the first 800 meters before fading. Emotion poured out from family, teammates and friends as he finished.
"I was just bawling after the race," he said. "It was amazing. But after I got on the bus home I thought how much I wanted to get back to being competitive. I didn't just want to be on the team, I wanted to be winning and scoring points for us."
His outdoor season is over, but Paez will be back for cross-country - as team captain - in the fall semester.
"Conner is unique in the fact that he doesn't ask for anything, never complains," Dolan said. "He's appreciative of everyone who has helped him and supported him. But frankly, he's a fun guy to support because he doesn't really seek it. He just appreciates it."