The last thing Christine O’Brien told her 17-year-old daughter before she rushed out the door, late for a 6:30 a.m. Show choir class at her high school, was this: “Don’t worry about getting there a few minutes late.’’
London Lyle, then an invincible teen who had received her driver’s license two months earlier, dismissed her mother’s advisory, raced up a winding road, swerved to miss a deer, and flipped her Nissan X-Terra at least four times. In the rumble-tumble, London, who was wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle, which pinned her underneath.
“A deer came out of nowhere, and I swerved and then I remember five seconds of immense fear. Then everything kind of went black,’’ London said.
In the seconds, minutes, hours and months that followed a community came to her side. Neighbors, 911 dispatchers, EMTs, Colorado Springs Fire Department paramedics, nurses, doctors, surgeons, chaplains, friends, family, janitors, a dog named Timber – and her mother.
Christine didn’t panic when she got the call from a friend who happened to live near the crash. It’s a minor fender-bender, she thought. She drove to the scene of the accident, and the number of emergency vehicles present told her it was serious. As she arrived, the ambulance doors closed and took her girl to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, now southern Colorado’s only Level I Trauma Center, the highest designation for trauma centers in the United States, reflecting a commitment not only to trauma care but trauma education and research.
UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central’s Level I Trauma Center
•Level I is the highest trauma center designation
•Memorial Hospital Central is one of four Level I trauma centers in Colorado and the only Level I trauma center in southern Colorado
•Level I trauma centers are required to have trauma surgeons available around-the-clock and prompt availability of specialists in orthopedics, neurosurgery and anesthesiology, among others.
•These centers treat a high number of patients who have suffered trauma. The majority of the trauma injuries include blunt injuries that are often the result of incidents such as motor vehicle crashes, pedestrians or bicyclists hit by vehicles, falls and penetrating trauma
•Level I trauma centers must be leaders in trauma prevention and education and conduct research
In shock, Christine to this day can’t remember following the ambulance to the hospital. Not until she arrived, did she gather herself. In the waiting room of the emergency department, the busiest in Colorado, she waited less than a minute.
“My daughter’s here,’’ she said. “I just followed the ambulance here.’’
A chaplain took her to London, who was in a room designated for patients who have suffered severe trauma. Dr. Paul Reckard, a trauma/critical care surgeon, along with ER doctors, surgical and physician assistant residents, nurses and experts from x-ray, respiratory, lab, ICU and the emergency room all did their part in trying to save the kid from Cheyenne Mountain High School.
“They brought me right in, and I stayed with her,’’ Christine said. “There must have been 20 people in the room working on her – there were so many people. They were just trying to figure out what her injuries were. She was in a lot of pain; she was conscious and they were questioning her and they let me stay until things got pretty dicey and then things didn’t look good and the chaplain walked me out.’’
Soon after, Dr. Reckard stepped into the hallway, looked the distraught mother in the eye and said: “You need to know two things. She’s going to live, and she’s a fighter.’’
For Dr. Reckard, providing information to loved ones who are anxiously awaiting news is an essential part of working in the Emergency Department.
“It’s probably the most important part of our job, to try to reassure families, or when things aren’t going well to give them an honest assessment of what’s going to happen with their loved ones. It’s the hardest part of the job sometimes,’’ he said. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I usually know pretty quickly whether someone is going to do well or not, and with London, I believed she would do well, and she did.’’
London had 26 broken bones, including pelvic, rib and spinal fractures from T-3 to T-11. She also suffered a collapsed lung and a head injury. Miraculously, she had no leg injuries, but she would need immediate surgery performed by Dr. Peter Fredericks, an orthopedic trauma surgeon, to stabilize a clavicle that was protruding from her skin; and surgery to repair a shattered left elbow. She was taken to the fourth floor Intensive Care Unit so she could be stabilized before the emergency surgery.
“And when we got upstairs she actually had a few minutes of lucidity. When they told her, ‘We’re taking you into surgery,’ she said, ‘I can’t. I’m a junior. I’ve got to take the PSAT (college entrance exam). Clean me up – I’ve got to go,’ ’’ her mother recalled.
