Lives Forever Changed
Vanderbilt Trauma Center patients share stories of survival
“Every day truly is a blessing.”
Singer-songwriter Will Hoge says he has a “before and after delineation” of his life—the things that happened before a near-fatal motor scooter accident and the things that happened after the experience that sent his life and music in a new direction.
On Aug. 20, 2008, Will left a recording session for his fourth album and was traveling by scooter toward his East Nashville home when he made a detour to the grocery store for some milk.
He never made it to his intended destination. Instead, he awakened days later at Vanderbilt, learning that he had collided head-on into a 15-passenger van that failed to yield, each of them traveling approximately 30 mph.
Will lost 6 pints of blood on the pavement at 7th Avenue and Main Street in Nashville, his injuries including a broken sternum and collarbone, broken shoulder blades and ribs, crushed lungs, a concussion, temporary blindness, a shattered knee and a missing 4-inch section of his femur.
Doctors used 300 stitches to repair his face and had to sew his eyelids back in place.
After multiple blood transfusions and seven surgeries, the musician, husband and father began the journey of rehabilitation.
Although Will didn’t break his hands or arms, he had to relearn how to hold a guitar for long periods of time and initially lacked the stamina and lung support to sing.
“I took a year off from performing because the things that were far more important were my ability to walk again and regain motor function and just feel whole again,” Will said.
He eventually returned to the studio to finish the album he was working on at the time of the accident, appropriately renaming the album “The Wreckage.”
The following September, Will stepped back on stage for the first time in more than a year, playing a brief acoustic tour including two benefit concerts for Vanderbilt’s Trauma Survivor’s Network, a community of patients and families looking to connect with one another as they rebuild their lives after serious injury.
“I don’t think I was ready to [perform], but I did it anyway,” Will said. “I was afraid if I sat too long I would freak myself out about going back on stage. Being back out there was intense but very therapeutic, too.”
Today, Will tours regularly and has released four albums since his 2008 accident. He also achieved his first No. 1 single, “Even if it Breaks Your Heart,” in 2012, a song written for country recording artists the Eli Young Band which garnered him Grammy, CMA and ACM award nominations.
Will and his wife, Julia, have two sons, ages 6 and 3, and he shudders to think that without his second chance at life, he wouldn’t be with his family and they wouldn’t have their second child.
“I was always grateful to do what I do for a living, and I was always grateful for my wife and family, but an event like this [accident] makes it so apparent what a gift all of this is that we have,” Will said. “Every day truly is a blessing, and I’ve gotten a second chance to be a better husband, better dad, better musician and better friend.”
“I could hear people saying ‘this girl’s not going to make it.’”
The 19-year-old says she remembers every detail of that eventful night when she hydroplaned into a tree. Pinned in her car, first responders worked more than three hours to extract her from the vehicle before transporting her to a nearby hospital, where she coded three times and doctors said only a miracle could save her.
“I was so scared, but I knew I had to stay calm for the firefighters, because they were working so hard in the pouring down rain to get me out of my car,” Rachel said. “When we got to the first hospital, I could hear people saying ‘this girl’s not going to make it.’”
Rachel’s parents, the Rev. Darren and Kathy Pentecost, were allowed into the ICU to spend what they feared would be their last moments with their daughter, but when Rachel survived a few hours, a transport to Vanderbilt via LifeFlight was arranged.
Thirty-four days at Vanderbilt, a leg amputation, seven surgeries, seven kidney dialyses and 96 units of blood later, the Pentecosts say Rachel would not be here today if it weren’t for God and for the doctors, nurses and staff at Vanderbilt.
“The staff in the trauma unit became like family to us,” Kathy said. “The doctors and nurses took remarkable care of Rachel, and their thoughtfulness and kindness made the journey so much easier.”
Rachel says her nurses brightened her day and pushed her to keep giving it her all. A highlight was getting to take occasional trips outside to visit her new niece, who was only 3 weeks old at the time of her accident.
