On a cool day in early June, Karen Johnson and her brother, Steven, had set out on a motorcycle trip to Montrose to visit some relatives. They were near Buena Vista when out of the blue, Karen’s motorcycle wobbled.
In a blink, Karen’s motorcycle shot into the oncoming lane of traffic and a van struck her petite 5-foot-4 frame. On the side of U.S. Highway 285, Karen lay conscious – but crumpled in a pile of broken bones.
An off-duty doctor and nurse who happened to be in the area and a bevy of paramedics and firefighters offered assistance. Communicating with her eyes closed, Karen did not know then how badly she was bleeding or how broken she was. Afraid, she lay as still as possible.
Steven, who had been riding ahead, circled back and joined the caregivers on the side of the road. He placed his jacket over his sister to keep her warm and offered encouragement.
Like most people, Karen never anticipated that the unexpected would happen to her, and the experience has changed her and prompted her to begin a new endeavor that helps people prepare for life’s transitions – and the unexpected.
“I knew a lot of people were comforting me – a lot of personnel,’’ Karen said. “From conversations overheard, I also knew the clock was ticking for the air ambulance to show up. By the time they loaded me onto the helicopter, I was out.’’
Despite gusty winds, the helicopter lifted off with no trouble, but the flight to Denver was quickly diverted because of a tornado warning in the Mile High City. The helicopter turned south to Colorado Springs and by the time Karen arrived at UCHealth Memorial Hospital, her pulse, breathing and blood pressure were in rapid decline.
Expert trauma care
Memorial’s trauma team, led that day by Dr. Paul Reckard, was standing at the ready, as they do for patients who suffer serious, traumatic injuries. With her breathing in jeopardy, Dr. Reckard’s team placed a flexible plastic tube into Karen’s trachea to maintain an open airway. She received multiple blood transfusions.
Karen arrived with an open pelvic fracture – and injury that many of the caregivers at Memorial had never seen. A broken pelvic bone protruded through her private area. It’s the kind of injury that requires special physician expertise. In this case the help came from Dr. Peter Fredericks, southern Colorado’s only board-certified, fellowship-trained orthopedic trauma surgeon.
“The textbook says that a person with an injury like that has a 50-50 chance of survival. It’s the first time I had ever seen an injury like that, and some physicians go a whole career without seeing this kind of injury,’’ said Dr. Fredericks. In addition, Karen had multiple fractures to her right femur and an open fracture of her left ankle – both serious enough injuries on their own.
For the next six days, Karen, a 54-year-old commercial realtor and a health care business owner, would lie unconscious through multiple surgeries, including three that spanned 17 hours, aimed at putting her back together.
In the early minutes after her arrival at Memorial, Dr. Reckard’s team stabilized Karen’s breathing sufficiently for Dr. Mindy Siegel, a well-known Colorado Springs orthopedic surgeon, to perform surgery to begin repairing the shattered femur, ankle and pelvis. Dr. Siegel attached three separate external fixators – devices that look like erector sets that rest on the outside of the body – to immobilize each of them.
Karen was in the intensive care unit, where she had individualized care from expert nurses who checked on her multiple times each hour. After a couple of days, Karen was strong enough to endure the first of three surgeries Dr. Fredericks performed in hopes of enabling Karen to walk again.
During the first surgery, Dr. Fredericks fixed the right femur and removed the fixator attached to her leg. He also fixed the left ankle and adjusted its fixator, revised the external fixator on the pelvis, and cleaned out the wound from the pelvic fracture.
During the second surgery, Dr. Fredericks worked with Dr. Peter Liehr, an OB/Gyn physician who closed the open wound on Karen’s front side. Dr. Fredericks also placed long internal screws – one 6.5-inches long and two about 3 inches long each – to repair the back side of the pelvis.
During the third surgery, Dr. Fredericks worked with more hardware to repair injuries to the front part of her pelvis.
By the time all the surgeries were done, Karen had three plates and 20 screws in her pelvis alone. She had a rod in her right femur and hardware in her left ankle. But her wounds were all closed. “There was quite a bit of work done in that first week,’’ said Dr. Fredericks. “Her pelvis was broken every which way.’’
