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July 11, 2017

Beacons of Strength for Each Other

ThedaStar had the opportunity and privilege to care for two “diamonds” in the rough when their car left a country road in Shawano County at highway speed, became airborne and struck a fieldstone fence on October 5, 2016.

By Pam Witt-Hillen, ThedaStar Flight Nurse

Diamonds are made under pressure. Adverse conditions enhance their strength and beauty.

ThedaStar had the opportunity and privilege to care for two “diamonds” in the rough when their car left a country road in Shawano County at highway speed, became airborne and struck a fieldstone fence on October 5, 2016. Both ladies needed to be extricated from the car. They were transported to ThedaCare Medical Center-Shawano’s ED and initially stabilized by Dr. George Vidalakis. Both ladies were then flown to the Trauma Center at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah for definitive care, initially provided by trauma surgeon Dr. Eric Stanelle. We were immediately touched by these ladies’ graceful nature and strength of character considering their significant life-threatening injuries.

Natives to New London, 78-year-olds Rose Thayer and Pauline Steffen have been close friends and beacons of strength for each other since high school. They raised their families together in New London. They both recently lost their husbands. They have been “holding each other up” for some time; now would be no different. Miraculously, they both would survive a high-speed motor collision and major trauma with little impairment.

The looming question was, why did Rose’s car exit the roadway? Good detective work would help us see the bigger picture. In caring for the elderly, we need to take into account preexisting conditions along with physiologic differences. Pauline remembers Rose becoming unresponsive as she was driving; she bent over to try to remove Rose’s foot firmly pressing the gas pedal to the floor. Upon crashing, Pauline’s airbag deployed. She immediately had right arm and severe back pain. Rose’s airbag deployed; she remembers nothing of the crash. When 911 arrived, she came to, complaining of severe back pain, chest pain and difficulty breathing. Pauline does not remember anything after leaving Shawano’s ED; she called Rose’s name as we left to make sure Rose was still alive. Rose remembers nothing about her ED visit, but everything about the helicopter flight. Pauline was flown first because of her bleeding related to Plavix, an anticoagulant for her carotid artery disease. Her blood pressure was also dipping.

Pauline’s litany of injuries included a head bleed, pulmonary contusions, fractured left ribs and multiple back fractures. She had a history of diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

Rose suffered from a brain hemorrhage, a sternal fracture, a hematoma, and spinal injury that was at risk for expanding, resulting in paralysis. She went to the OR for stabilization of her back fracture. Cardiologist Dr. Doug Mielke would determine that it was rapid atrial flutter of her heart at a rate of 300 beats per minute (when the upper chambers of the heart beat out of sync with lower ventricles) with poor perfusion to her brain that caused the period of unresponsiveness leading to the crash. As she was catapulted into the steering wheel and fractured her sternum, the contusion to her heart would now cause further heart dysrhythmia. She was treated with a beta blocker. Rose was a longtime smoker with COPD. She also was diabetic and had hypertension. She is most proud that October 5 was the day she quit smoking.

Ultimately, they each were discharged to St. Joseph Residence in New London for rehabilitation. Of course, they requested rooms next to each other. Back braces, excruciating pain and all, they survived. On March 21, Pauline had her final procedure, a vertebroplasty, which is a minimally invasive treatment option injecting acrylic cement into back fractures designed to help reduce or eliminate pain caused by collapsed vertebra. Both attest to the fact that adversity indeed is a test to true inner strength. While their aging bodies may be fragile, their minds and stamina have been galvanized with courage, flexibility and strength to endure because of their life experiences. Challenges have fortified them for times like these. The real tragedy here would have been to lose hope when they “have so much to live for — children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” they said.

It was our honor to provide care for such graceful, ordinary and, especially, dignified ladies, persevering in spite of overwhelming odds. Togetherness meant strength for them. Admittedly very independent, they really have never surrendered to hardships in their lives. “Why start now?” they said. Tested and proven to be resilient, they choose the half-full option for welcoming all the days they have left on this earth. They shine bright with gratitude and pride regarding their joint physical recovery. They ended our interview by telling us their guardian angels were looking out for them that fateful October day. We are inclined to believe that the two hardiest of those angels in action, named Rose and Pauline, had the most impact on the outcome of this near catastrophic event. An old adage says, “Friends are like angels that lift us to our feet when our wings have trouble remembering how to fly.” They showed us that faith combined with friendship is powerful medicine.