Sanpete Valley Hospital honors EMS staff and volunteers at Extraordinary Save banquet
‘You gave me my life back’
MT. PLEASANT—Brian Strain doesn’t know what caused his car, which was traveling at highway speed, to go off U.S. 89 north of Fairview, hit a ditch and launch into the air.
He might have fallen asleep at the wheel; maybe he got distracted thinking about his wedding anniversary and the BYU football game he and his son had just attended, or possibly his car skidded on something in the road.
“I think we flew 85 feet,” the Mt. Pleasant resident said. He was ejected out of the driver’s side door. “I landed—and the car landed on top of me.”
Last week, he got to meet some of the first-responders who saved his life.
“Thank you, everyone, for giving me my life back,” he said. He described his survival as “a miracle that you guys definitely had a hand in.”
The occasion was the Extraordinary Save banquet last Wednesday, Nov. 30 at Sanpete Valley Hospital. The event honors people along the whole chain of emergency medical services in the county, including dispatchers, EMTs, and hospital emergency room staffs, for exceptional life-saving performances during the previous year.
Besides the Strain accident, two cases were featured. One was a motorcycle accident in which Jeff DeLeeuw of Ephraim got a life-threatening lacerated lung and a host of broken bones. Another was an incident in which a young man from Mt. Pleasant put his arm through a window, causing such serious lacerations he could have bled to death.
The skill and performance of volunteer EMTs in Sanpete County is “comparable to people who work in a city and do this full-time,” Kent Chapman, physician’s assistant and director of emergency services at Sanpete Valley told people at the banquet. “…We just so appreciate the people who give their time to provide life-saving care.”
Sept. 18, 2016 started out to be a great day for Strain. He visited his brother in Utah County and bought an anniversary gift for his wife.
Strain is a die-hard BYU fan who has season tickets for both football and basketball. That evening, he and his son, Josh, 15, attended the BYU-UCLA football game, in which BYU lost 17-14.
They were perhaps 15 miles from home, at a point known as Hilltop near the exit from U.S. 89 into Milburn, when the accident happened.
“I was so violently ejected that my shoes stayed on the pedals,” he told the banquet gathering. At the time, he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Never again, he said. “I wear my seatbelt every time now.”
Josh Strain was wearing a seatbelt. His only injuries were bruises across his middle from the force of the seatbelt and a bloody nose from the impact of the airbag.
He went up to the highway and flagged down two passing cars, both from Sanpete County. One was carrying Joan and Kevin Turpin of Mt. Pleasant and the other Gary Black of Spring City.
Josh “did exactly what I needed him to do,” his dad said.
The passersby did all the could to help. They called 911. Then they tried to get the car off Strain. They couldn’t, which is a good thing, Brian said, because he had a fracture in his C-1 vertebrae, the bone that connects the head to the neck, and if anything had gone wrong causing damage to his spinal cord at that point, he could have been a quadriplegic.
Terri Tuttle, an EMT from the Fairview branch of the North Sanpete Ambulance Association, was the first EMT on the scene. She was followed by two paramedics from Mt. Pleasant, Brian Bench and Tracy Braithwaite.
“They had a special airbag to lift the car. They jacked it up just enough to get to me,” Strain said. They also called Lifeflight from the scene, which saved critical time, Chapman said.
Besides the fractured vertebrae, Strain had a broken jaw, broken orbits around his eyes and a brain injury. Chapman said statistically, the chances of surviving such an accident are low.
Strain was in a coma for two days. He said he doesn’t remember anything from before the accident until three weeks afterward. He ended up spending one month and three days at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center (UVRMC).
Strain said there were two miracles in his case. The first was that he survived. The second was his rapid recovery, although his passion for BYU sports may have also played a role in his recovery.
A friend of Strain knew how much he loved BYU athletics. The friend also knew Chad Lewis, athletic director at BYU. Strain’s friend told Lewis about the accident. Lewis showed up at Strain’s hospital room with a football autographed by BYU’s famous former quarterback Steve Young and a BYU flag.
The next important visitor was Kalone Sitake, head football coach at BYU. “He took the time to stop in” and leave a gift bag, Strain said.
During the first weeks he was in the hospital, Strain refused to do physical therapy. One day, his physical therapist asked, “Do you want to know the score of the BYU game?” Strain said yes. “Then get up,” the therapist said.
