Thursday, May 18, 2017 6:08 PM

Trauma turned to triumph

In my job I get to help tell the stories of miracle recoveries, babies born weeks too early weighing 2 lbs. who grow up to be rambunctious toddlers, guys who have 70% of their cancerous liver removed and recover fully, and trauma victims brought back from near death who eventually run marathons and go to college.

 

Nick Burriel Jr. (center with red ribbon on his lapel) reunited with many of the people who cared for him in Community Regional’s trauma center, including the paramedic who brought him to the hospital after he was found not breathing after an assault in a bar parking lot in 2013. 
Usually these stories come one at a time and a few weeks apart. But on Saturday at Community’s first Trauma Survivors Reunion I was surrounded by walking miracles. Each one had an awe-inspiring tale of how medical expertise and true grit combined to turn horror into triumph.
 
“If you see us squinting and starring,” Dr. Jim Davis, chief of trauma at Community Regional Medical Center and UCSF professor of clinical surgery, told the returning patients, “it’s because you look so, so much different than we first saw you and that’s extremely gratifying.”

 
Shaela Warkentin lost her eyesight and suffered head trauma after a car crash in March 2011. Today she is pursuing a doctorate in psychology at Fresno State, is a member of Delta Gamma sorority, loves to snow ski and rock climb and has a new guide dog Lemox.
“We’re so grateful for your spirit and for your return,” he added. Many of the trauma team don’t get to see the end results of their efforts. Saturday was a chance to celebrate second chances.
 
Dr. Davis said California’s busiest Level 1 trauma center also has an amazing track record: “Ninety-six percent of patients made it if they came here with a heartbeat.”
 
Nick Burriel Jr. survived even without that crucial requirement. He was clinically dead after an assault in the parking lot of the Elbow Room Bar and Grill on Nov. 6, 2013. “I flat-lined for 25 minutes,” he told the crowd at the trauma survivors reunion. “Luckily my friend, a paramedic, got me to the hospital. They gave me a 20% chance to make it. I was in a coma for two weeks. When I came out of the coma, my worst memory was hearing that I might not walk or talk again. I don’t like hearing ‘No.’"

 
Victoria Uriarte was in a car crash Nov. 15, 2015, and suffered spinal cord injuries. She’s still working on recovery and was thrilled to tell her physical therapist Kayla O’Brien that she had been able to draw perfect eyeliner and was navigating her smart phone just fine. She wrote on her poster “Vicky is…Living life! Doing physical therapy and getting stronger every day. Dating a pretty awesome guy.”
That stubbornness motivated Nick to prove the doctors wrong. “When I left the hospital I was in bad shape. I couldn’t talk. It was still gibberish, trying to connect my brain to the words,” he said. But hard work in rehab and at the Center for Neuro Skills Facility in Bakersfield eventually helped his vision, his movement and his speech return. Now he’s running marathons, hiking up mountains and playing soccer.
 
Nick wrote on a poster that he’s also “taking trips to advocate for those who can’t speak about brain injuries, learning to love life, to accept where I am now, working on completing my education. I realize that it is ‘me vs. me’ and I will be the one to determine my own fate.”
 
Posters detailing trauma survivors’ injuries, the surgeries and treatments they endured, how long they were in the hospital and photos of then and now lined the walls of the Community Regional meeting room where the reunion took place. Trauma survivors filled in a blank spot on their own poster about how they are doing now.
 
The shaky writings of pride and joy made me feel the same about the place I work. “I just want to ball my eyes out when I hear what other families have gone through,” said Courtney Coelho. Me too!
 
Courtney’s only child Kinser survived driving through a fence and having a post slam into his face. She and Kinser Coelho took turns telling the journey of his recovery. Courtney shared, “It’s been five years and I still cry more about it now…We didn’t realize this was going to be a life changing journey.”
 
There were lots of nods of agreement in the room. Kinser joked, “Yeah, I suddenly love strawberries because of a TBI.”
 
Kinser detailed the hard work he did to learn how to talk again and eat solid food again and even how to learn again. His entry to California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo was delayed but he’s graduating soon with a degree in agri-business. Through the hard work he said he learned, “Human kindness and goodness exist. I’ve felt them. Challenges are what makes life interesting and overcoming them makes life meaningful.”

 
Mike Conner fell several stories onto a concrete slab in April 2013 and broke most of the bones in his lower body, crushed one arm and broke four vertebrae. Today he’s dancing and training for a 5K race.
Trauma survivor Mike Conner agreed: “Something doesn’t work on us (because of the trauma), but it does change us for the better to go through this and we can affect others with our story.’
 
Mike Conner has been telling his miracle story over and over again so others may feel the wonder he does. And he returns to the hospital’s rehab department to offer words of encouragement to those just starting their recovery.
 
On April 2, 2013, Mike fell through the ceiling of Northside Church and hit the concrete floor below going about 30 miles per hour he figures. He spent 15 days in Community Regional after breaking most of the bones in his feet, all his bones in his lower legs, his right hand and his right arm in several places, several ribs and four vertebrae which affected his spinal column. “They told me sorry young man – I was 40 at the time – you’re not going to walk,” Mike told the group. “I just finished my last ballroom dance class and I’m training for a 5k race.”
 
He attributes his recovery to amazing trauma surgeons, his own stubbornness to succeed and to a guardian angel or two that was with him when he fell. “As I fell, I felt an arm go around me and it kept my arms in tight or otherwise I would have been spinning as I fell. I felt a hand go over my eyes so I never saw my broken body. And I heard in this ear ‘This is going to hurt,’” Mike said. Mike fell feet first and missed hitting his head.
 
“I was completely conscious and awake for the whole ride to the hospital,” Mike said. “The staff here is amazing. You are lifesavers.”
 
Nick’s dad, Nick Burriel Sr., said he has bruised knees from his son’s ordeal: “We get on our knees and pray for everyone who helped my son. It’s amazing how Community comes together to help. To everyone who helped I say ‘God bless you. God bless you. God bless you!’”
 
I’ll second that.

Erin Kennedy
Sr. Communications Strategist
Corporate Communications