On April 2, 2017 around midnight, Diana Milan thought she was dead. As the seatbelt squeezed her internal organs and the airbag crashed into her face, she thought about her mother.
She then thought about all the hard work that brought her to this point in time, and she was mad. “We had six weeks before the end of the school, and I thought, 'All this work for nothing. I'm about to die.'”
Milan grew up in Medellín, Colombia, once known as the “most dangerous city on earth.” Home to the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar Gaviria, founder and leader of the Medellín Cartel, the city was a battleground in the 1980s and '90s, according to Alex Warnock-Smith in number 42 of The Guardian's“Story of cities” series.
“It's where they have all the wars and cartels and all the mafia guys,” Milan said of her hometown. “It was kind of scary, but that was all I knew.”
Milan emigrated from Colombia to the United States in 2008 and settled in Columbus, Mississippi, where she taught herself English by watching television. After just one semester of English as a second language, Milan enrolled in classes at the Mississippi University for Women.
Milan started college in 2009 and completed her bachelor's degree in just three years. She majored in biology and was considering dentistry when Dr. Wilhelmina O'Reilly, assistant dean for student affairs and professor of pediatric dentistry and community oral health, visited “The W” to talk with students about how to apply.
Through the STEP program, Milan was able to visit the campus to make up her mind. “I came here, and I loved it. I loved small group. I loved the school. I just loved the place.”
At age 30, older than many of the other students in her class, Milan began dental school. She would be 35 when she reached commencement - if she made it to commencement.
She doesn't remember much about the car accident. She still hasn't seen a police report to find out what happened. “I just remember the pain. When I finally realized I was alive, I was so grateful.”
She had fractured her L2 and L3 vertebrae. Experiencing internal bleeding, Milan was taken to the operating room for exploratory surgery the evening after she arrived at the Medical Center.
“I couldn't move for the first three days,” Milan said. “I remember being in bed crying, 'I need a computer! I need to do my presentation!' I was crying because I couldn't sit up to work.”
It was then that Dr. James Lott, associate professor of care planning and restorative sciences, visited her hospital room and told her not to worry about her presentation, only focus on healing.
“A few months, if that's what it would take for her to graduate, would be okay,” Lott said. “I just wanted to give her peace of mind. The presentation wasn't a major thing for her to focus on then and there.”
Milan's “then and there” was far from pleasant. She gives the credit for helping her make it through to her classmates.
“I have to say that my classmates - not just my classmates, the whole dental school - amazing,” she said. “The best people in the world.” The dental students would visit her in the morning, at lunch time and at night.
“I had so many people in my room that the nurses would have to kick them out,” Milan said. “My days were pretty good, but the nights were awful. It was good knowing I had so much support.”
The class even started a GoFundMe account to buy Milan's mother a flight to Mississippi to be with her daughter.
Milan's mother, Alba Ruth Restrepo, right, was able to attend the senior honors banquet on May 12 where Milan was awarded the Academy of Dentistry International Student Servant Leadership Award for meritorious servant leadership and volunteerism.
Milan was on intravenous fluids only due to internal injuries. She lost 15 pounds in the first 10 days she was hospitalized then had to undergo an additional abdominal surgery. “For the first 10 days in the hospital, I couldn't have anything to drink or eat,” she said. “I cried for that. I wanted some ice, something.”
After the surgery, a central line was placed for her to receive nutrients by IV.
“I felt energy again. I started getting better,” Milan said. “The first time I walked, my classmates were there. I didn't want to get up. I was crying, and one of my classmates, said to me, 'Don't be wimpy! You gotta get up right now!' and that was what I needed.”
But “wimpy” is not in Milan's vocabulary, only determination. She knew what she must accomplish in order to graduate with her class, and she knew the timeline was tight. Released from the hospital on Monday, April 17, she was back at school on Wednesday, April 19, to the surprise of the faculty.
“They said take your time. You probably need two or three weeks,” she said. “But I talked to my doctor, and he said 'your body is going to tell you what you can do.' I had to prep some crowns so that I could cement them three weeks later.”
After completing a four-hour root canal, Milan smiles through the pain at a surprise party thrown by the D3 and D4 classes.
Working one day then taking the next off for pain relief and rest, Milan completed her final requirements for graduation, including a root canal. She will return on May 30 for one final presentation, but she will proudly, if slowly, walk with her class at commencement on May 26.
“She has the desire to overcome, which is great to see,” Lott said. “Not everybody has to face those things, and she did it with a good attitude and kindness. She knew what needed to be done and did, obviously, every physical effort and beyond to get it done, which was amazing.”
“My classmates were phenomenal. They helped me with everything,” she said. From carrying her backpack to driving her to school and helping her clean up after patients, the Class of 2017 was there for her.
“I think that my class is the best class that has ever been in this school,” Milan said. “I'm not going to lie. It is the best class ever.”