Friends from Cheyenne Mountain gathered near. Some cried, though they wished her well before her surgeries.
Those days were mostly a blur for London. She doesn’t remember the first of eight days she would spend at Memorial Hospital, five of them in the ICU. When she came to her senses, she was still every bit of a 17-year-old – headstrong and somewhat difficult.
“It was really hard,’’ London said. “I was in a lot of pain for a long time, and the nurses were like, ‘You have got to get out of bed!’ They wanted me to do all of this walking, and I was really defiant and stubborn.’’
Then came a dog named Timber, what London remembers as “a brown, fluffy thing.’’
The therapy dog handler, at the direction of some crafty nurses, told London she could pet the dog, but she’d have to get out of bed to do so.
“And, I was like, ‘Ok, I’ll get up to pet the dog.’ ’’
Timber was only five feet from London’s bedside, but in the five steps that it took London to get to Timber the Fur Ball, so much changed. A young woman with a softer demeanor blossomed.
“Sometimes, you just need to hug a dog,’’ she said. “It was really cool that they did that for me, and they did everything with such humor and grace and they really viewed me as an individual and not just another Jane Doe, and that was really, really cool.’’
During the five days in the Intensive Care Unit, London’s family and friends visited often. One night, her girlfriends brought in pizzas and they watched a movie. It allowed Christine to go home and get some rest. Having the care close to home, and not having to travel to Denver for care, was a gift all its own. After three more days in the pediatric unit of Memorial Hospital, where care is provided by Children’s Hospital Colorado doctors and nurses, London went home.
London had a big cast on her arm, which was in a sling, and an IV that went into her back so that pain medication could be administered. Those first weeks were rough.
“You don’t realize what heroes those nurses are as they try to get someone comfortable in a bed, but everything is a challenge. It was a challenge to come home and to leave the safety of the hospital where they can control pain but we did it and she did it,’’ Christine said.
A month after the accident, London returned to Cheyenne Mountain High School. A friend carried her books.
“I told everybody that I saved a deer – that was my line,’’ she said, explaining to her classmates how the accident happened.
In the 19 months since the accident, London has done a lot of reflection. She has grown into a respectful, smart, kind young woman. She has considered the expertise and dedication that it takes to be a Level I Trauma Center, and the individuals who are good enough to make caring for others their life’s work.
“I think about why they got up that morning,’’ she said. “I’ve thought about the fact that, in those occupations, if they don’t show up that day — people die. It’s such a critical job to have. People’s lives are in your hands, and I’ve really taken that to heart. All of the drilling (training) and everything that they do here to make sure that everyone is top level. Until you have experienced it, it doesn’t seem real.
“But I wouldn’t be going to college next year if it wasn’t for those people, and I cannot express my gratitude enough.’’
She is so grateful for the physicians – some who have 28 years of education – who patched her back together, but in her early days at the hospital, the person she remembers the most was a housekeeper.
“I don’t remember her name, but she was the sweetest, kindest person ever. She would come in and she would always be singing and she’d be like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ Every single staff member here is so kind and so amazing but she would come in and take the trash, and she would just brighten my day because of her singing. And I always thought that was kind of special.’’
Since the accident, London has trained two dogs for Canine Companions, a nonprofit organization that provides service therapy dogs for people who have disabilities. She forbids her friends from speeding or texting while driving a car.
She knows that it is Ok to be late. She knows that life can be taken in a moment and that it is important not to rush each day.
London plans to attend the University of Colorado – Boulder in the fall. She would like to travel, serve the underprivileged and pursue journalism as a career because she believes it will afford her the opportunity to help people.
“My core values have changed. … It goes back to the central theme of take care. So I was taken care of originally by those 911 dispatchers, and those neighbors, the EMTs and then all of the staff at Memorial, the nurses and surgeons and doctors.
“And I had a lot of self-care that I had to do, a lot of physical therapy and a lot of appointments for a year, but I want to take that same care that I was given and give back.’’