Car accident survivor became ‘everybody’s kid’

Devyn Brinkerhoff is back on her feet thanks to an expert trauma team. UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital is now a Level I Trauma Center.
October 16th, 2018

The situation was dire.

The 18-year-old from Wyoming had been thrown from her car after it hit a patch of black ice. Her SUV flipped and sent her tumbling down an embankment.

Car accident survivor Devyn Brinkerhoff poses with her fiancé, Caleb Olson.
Devyn Brinkerhoff and her fiance, Caleb Olson. Photo courtesy of Devyn Brinkerhoff.

The accident happened about 10 miles from her home in Gillette on a remote stretch of highway. Some oil workers thankfully were nearby. They took off their jackets and covered Devyn Brinkerhoff to keep her warm, then refused to let her move.

Devyn’s body was broken, but she kept trying to stand up.

“My mom wants me home. My mom wants me home,” she said.

Devyn was with two friends. The girls were enjoying their senior “skip day” and had been at a bonfire out in the country. Devyn’s mom thought it was ridiculous to celebrate in late March when glum, icy weather still gripped Wyoming.  But Devyn promised to get home as soon as she could. She was driving when she hit the ice.

The only lucky part of a very unlucky crash was that Devyn’s car did not roll over on her after ejecting her more than 30 feet.

Paramedics rushed Devyn to the hospital in Gillette.

Her mom met her there after getting word at her job at an elementary school that something was wrong. She quickly learned that the other two girls were injured, but would be OK.

Level I Trauma Care

Devyn, on the other hand, was in terrible shape. She had a devastating pelvis injury. Her right leg had turned a terrible, purplish blue. Still, she could talk.

“Mama, am I going to be OK?” Devyn asked.

Jerri Brinkerhoff nodded and pushed back tears. She was determined to be strong for both of them.

“We’re going to fly you out,” one of the doctors told Jerri.

Doctors in Gillette stabilized Devyn and a medical plane flew the Brinkerhoffs to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

“You’re going the best place you could go,” the flight nurses told Jerri. “This is where you need to be.”

Massive injuries and up to 100 units of blood

Devyn arrived in Colorado on the same day as her accident, March 28, 2014. The ER and trauma teams jumped into action immediately.

Dr. Erik Peltz was the first to care for Devyn.

Devyn Brinkerhoff laying in her hospital bed. She was barely clinging to life at first after a bad accident.
Devyn Brinkerhoff had to fight for her life after a terrible car accident. Photo courtesy of the Brinkerhoff family.

“The first few hours were critical,” Peltz said, adding that Devyn’s injuries posed a high risk of death.

They ranged from a small brain bleed, to a lacerated liver, a collapsed lung, damage to her kidneys and spleen and multiple rib fractures, Peltz said.

She also was bleeding badly from a severe pelvis fracture, said Dr. Robert McIntyre, another one of Devyn’s doctors, who ended up supervising her care team over the next month.

“She was in shock and had to be massively transfused,” said McIntyre, Director of Trauma & Acute Care Surgery Services for UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

He remembers the team giving Devyn unit after unit of blood – as many as 100.

The accident also caused an injury McIntyre has never seen in 31 years as a trauma surgeon.

“Her pelvis was so displaced and the bone fragments were so separated that the fracture caused a bowel injury. Her small intestine was trapped between the bone fragments of her pelvis,” said McIntyre, who is also a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

The fracture damaged nerves leading to Devyn’s right leg.

Jerri remembers seeing an X-ray early on. Even she could tell how bad the injuries were.

“It looked like a bunch of puzzle pieces lying on a table that all needed to be put back together,” she said.

‘A tough cookie’

For days, as Devyn clung to life, her mom stayed with her around the clock, convinced always that her third child would survive.

“She’s my tough cookie,” Jerri said. “She’s always been a fighter.”

Devyn has two older brothers and when the kids were little, Jerri remembers Devyn sometimes complaining that the boys were leaving her behind on her bike.

The Brinkerhoff family. Devyn Brinkerhoff poses with her fiance, her two brothers, her parents, her grandfather and her niece and nephew.
Devyn Brinkerhoff credits her family with helping her recover from a terrible car accident when she was 18. She is now finishing nursing school and plans to get married next year. Photo courtesy of the Brinkerhoff family.

Her mom filled Devyn in on the reality of big brothers.

“The boys are never going to wait for you. You’re going to have to work at it. Then, when you pass them, just look back and smile at them,” Jerri advised. “They would rib her and push her and make her keep up.”

Devyn learned how to hang with the boys and also loved girly stuff. She started dancing at age 3 and was as fearless on stage as she was on her bike.

“She was a daredevil at dance,” Jerri said.

She became everybody’s kid’

Little by little, Devyn began to improve and the hospital staff fell in love with her.

“She became everybody’s kid,” Jerri recalled. “She had several little teams. They were all saving her. They fought nonstop for days and days.”

There were key milestones that gave Jerri, her husband, Rich, and the rest of the family hope.

One of the first key steps was the surgery to repair Devyn’s splintered pelvis.

Devyn poses in her cap and gown at her high school graduation.
Deveyn Brinkerhoff managed to graduate from high school months after a devastating car accident. Photo courtesy of Devyn Brinkerhoff.

“This was one of the worst pelvic fractures I’ve ever seen,” said Devyn’s orthopedist, Dr. Melissa Gorman.

Soon after that surgery, Devyn was doing well enough that the breathing and feeding tubes could come out.

Throughout her hospital stay, Devyn always shad a remarkably sunny attitude.