While hospitalized, Rachel had the opportunity to reconnect with the LifeFlight crew who cared for her in transport to Vanderbilt. Flight nurses Allan Williams, R.N., EMT, and Chandler Perdue, R.N., EMT, along with one of Rachel’s physicians, Oscar Guillamondegui, M.D., Trauma Medical Director, met with the Pentecosts on the hospital’s helipad just days before she was discharged, presenting her with a LifeFlight wings pin and allowing her to see the craft in which she was flown.
Since her time at Vanderbilt, she has stayed in touch with many of the nurses and staff, including Lisa Long, R.N., and Jimmy Closser, R.N., who recently visited her Kentucky church to present her with a plaque inscribed:
Welcome Home Rachel Pentecost
For an extraordinary individual who has defied the odds
From your Trauma Team Family
At the time of the accident, Rachel was in school to become a beautician. Since she is relearning how to walk and is making progress with extensive therapy, she’s set a goal to one day do something in health care, possibly physical therapy, saying it would be wonderful to help people going through similar experiences to hers.
“I’m sad that I lost my leg, but I’m so grateful to be alive and so grateful to wake up every day and know I got another chance at life,” Rachel said. “The state I was in, I should have died, but God gave me another chance. I’m so happy I get to live life to the fullest again.”
“I still look at her...and can’t believe this happened to our daughter.”
“Mom, we have your daughter,” said the voice over the phone. “Drive carefully, but hurry.”
When Shawn and Paul Coltharp arrived at Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah, Ky., they saw the expressions of hopelessness among the hospital staff as they learned their daughter, Hillary, had been in a horrific car accident.
She had been texting while driving, a decision that led to a traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung and multiple orthopaedic injuries.
“We went to the emergency room, and there was our beautiful daughter,” Shawn said. “No one thought she would survive. We said goodbye to her, we told her how much we loved her and how much her son loved her, and we gave her over to God.”
Hillary’s family had gathered for a small reunion at a restaurant near Kentucky Lake for the 2007 Labor Day Holiday. Running late, the 26-year-old called her family to say she was 4 miles away and asked them to order an appetizer for her.
The minutes passed and the food grew cold. Her father, Paul, and brother-in-law, Billy, went looking for her and saw the backup of cars on the interstate.
They initially thought the wreck couldn’t be Hillary, as the traffic backup was in the opposite direction that she was traveling.
They later learned that a few words to a friend on a text message caused Hillary to cross the median and flip her car three times. Not wearing a seatbelt, she was ejected from the vehicle more than 100 feet before landing on the right side of her head.
She was flown to Vanderbilt University Hospital via LifeFlight, where numerous operations followed, including a craniotomy to remove a subdural hematoma and part of her right temporal lobe.
For weeks, she remained in critical condition, but doctors offered guarded hope.
Six weeks later, Hillary was discharged from the hospital, but the journey was just beginning.
“She was barely capable of doing much more than a toddler,” said Shawn. “Growing up all over again, that is what a brain-injured young woman has to do.”
Hillary spent another six weeks in physical rehab, and has spent the last six years living at home with her parents. Now 32, Hillary has made significant progress through speech, occupational and physical therapy, but suffers from amnesia due to the significant brain injury she suffered, her mind now a sea of lost memories.
“We are so blessed she is here, but I still look at her and hear her and can’t believe this happened to our daughter and that our family has changed so much,” Shawn said.
The person who lost the most, Shawn says, is Hillary’s now 12-year-old son, Max, who was just shy of his 6th birthday at the time of his mother’s accident. Because of her significant injuries, Hillary lost custody of Max, who now lives with his father but regularly visits his mom.
Today, Hillary and her parents are tireless advocates against distracted driving, working with the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety for speaking engagements and public service announcements about the dangers of texting and other distractions while behind the wheel.
