“Member Walks with Faith, Not Legs,” Liahona, Dec. 2006, N6–N7
As an 11-year-old, Victor Penafiel was playing at a train station in Colombia near his home. School was out, and he decided to jump on a train. The train operators told him to get off, but when they weren’t looking, he jumped on again. Two more times they caught him and told him to get off. It was God’s way of warning him to get off the train, he recalled.
When the train started with a jerk, he lost his balance and fell with his legs under the train. His automatic reaction to the intense pain was to reach down with his left arm. Victor lost both legs at the hip and his arm just below the elbow.
He was rushed to a small hospital nearby because he wouldn’t have arrived alive if they had tried to reach a larger but more distant hospital. He needed a blood transfusion, but blood supplies were scarce. A petition went out to a nearby naval base for someone to donate blood.
“They asked for 1, and 11 came,” Victor recalled, noting that all 11 blood donors had his blood type.
The doctors treated him, and despite losing three limbs, he miraculously survived.
“Ever since, my life has been a series of miracles,” Victor said. “I’m certain the Lord works miracles.”
Victor has lived his life maneuvering in a wheelchair without allowing his disability to limit his faith. More than 30 years after the accident, another series of small miracles that began several years ago brought him an opportunity to walk, but with a very different outcome than expected.
The first steps on the road to walking again actually took place in the water.
At 23 years old, Victor Penafiel watched others swim while he clung to a corner of the pool. His friend, Arturo Espinoza, saw his desire to swim and offered to teach him. But Victor had a great fear of water. Even before his accident, he didn’t know how to swim. Swimming wouldn’t be easy, especially with only one arm. After a year of struggling with Victor’s fear, Arturo guided Victor into the middle of the pool and removed the life vest he wore during lessons.
“Let’s see how you get out of this,” Arturo said, leaving him there.
Victor got out of it, and the challenge helped him see he could swim. After that, Victor never used a life vest. Now he loves swimming, he said, because when he is in the water, he feels free.
About 10 years later, Victor entered a competition where he swam about three miles (5 km) across the Guayas River in Ecuador. The current was strong, the water dirty and cold. He was the only disabled competitor among some 120 swimmers, he said. He made it across the river while many of his competitors weren’t able to complete the race. He finished 3rd in his age group and 15th overall.
Victor and his story are well known in his home city, Guayaquil, Ecuador, and he has served as an inspiration to many. He said it’s important to take advantage of every moment in life to help others. “Part of our happiness depends on our helping others to be happy,” he said.
His wife, Mercedes, said once they were invited to appear on television in Quito, Ecuador. During the trip home, a woman stopped them and thanked them. Her son had lost his leg, and Victor’s story had motivated him. The boy had said, “If he can, why can’t I?”
Once he accompanied the missionaries to teach an investigator. “Is he a member of your Church?” the investigator asked upon seeing Victor. The missionaries responded affirmatively, and the investigator said, “Well, if he’s a member, baptize me now.”
“It’s because of his example and the way he lives his religion,” said Sister Ann Long, who served with her husband, Clyne, as missionaries in Ecuador at a Church employment resources center.
Unemployed people came to the center, and after watching a recorded news story about Victor, they often were motivated to successfully search for and obtain employment.
“They said, ‘We don’t have any excuse,’” recalled Sister Long.
On the last day of their mission, the Longs, having not yet met Victor in person, wanted to find and thank him for his help. They found him working in the temple. They wanted to do something to help this man who has helped so many others. After returning home, they began making plans to help Victor receive prosthetic legs.
The Longs found a company in the United States willing to donate prosthetics, but when Brother and Sister Penafiel arrived in Utah in June 2006, they discovered that because of a miscommunication, prosthetic feet had been donated but not legs. Because their visas would soon expire, Victor and Mercedes had until July 24 to raise the necessary money for the legs.
Media organizations in Utah did news reports on Victor, and a donation fund was set up. Donations both small and large began coming in. “It was something that was beyond our comprehension. God helped us understand in that instant His love and His power,” Victor said.
With the donations, enough money was raised for the prosthetic legs. Victor looked forward to the long-anticipated ability to again “walk, walk, walk.” On July 13, 2006, Victor took his first steps in more than 30 years as he began the physical therapy process.
However, the prosthetic legs caused excruciating pain. After being unable to adjust to them, he visited another specialist. The pain resulted from a nerve problem that would likely worsen if he continued using the prosthetics and that doctors recommended against trying to repair surgically.
Victor was sad that he would have to give up his new legs, but in typical Victor fashion, he turned the experience into something positive, expressing thanks that the doctors discovered the nerve problem.
Then Victor donated his prosthetic legs—and with them his dream to “walk, walk, walk”—to the company that provided them, so that they can be donated to people in Haiti.
“At least they’ll help someone,” said Victor. “Not just one person, but two. They’ll be a great help. That’s how I see it.” Instead, Victor received a motorized wheelchair.
“I don’t know why all of this happened,” he said. “But I know it wasn’t a surprise to the Lord. We don’t always comprehend how He works. But he manifests His powers in many ways. I know He knew about this nerve problem before I came, even though I didn’t. Yet, He brought me here. Now we have to wait to see why He brought this all to pass. He knows. For that I feel fine. Because I know He knows what he’s doing.
“To lose a finger or hand, an arm, a leg is a difficult situation, but while there’s life, there are reasons to be happy,” Victor said. “And if God is in our life, it’ll be much better.”