“From the moment she woke up from her sedation, she was determined to do well,” Gorman said. “I don’t think I ever went into her room when she didn’t have a smile on her face.”

Soon, she was asking when she could get up and walk, McIntyre said.

“She’s a paradigm for how to engage in your own care and for her positive attitude. Her attitude was critical to her recovery,” he said. “Devyn is one of the bravest, most courageous people I know.”

Hospital earns Level I Trauma designation

UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital now has earned the coveted designation as a Level I Trauma center. It’s only the fifth hospital in the state to receive the certification. UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central earned the designation earlier this year.

Level 1 centers must have specialists available around the clock.

McIntyre credits a team approach with helping Devyn. First, the hospital in Gillette stabilized her, then they sent her to a larger facility.

“Her constellation of injuries required all the specialists to work together,” McIntyre said.

Those experts include emergency medicine specialists, trauma surgeons, orthopedists, intensive care unit providers, neurosurgeons and rehabilitation specialists. In addition, because University of Colorado is an academic institution, research is a key.

The hospital’s blood bank also was critical.

Devyn did not have burn injuries, but many trauma patients do and the UCHealth Burn Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus is the only center in the state that is certified by the American Burn Association.

McIntyre said that earning the Level I designation is a great accomplishment that has taken many years to achieve.

“I’m most proud of the teamwork,” McIntyre said. “People here are very collaborative. We all have a common mission and vision.”

And that vision centers on patients, like Devyn.

First steps and nursing

Devyn progressed much faster than expected and was able to leave the hospital after about five weeks.

Her family faced more hardships when Devyn’s grandmother – Jerri’s mom – was diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer and passed away just weeks after Devyn made it home.

Devyn Brinkerhoff smiles as she learns to walk again.
Devyn Brinkerhoff always had a smile on her face as she worked to recover from a terrible car crash. Photo courtesy of Devyn Brinkerhoff.

Soon after that loss, the family got to experience some joy when Devyn managed to graduate from high school. Her brother, Ryan, pushed her wheelchair across the stage.

It took a full year before Devyn was able to start walking again.

Devyn Brinkerhoff leaps on stage. She used to love dancing before a terrible car accident.
Devyn Brinkerhoff began dancing at age 3. Her mom said she was a “daredevil at dance.” Photo courtesy of Devyn Brinkerhoff.

For Jerri, the joy of watching Devyn rise and take her first steps was just like the excitement of seeing her 18 years earlier.

“We were thrilled. It was just like when she was a baby,” Jerri said.

Devyn’s right leg remains paralyzed from the nerve damage she suffered during the accident. But she wears a full-length leg brace and manages to swing her leg forward and can stand and walk.

Inspired by the nurses who cared for her, Devyn also decided to continue her education and become a nurse. She will graduate from the Gillette College of Nursing with her Registered Nursing degree in May.

“What I love most about nursing is that you’re able to help people get back to their regular or their new-regular,” said Devyn, now 22. “You’re there to help them in their journey of healing. When I was at UCH (University of Colorado Hospital) the nurses had so much influence on how I progressed.”

Standing on her own two legs – with plenty of support

While Devyn can no longer dance, she’s incredibly optimistic about her future.

“Before the accident, I wasn’t really sure of the route that I was taking in life,” she said. “Everything has a way of working itself out and this accident fortunately led me to the path that I guess I needed to take.”

Her life includes plenty of fun times with her family – including a beloved 10-year-old nephew and a niece who is almost 3. The entire family loves going to Keyhole Reservoir in Pine Haven, Wyo. about 40 minutes from Gillette, where they go boating and tubing.

Along with moving forward in her career, Devyn also has exciting news personally. She and her boyfriend of three years, Caleb Olson, became engaged in January and plan to get married next October in Hawaii.

Devyn Brinkerhoff and her fiance, Caleb Olsen, pose together outside.
Devyn Brinkerhoff has embraced the new normal in her life. Her right leg remains paralyzed, but is able to walk again thanks to hard work and a brace. Photo courtesy of Devyn Brinkerhoff.

Her relationship with Caleb has brought unexpected joy.

“He always tells me I’m so beautiful and there’s nothing he would change about me. In the state where I was, those were some of the best words I could hear. After the accident, I never thought I would be in the position of getting married,” Devyn said.

Throughout her recovery, Devyn said her family – both her relatives and her medical team – have helped her succeed.

“My mom was always pushing and supporting me,” Devyn said.

“She would say, ‘You’re going to figure out how to have a great life,’” Devyn said. “With that drive from my family, it pushed me to realize, ‘I’m OK and I’m thankful to have another day with my family. I just need to work hard to be OK.’”

Before her grandmother passed away, she too, gave Devyn strength.

Deveyn Brinkerhoff poses with her niece and nephew.
Devyn Brinkerhoff with her niece and nephew. Photo courtesy of Devyn Brinkerhoff.

“She told me, ‘we’ll fight this fight together,’” Devyn said.

Losing her grandmother so quickly was very difficult, but Devyn is dedicating her medical career to her.

Devyn’s nephew, Alex, was only 6 when she had her accident. He, too, was instrumental in helping her get better.

“He was a big part of my healing. He would spend the night with me often at my mom’s house. He would sleep with me and hold my hand.”

These days, Devyn can stand firmly on her own two legs. Yes, one remains paralyzed and Devyn needs her brace. But she can put in 12-hour nursing shifts and gives hope to others when they need it.

That’s thanks to all the hope others gave her.

“I’m here because of my family. I always tell them and Caleb that they’re my right leg. They keep me going.”