On June 25th, 2011, 16-year-old Katie Henschel left her house intending to drive to a bookstore in Portage before meeting up with family and friends at a graduation party. An unusually enlightened teenager when it comes to phones, Katie texted a friend that she was about to get behind the wheel for a while, signaling her unavailability.
Shortly afterward on a country road, authorities say a deer probably caused Katie’s white truck to ram into a tree at 52 mph. Katie has no memory of the accident. A passerby found Katie just after the accident and called for help. Volunteer firefighter Landon Hackenberg, a long-time friend of Katie’s brother, was among the first to arrive.
Additional rescue and ambulance personnel from Three Rivers Fire Department and Fabius-Park Fire Department responded to scene and removed Katie from the wreckage, observing her irregular respirations and posturing. She also had significant lower extremity trauma. Katie was given oxygen and was fully immobilized on a long backboard. Captain Bob VanZalen, EMT-P and Engineer Dave Cramton, EMT-P provided bleeding control for Katie and placed a large-bore IV before the helicopter arrived.
When West Michigan Air Care landed, medical crew Kevin Franklin, RN, EMT-P and Dawn Johnston, RN, NREMT-P off-loaded with rotors turning and moved to the ambulance that held Katie. At this point Katie was pale and unable to follow commands. Her legs had many lacerations and badly impaired circulation on the left. Katie occasionally moved her arms restlessly and was losing the ability to protect her airway. Three Rivers EMS and Fire personnel assisted with bleeding control measures while the Air Care medical crew administered medications sequentially to sedate Katie and prevent increasing pressure in her brain during endotracheal intubation.
Once her breathing tube was in place, the Air Care medical crew administered additional pain control and sedatives that would keep Katie sleeping and comfortable, further controlling the pressure in her brain to prevent damage from swelling. As Katie slept, she was carefully moved across a cornfield and into the helicopter where a ventilator assisted her breathing. Once airborne, Pilot Krystian Zygowiec provided a smooth, nine-minute flight to Bronson. Meanwhile the medical crew started a second IV en route and administered additional medications to keep Katie sedated. Preventing episodes of low blood pressure in head injured patients is essential to optimize return of cognitive function. Likewise, any episode of hypoxia can worsen neurologic outcome, so IV fluids, sedation, and ventilator management were carefully maintained throughout Katie’s transport with Air Care.
At Bronson, Katie’s struggle for life continued. Surviving multiple surgeries, she remained unresponsive for 18 days in the Trauma Care Unit. Her family told no one that Katie might not make it. “We didn’t want everyone to give up hope,” said her mother Lisa.
The day before leaving Bronson for a rehabilitation facility, Lisa recalls stepping out of Katie’s room while therapists propped Katie up at the side of the bed with her Dad and grandmother present. Lisa heard a commotion and was called back to the room by the excited staff. Incredibly, Katie had just written her name on a clipboard. It was the start of her journey back.
Months of rehabilitation followed, along with more procedures and sometimes scary complications. Altogether, Katie underwent four brain surgeries and three orthopedic surgeries. Finally, after 99 days of hospitalization, Katie was discharged home on September 30th.
Today Katie is back in school full-time, attends appointments for outpatient rehabilitation, and plans to graduate on time. Although she can’t participate in all the sports she used to, she says it’s a small price to pay, and she is intent on thanking all who cared for her. Her mother echoes her grateful sentiments.
“I’m in the presence of a miracle every day,” said Katie’s mother Lisa. “I will never have the words to express my gratitude.”
By Dawn Johnston, CFRN, BSN, NREMT-P
West Michigan Air Care