A motorcycle crash on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge three years ago catapulted Manuel Abad over his handlebars.
He landed hard on the roadway and lay there fully conscious, certain rush-hour traffic would run over him.
"I knew I was going to die," he said.
Instead, he survived -- not only the oncoming cars but also the serious neck, limb and internal injuries he suffered.
On Saturday Abad, 56, joined two dozen other trauma survivors at a gathering with paramedics and Stanford University Hospital doctors, nurses and other staff members who saved their lives.
Planned as a celebration of survival, the reunion also brought closure to painful chapters for some, inspiration to many, and a chance to express thanks from family and patients.
As a regional trauma center, Stanford has treated patients from Eureka to San Luis Obispo.
"We made them better, then we shipped them back -- to Modesto or Paso Robles," said David A. Spain, medical director of trauma and critical care.
Because of that, doctors don't always get to continue long-term care.
And even for local patients, many working in the trauma unit see only the broken bodies and not the mended souls. So periodically in the past decade, Spain and the trauma center have invited former patients back and asked some to recount their experiences and progress.
Heidi Platt, of Half Moon Bay, was rescued from a ledge after jumping off a 50-foot cliff near the beach. As she recovered from broken bones and damaged organs, the nurses who sat at her bedside on suicide watch chatted amiably, compassionately drawing her back into a world of hope.
Now Platt, 50, works at First Chance and Women's Recovery Association, both programs in Burlingame that help treat substance abuse.
"If you hadn't helped me," she told the medical staffers, her voice breaking, "I wouldn't be able to help these women."
Earlier, she had made cookies for her first responders.
For paramedics, who spend the shortest amount of time with patients, have trained themselves to put each case behind them.
"Some calls stick with you more than others," said Forrest Unland at the gathering inside a building at Stanford University Hospital. "But in this job, you have to go from one to the next."
Nonetheless, he and Matt Borghello, both paramedics with American Medical Response in San Mateo County, were happily reunited with former patient Christa Krenn, whom they treated and transported after she was hit by a car three years ago on a San Mateo street.
Some trauma patients have little memory of their hospital stays.
Johnny Barton, 14, does not remember skiing into a tree near Mount Shasta last year, nor most of his 24 days at Stanford Hospital.
But his father, John Barton, of Mount Shasta, can recount the medical care, which he called "incredible." And the hospital staff also cared for him, calmed him down when he was losing his mind with worry.
Johnny suffered broken ribs and eye socket, punctured lungs, a torn aorta and bleeding in the brain. Now, with an aortic stent, he said, "I'm fine." But he didn't ski this winter -- because there wasn't enough snow.
There were other hopeful stories.
Three years after a series of crashes on Interstate 280 -- "my car pingponged down the freeway" -- Caroline Hansen, of Redwood City, has transferred to Menlo College, is living in the dorms, learning to run and rowing competitively.
She's hoping to find a part-time job to help her improve her speech. Because of her head injuries, learning that was once easy for the former St. Francis High water polo star is now difficult.
And, she said, "I've learned who my friends really are."
The stories were inspirational, trauma unit educator JoAnn Schumaker-Watt said.
Patient care manager Maureen Fay was taking notes to share with her staff. Working in neuro-trauma ICU, she said, "is a hard job to do."
Over and over, patients said, their brush with death or adjustment to lives of relearning and limitations have altered their outlook -- and also made them thankful for living.
"I understand gratitude on a much deeper level now," said Kristin Eckfeldt, of Paso Robles, who was flown to Stanford in November 2011 after a car crash she does not remember.
Abad, of San Francisco, thanked not only his doctors but also others who cared for him daily.
"I would like to give them a shout-out for their attention," he said. "For them it is not a job; it is a calling."
Abad suffers from numbness and nerve damage in one leg and doesn't run but has defied predictions and is walking normally. Abad said he knows all too well the care saved his life. A biking buddy who visited him in the hospital later crashed his motorcycle -- and died after sustaining similar injuries to Abad's.
The difference, he said, was "the emergency response and the world-class medical care at Stanford."
Now, Abad said, "you wake up in the morning, and you are happy to be alive."