On June 28 I was on my way to the beach with my friend and a woman in a large SUV ran a stop sign and hit my side of the car. The impact was so intense it ripped my door off and crushed the right side of my body. When I regained consciousness, I was covered in grass, dirt, and water from the ditch the car landed in and I could see the bones in my leg where they had come through my skin. It was so severe that I thought my calf had been amputated.
I was airlifted to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C., with a double compound fracture of my tibia and fibula, pelvis broken in four places, pubic bone broken in two places, a broken rib and I was hemorrhaging.
I was in surgery for five hours and it was not certain if they could save my lower leg. Fortunately, they did and after three more surgeries and about two weeks in the hospital, I was about to go home with a titanium rod from knee to ankle and multiple pins and screws. Then my thigh started to really hurt and I got sick. I had a huge hematoma that appeared and my white blood count went up indicating an infection. The doctors tried to operate and take tissue samples to see what kind of infection lab results were inconclusive. They tried several antibiotics but nothing worked and it was getting worse.
Dr. W. Borden Hooks operated on me three days in a row and realized I had some type of necrotizing fasciitis that was destroying my soft tissue. He still couldn’t get the infection stopped and had me moved to Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, N.C., fearing I might lose my whole leg. By this time my white blood count which should be around 6,000-10,000 was 60,000. The exact infection was still unknown and when Dr. Jeff Carter first operated on me on Sunday, July 19, he said he had never seen anything like it.
On Monday morning, Dr. Hooks in Wilmington informed Dr. Carter that I had mucormycosis and to get me back into surgery right away. Mucormycosis is a rare, deadly infection – one out of every two people who have it die. It’s fungal not bacterial, which explained why the antibiotics never worked. They said if they didn’t get the infection stopped and it got in my femur, they’d have to amputate my leg at my hip, and if it went through my femur and into my pelvis I’d die. My case was very rare and the doctors weren’t sure how to stop it.
The doctors asked my parents for permission to give me an unprecedented dose of an antifungal medicine called amphotericin B to try to slow down the infection and called the FDA to get it approved. Sometimes this drug is used in cancer patients and can kill you or cause other health problems at the usual dose. They gave me a dose of almost triple the usual dose for two weeks.
Dr. Carter’s team used every tactic possible to keep the infection at bay, including daily surgeries and special procedures, hoping the high dosage medication would start to reverse the infection’s progress without causing my body additional damage. After several weeks and many surgeries they determined the infection was gone and started to reconstruct my leg. I was moved into the burn ICU and kept in isolation to prevent further infection.
Because the infection had taken all the skin, tissue, fascia, and even some muscle, they had to create a new tissue surface for me. The doctors used an experimental tissue and surgically implanted it all over my leg. Luckily my leg accepted the tissue and after several weeks of growth, I had a special skin graft surgery to cover my wound.
During all this I had 30 blood transfusions, multiple radiology procedures, collapsed veins, stomach complications, and feeding tubes. Every day was a different challenge, but there were more victories than defeats. After 21 surgeries and 77 days in intensive care, my leg was repaired and then my real work started. I had to learn to walk again. Because of the damage to my muscles they weren’t sure how much I’d be able to move. The projection was that I might be able to walk with the aid of a walker by Christmas. I started walking a little by the time I finally left the hospital on September 11 and worked each day with my wonderful physical therapist at my house. I stopped using a wheelchair or walker by October and stopped using a cane by Halloween. Now I’m driving and doing physical therapy at a gym. I will have additional plastic surgeries with Dr. Joe Molnar in March and June.
I started Salem College in January where I am a Sister Scholar, Novant Nursing Scholar and Exercise Science Physiology Major with a 4.0 GPA. Thanks to the relentless efforts and innovative medical brilliance of my surgeons and health care providers at Wake Forest Baptist, I am fulfilling my dream to become a nurse and help others like me.
Life is short. It can change in an instant. Never give up.
– Grace Stokes, pediatric trauma survivor
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