When they speak to groups, they show photos of Hillary before the accident followed by a photo of her in the hospital fighting for her life. They ask audiences to take out their phones, look through their messages and find the one message that is worth risking their lives for.
It is their hope that Hillary’s life was spared so her testimony could potentially save others from the devastating consequences that can come from distracted driving.
Now Hillary relies heavily on her phone to remind her of everyday things such as appointments and birthdays, and even to call her son, Max.
“Her cell phone is her saving grace, kind of her other brain now,” said Shawn. “Her entire life is prompted by her cell phone, the very thing she was using that crushed her life.”
“The good part is, we survived it.”
Because of this, Mark says he recognized the “looks” exchanged among the emergency team when he found himself a patient in a trauma bay, still conscious but severely injured after being shot multiple times in the line of duty.
Mark served on the Interstate Interdiction Unit, comprised of uniformed officers who travel in unmarked cars primarily looking for drug couriers. While working Interstate 40 west of Nashville on June 25, 2009, he noticed a car that met several indicators for suspicious activity.
Mark was able to pull the driver over for a seatbelt violation, and upon approaching the car, realized there was another man in the backseat acting nervously, which only added to his suspicion of the pair. He returned to his car to call for backup and run the driver’s license when the passenger approached his vehicle and shot him several times, causing life-threatening injuries to Mark’s abdomen and right arm.
The shooter was an escapee from a Mississippi prison, who later admitted to shooting Mark because he “didn’t want to go back to jail.” He was serving a life-sentence for armed robbery and aggravated assault and escaped custody during an optometrist appointment with the help of the driver, a family member.
Mark says he remembers everything until he was taken for his first of many surgeries, including the numerous police officers who swarmed the hospital upon hearing the news.
“I just kept thinking, I’m glad it happened to me and not someone else,” Mark said. “As police officers, that’s what we do, and we know that. Every officer is putting his life on the line.”
Meanwhile, Mark’s wife, Michelle, was traveling through Alabama with one of his three children when she received the news and initially understood he was killed. Through coordination with Alabama and Tennessee’s highway departments, she was flown via helicopter to Vanderbilt, learning on the hospital’s helipad that her husband was still alive but extremely critical.
Eight days in a coma and septic, Mark underwent multiple surgeries, including a temporary ileostomy due to the severity of his abdominal injuries.
Nearly three weeks later, he was able to start rehabilitation, but many reconstructive surgeries followed, which required multiple readmissions to the hospital and prolonged his recovery.
Although Mark made significant gains over time, he is no longer physically qualified to be a police officer but is fulfilling a longtime dream of working in the homebuilding and remodeling business.
“Physically, I’m reminded multiple times a day that I was injured, and because of my injuries, it’s changed what I can do,” Mark said. “The good part is, we survived it. We’re strong people, we have kids to raise, we want to have a good family and we do, and we’ve continued to move forward and enjoy life as best we can.”
“You can either grow bitter or grow better. I chose to grow better.”
Jacqui McDaniel Pierce
Just a few years earlier, Jacqui had to learn how to walk again after an accident that nearly took her life.
“Learning to walk again was the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” Jacqui said of the challenge that stemmed from a life-changing event that took place Aug. 9, 2004.
It was the first day of Jacqui’s senior year in high school. Captain of her high school dance team, a straight-A student, active in church and loved by all who knew her, Jacqui had a bright future ahead with everything planned when she says God put the brakes on her life.
On that late summer day after school, she and her sister, Lizzy, were enjoying moped rides with friends along a country road near her home in Murfreesboro, Tenn., when the sisters lost control of the bike and were thrown into the air. Lizzy suffered a concussion and many scrapes and bruises, but Jacqui’s landing was far less forgiving.
Thrown face-first into a tree, the collision left her with a brain injury, shattered facial bones, a broken jaw, a basal skull fracture, a compound fracture of her left femur and a crushed left wrist.
