Arlay Galindo said she knew something was wrong even before the horrific accident that nearly robbed her 3-year-old son of his life and left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Her brother had picked up her son, Zakk, that February morning in 2012 to deliver him to her mother, so she could go to work.
But Galindo, 28, of Moreno, Calif., was unsettled that day.
"You know how a mother's instinct is," she told ABCNews.com. "The day was not right –- something bad. I had a feeling."
Her son, Zakkary Smith, was strapped into his booster seat behind his uncle when a car driven by an elderly man ran a red light and slammed into their vehicle in the middle of an intersection sending it into a ditch.
Though Zakk never suffered any direct impact, he experienced a kind of super whiplash called internal decapitation that severed his skull from his spine, stretching the spinal cord, Galindo said.
"The guy was doing more than 50 miles an hour and the force was so hard on his skull," said Galindo.
Zakk spent months in the hospital and Galindo, who is divorced, quit her job as a pharmacy technician to look after him. He receives disability income to pay for medical care, but now a wheelchair van they have used to transport Zakk to school and medical appointments has broken down, Galindo said.
So Galindo has entered a contest sponsored by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association to win a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle. At least four winners will get customized vans.
Zakk is a bright, curious boy whose greatest wish is to visit Griffith Observatory in Hollywood.
"This kid, at the age of 3, knew his planets, knew what order they went in, what size they were," his mom told Babble, which first reported the story.
Without a wheelchair van, that won't happen, said Galindo, who is relying on the help of others to get her son to his kindergarten classes.
Zakk's journey has been a tough one for the family.
"Had Zakk been in the other seat, it's highly likely he would be dead," said Galindo. "The ironic thing is I drove right by the accident on the way to the hospital not knowing it was my son."
Luckily, the hospital was close to the accident site, and doctors were able to save his life. When Galindo arrived, she had no idea of the severity of his injuries.
"All I saw was him asleep, looking like the most peaceful sleep," she said. "There were tubes down his throat and pretty much tied around his head. I guess you could say I was in shock."
At first doctors said Zakk had been brain damaged and would be a "vegetable."
"Five neurologists ganged up on me and I felt like I was being pushed up against a wall," said Galindo. "They said you have to pull the plug."
She refused, and Zakk eventually came out of his coma. But he was a quadriplegic, hooked up to a ventilator, unable to even breathe for himself.
Galindo said doctors told her his injuries were "much worse than [the late actor] Christopher Reeve," and that they discouraged her about Zakk's chances of survival. Even now, she said medical professionals are pessimistic.
"When they don't see any type of movement in an arm or elsewhere, they give up on you," she said. "There was no physical therapy –- nothing."
But Zakk is a happy child and intellectually bright, Galindo said.
"He speaks clearly and sings," she said. "He is perfectly normal despite a traumatic brain injury."