After the surgeries, doctors met with Steven, who practically lived at the hospital during those first days. “Everyone on staff was great,” he said. “They were very open to any questions, concerns, whatever. They handled every question professionally, and answered it without any pause.’’
Still, Karen’s family and friends were scurrying about trying to figure out passwords to her accounts, what needed to be done at her Castle Pines home and who to contact for other needs. All of this gave Karen an inspiration for a new endeavor that she would later decide to launch.
Six days after the accident, Karen regained consciousness. “Right away she was highly motivated, there’s no doubt about that,’’ Dr. Fredericks said. “Once they got the breathing tube out of her, she was back at work on her laptop doing her work from her ICU bed – that’s kind of unheard of.’’
Doctors and nurses were overjoyed to see that Karen had emerged with her spirit – and her desire to get back home and back to work – fully intact. With her computers set up close by, she was back to emailing and corresponding with her clients. The staff at Memorial began to refer to her affectionately as “the computer lady.”
In time, she moved out of the ICU to a medical floor at Memorial and then to the hospital’s inpatient rehabilitation unit. Karen’s journey at Memorial is documented in 25 pages of narrative in her medical record – words dictated by Reckard, Siegel, Fredericks and Dr. Marc Kelly, a physician in the rehabilitation unit at Memorial. The goal in the inpatient rehab unit was to get the patient to a “modified wheelchair level for discharge to a home setting.’’
After six weeks at Memorial, Johnson went to a rehabilitation center in Lone Tree, closer to her home. She still had the fixators around her ankle and her pelvic area.
“I had to learn some new techniques from a wheelchair, such as how to transfer, pick up items, shower, get clothes on, etc.,’’ she said. Every day, she worked to become more equipped to handle everyday activities.
One day, while in the rehab center, a caregiver accompanied her to her house in Castle Pines to do a pre-home evaluation. “From the minute I pulled in the garage, all I could do was cry because at least I got back there – maybe not in the same condition as when I left, but I got back,’’ Karen said. She was more determined than ever to get back home.
After two months, Dr. Fredericks removed the “erector sets’’ from Karen’s ankle and pelvis. Dr. Fredericks still instructed her to be non-weight bearing. At three months, it was time for Dr. Fredericks to see Karen again – this time, to see if she could walk. When she stood up and started walking again, tears filled both Karen’s and Dr. Fredericks’ eyes.
On a follow-up visit a couple of weeks later, Karen walked pretty well through Dr. Fredericks’ office at Printers Park Medical Plaza in Colorado Springs. The progress was nothing short of remarkable.
“Considering that, at first, it was believed that I probably wouldn’t walk for at least a year and half, and that I was walking without a walker at four months, Dr. Fredericks wanted to videotape me walking because he couldn’t wait to show the trauma team that took such good care of me the afternoon I came in, what progress I had made since the accident,’’ Karen said. Even his assistant chimed in, “We have never seen him videotape anyone else before”.
Dr. Fredericks said the care provided to Karen by the teams at Memorial is a highlight in his career.
“She got to the right place,’’ he said. “I’m not saying that it would have been different had she gone to Denver, but this was the right place at the right time. She had the right people taking care of her all along the way, from the trauma team to surgery, to the ICU, to rehabilitation – everything went right.
“It’s great because she is such a great person, and it is such a great story because she was so banged up. And the way this could have gone,’’ he said, his voice trailing. “It was miraculous.’’
Karen still has a slight limp and some issues with her bladder but, otherwise, she’s doing fairly well. She is working hard on a new venture, the University of Transition, an online forum with education and resources for those going through life’s changes. These include organizing, supporting and helping families prepare for situations and events that come along in life – such as an unexpected medical emergency – all the way through end-of-life planning.
“Someday we are going to have our own football team at the University of Transition – the Transition Tigers,’’ Karen said jokingly.
She is so thankful to be alive and appreciative of all of the care she received from providers at Memorial Hospital who helped her get back on her feet. “I am happy and busy,’’ she said. “When you think of what could have been, I’m very grateful.’’