She was airlifted to Vanderbilt by LifeFlight, where doctors told Jacqui’s parents that she was the sickest patient in the Trauma Unit. Prepared for the worst but refusing to give up hope, many friends and family members filled the Vanderbilt University Hospital lobby, praying for a miracle.
In the Vanderbilt Trauma Center, Jacqui walked the line between life and death, undergoing multiple surgeries including one to reconstruct her shattered face. The surgeons used a rib to reconstruct her eye sockets and placed numerous titanium plates and screws throughout her face, leg and wrist.
Clinging to faith, Jacqui’s parents took her off life support 11 days post-accident, and prayers were answered as she continued to breathe without the help of machines.
Jacqui finally awoke on Aug. 28 and began the uphill battle of learning to live this new life she had been given.
“Prior to the accident, I had never even broken a bone,” Jacqui said. “I went from being captain of my dance team to living life in a disabled body.”
Relying on her supportive family and her faith in God, she worked day after day, staying dedicated to therapy and an overall determination to live life to the fullest.
“You can either grow bitter or grow better. I chose to grow better,” Jacqui said.
Physical and speech therapy allowed her to eventually walk and talk again, but she still feels the effects from the two strokes she experienced while she was in a coma, and she was left with optical nerve damage and a hand that cannot open and close.
Four months after her accident, Jacqui returned to school to finish her senior year, still wheelchair bound at this point, but able to walk without assistance across the graduation stage that following spring.
She later attended Middle Tennessee State University and met her husband, RJ. They married in 2009 and have two children, Addison, 2, and Hayes, 3 months.
Jacqui now celebrates two birthdays a year—the day of her birth, and Aug. 9, the fateful day her life was forever changed.
“I feel very fortunate for what I’ve learned over the past decade,” Jacqui said. “I’ve chosen to live the life God gave me; I’ve chosen to embrace it.”
“I am mindful every day of the great gift I received.”
On Dec. 27, 2012, Dotson purchased a Glock pistol. He had put it away for the evening and was headed to bed when he decided he wanted to look at it one more time. Not realizing there was a bullet in the chamber, the pistol discharged as he was cleaning it, the bullet entering his lower right abdomen and exiting through his back, just missing his spinal column.
Guy says he does not believe in luck, but he is a believer in miracles. As fate would have it, his oldest daughter, a law student at the time, was at his Murfreesboro, Tenn., home that evening and was able to call for help.
He was first taken to a local hospital where they quickly arranged for his transport to Vanderbilt. He awoke four days later in the hospital’s Trauma Unit, where he learned how critically injured he was.
He spent two weeks in the Trauma Unit, losing part of his colon, a kidney and his gallbladder and receiving a temporary ileostomy (an opening in the belly that is made during surgery to move waste out of the body when the colon or rectum is not working properly).
At the time of the accidental shooting, Guy had been training for a triathlon, which he credits in part for his ability to physically recover. As his prognosis began to look brighter, he asked his surgeon, Richard Miller, M.D., also a triathlete, if he might be able to train again.
Miller, chief of the Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care and professor of Surgery, told Guy that he could not only complete a triathlon, but that he would participate alongside his patient when the day came.
On Sept. 7, 2013, fewer than nine months after Guy’s accident, the pair crossed the finish line at the Riverbluff Triathlon in Ashland City, Tenn.
Guy also celebrated another momentous occasion since his accident—the birth of a daughter, Grace, who joined siblings Samantha, 26, and Trey, 20, on Aug. 20, 2013.
“I received a special blessing, such special gifts in this experience,” Guy said. “I am mindful every day of the great gift I received, and I’m going to accept it and make the most of it.”
Guy had always been active in the community. He grew up in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and returned to his hometown to practice law in 1987. Of utmost importance to him is his church, and while at Vanderbilt, he says people who share his faith came in droves to pray for his healing.
“I got to go to my funeral without dying,” Guy said. “I couldn’t believe the number of people who came to see me; people kept telling me ‘God still has something for you to do,’ and I feel like God was saying, ‘watch what I can do.’”