The monster hailstorm, filled with vitriol, pounded on the car Terry Stauffer and his grandsons were in on a two-lane highway in Eastern Colorado.
The wipers on his old Ford Escort clattered in rhythm, working futilely to clear the ice balls, which smacked so hard they cracked the windshield. In the backseat, Grady’s voice trembled as he pleaded for his grandfather to please turn back.
Stauffer thought turning back might be more hazardous, so he continued on until a pickup truck coming from the opposite direction hydroplaned on Colorado 71 and blasted Stauffer’s little red car. Before impact, Stauffer, a retired Aurora firefighter, veered his car to the right so he, and not his grandsons, would take the brunt of the impact.
Stauffer remembers none of it, but Grady, 11, and Gracen, 10, recall everything from May 29, 2018.
“We were just going up a hill and the hail was coming down and I saw a big truck sliding across the road,’’ Gracen said. “When it was about to hit us, I shut my eyes and a little later, I opened them. Pa was going crazy and me and Grady were screaming, ‘Help us. Help us.’ ’’
Recovering after a bad accident
In the coming hours, days and weeks, Grady and Gracen’s pleas were answered. First, a woman who had been driving a pilot car for an oversized load stopped and brought blankets to comfort the boys. Firefighters from the Limon Fire Department arrived on the scene, about 13 miles north of Limon. The fire chief demanded that Stauffer be airlifted by helicopter, and when the weather in Denver made it perilous to fly a helicopter, it was sent to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, a Level I Trauma Center in Colorado Springs.
On arrival, it seemed Stauffer might have been headed for the Great Beyond. He had a torn thoracic aorta. Most people who suffer the injury die before they make it to the hospital.
That wasn’t all. Stauffer had a severe pelvic, hip leg and arm fractures; a brain hemorrhage; a liver injury; and severe facial and rib fractures. Southern Colorado’s only Level I Trauma team went to work to assess the injuries, stabilize and hand Stauffer off to Dr. David Corry, a board-certified vascular surgeon. Without immediate surgical repair, Stauffer’s chances of surviving were slim to none.
“The first responders did a great job getting him here. The trauma team did a great job working him up and identifying his injuries,’’ Dr. Corry said. “He could not go on to heal from the brain injury and orthopedic fractures unless the aorta was fixed first.
“It is a very high-speed deceleration, where essentially your body stops but the aorta continues and your heart continues to go forward in that deceleration and you can tear the aorta.”
Dr. Corry threaded a catheter the size of his pinky finger into Stauffer’s groin to access the arterial system and to deliver a stent-graft, which creates a new stronger inner lining to the inside of the aorta – into position.
“With a stent-graft, we are essentially able to deliver a seal to the leak of the aorta very quickly, all with few risks and without a major incision in the chest,” Dr. Corry said.
While Dr. Corry worked to repair Stauffer’s aorta, Dr. Peter Fredericks, a board-certified orthopedic trauma surgeon, worked to stabilize Stauffer’s fractured pelvis.
“For the first night, I put what’s called an ‘external fixator’ on,’’ Dr. Fredericks said. “When I first see a patient, I’m trying to figure out where we’re starting from, where we’re going and figuring out a map of how we’re going to get there because not every patient is the same.’’
Recovering in the ICU
After surgery, Stauffer went to the ICU. Grady and Gracen had been sent to a hospital in Limon. Grady and Gracen each got x-rays, which showed they were OK.
After 23 years as a professional firefighter in Aurora and years as a volunteer firefighter in Calhan, where he lives, Stauffer lay in a hospital bed, still unaware of what had happened. Dr. Corry had told Teena, Stauffer’s wife, that as far as he was concerned, the injuries to the aorta and the broken bones would heal. The wild card was the head injury, and it was far too soon to tell if he would suffer any lasting damage.
In the ICU, Stauffer was a handful. A jack-of-all-trades, he had lived a life of independence and freedom and being in a hospital bed with tubes and machines didn’t sit well. Stauffer was used to being outside. He’d built his own house and barn, farmed fields of corn and wheat, and fixed anything mechanical. In all their decades of marriage, Teena never ever had to call a repairman to fix a broken washing machine or repair the brakes on her cars. Terry took care of everything.
“I couldn’t put any weight on both of my legs or my left arm. I was pretty much in a wheelchair until I got cleared to put weight on it and that was horrible for me because I couldn’t do anything,’’ he said. “I had to ring a bell to have someone come and help me. I lost my dignity, I thought,’’ he said.
After six weeks at Memorial, Stauffer was taken to Craig Hospital in metro Denver to try to regain some of the independence he had cherished all of his life.
“I do remember having a lot of what I would call nightmares. They were dreams that would get me all messed up. I would think I was still back in Nebraska, where I grew up,’’ he said. “Every night I’d go to sleep, and I would wake up all mixed up.’’
In mid-August, more than two months after the accident on the rural highway, Stauffer was able to return to his home in Calhan.
“I went up and helped pick corn this fall, and I’ve tried to move snow,’’ he said.
At Christmas, he made a phone call to the driver of the car that hit him and told him that he forgave him.
“I got to talk with him. My wife knew that I wasn’t going to go after him. It was an accident and accidents happen. His tires were slick; his back tires were a little suspect, bald tires, but the hail had piled up and he hydroplaned and hit us.
“I called right before Christmas, and I know I made his Christmas by saying ‘it is what it is,’ ’’ he said.
Stauffer also went back to talk to the ambulance service in Limon and he thanked them for doing such a great job in taking care of him and his grandchildren.
“There’s a lot of reasons that I’m here today — Dr. Corry and Dr. Fredericks. Fredericks told me that everything aligned for me to have a good outcome. Everything fell into place for a reason and you know it was probably prayers and by the grace of God that I had the right doctors. … All the right people were there and the good Lord wants to keep me around a little longer for some reason,’’ he said.
A team effort
Fredericks said that achieving positive outcomes, like the one Terry had, is the goal.
“The time and investment in a patient like this is what really makes a difference,’’ Fredericks said. “It’s a team effort and he wouldn’t have had that outcome without everybody having that mentality that he will wake up, he will recover from the traumatic brain injury and he will walk again.’’
Dr. Fredericks has asked Stauffer to come back in a year for another checkup. Though he’s still sore sometimes, Stauffer said he is lucky to be alive. He says that when he’s saying goodbye to family or friends who are traveling by car, he always says: “Drive safe.’’
Those words, he said, sound different to him now.
“It means way more to me than it did. I truly mean that. I used to just say it, but now I really mean it,’’ he said.