At the time of his accident, Strain was working for a Utah County company teaching people how to trade stock options. (He is also a former prize-winning sportswriter for the Sanpete Messenger.)
As he was getting ready to be released from the hospital, he asked his speech therapist, “How long before I can go back to work eight hours a day?”
The speech therapist told him, “Based on your injuries, if you fit the model, six months to a year.” Three months after the accident, he is back to work six hours a day.
While in the hospital, he had a dream, during which he felt a touch on his hand. “I know there is a God, and he spared me,” Strain said. “I feel one reason I was spared was to be able to testify that that Heavenly Father is there, he loves us, there is life after death, and every hard thing we go through in this life is to make us better.”
Strain’s wife, Vonda, said the community support the family received was overwhelming. “I couldn’t keep up with the text messages,” she said.
“We had three wards praying for us,” daughter Amberly, 19, added.
The second presentation at the Extraordinary Save banquet featured Jeff DeLeeuw, who was riding his Harley Davidson home from his job at Wasatch Academy when his accident happened.
He said he was on Main Street in Ephraim, when a vehicle two cars in front of him stopped suddenly, causing the car directly in front of him to also stop abruptly.
He knew he was going to crash into the car ahead of him, and he wasn’t wearing a helmet. He intentionally laid his bike down on the road. His head came to rest under the bumper of the car.
He got a lacerated lung, had blood on both lungs, had a mid-spine fracture, and broke his shoulder blade and 12 ribs. According to Chapman, many people don’t survive a lacerated lung, much less laceration with so many other injuries.
As he laid on the road, “I couldn’t breathe, not even a gasp,” DeLeeuw said. “It’s terrifying.”
A Utah Highway Patrol trooper happened to be within eyesight at the time of the accident. “The trooper came up and touched my shoulder. Suddenly I was able to breathe,” DeLeeuw said.
A close friend had died about a year earlier. One of DeLeeuw’s thoughts was, “Make a place for me. I’m going to be joining you.”
Ephraim EMTs “were there in a heartbeat,” DeLeeuw said. “As soon as the EMS got there, I felt like I was going to be OK. I kept thinking, ‘Maybe he (his friend) isn’t ready to start hanging out with me.’”
The EMTs administered morphine, called for Lifeflight and took him by ambulance to Sanpete Valley. The staff there stabilized him and loaded him on the helicopter for UVRMC.
He ended up spending three weeks in ICU. At one point, his kidneys shut down, and staff at the medical center told him later they had feared he wouldn’t make it.
DeLeeuw said he’s not a particularly spiritual person. But for the first four days in the hospital, “I felt there was somebody in the room with me.”
Later, he learned he was in the same room where his mother-in-law had died. He has had the feeling that she was there in the room again.
“It’s been life-changing,” he said. “It’s real sobering. You take a lot less for granted.”
DeLeeuw said he bought his Harley back from the insurance company. “I’ll be back riding in the spring,” he said. He added that if his wife insists, he’ll wear a helmet.
The patient in the third Extraordinary Save case, the young man with the arm laceration, was not at the banquet and, to protect his confidentiality, emergency responders who presented his case did not use his name.
The remarkable thing about the case was how quickly an EMT got there, Chapman said. In New Jersey, an initiative is underway to train citizens to render first aid until an ambulance arrives, he said. The initiative has gotten a lot of national attention.
In Sanpete County, where volunteer EMTs live, work and travel throughout the county, we already have such a setup, Chapman said. “A lot of times, when a call comes in, there’ll be an EMT near the scene.”
When the call came in about the young man with glass cuts on his arm, Kari Lewis, an EMT in Mt. Pleasant, realized the location was next door to her house.
“We all carry a ‘jump bag’ (of medical supplies),” Lewis said. The last time she put her bag together, she had a feeling she needed to put a tourniquet in it.
When she got next door, she saw “a young man sitting on the floor with a terrible amount of blood all over him…I turned the tourniquet as tight as I could and added gauze.” That didn’t entirely stop the bleeding, so she wrapped the arm in coban, a rubber latex gauze.
Very shortly, another EMT who lives in Mt. Pleasant, Rosa Bowles, arrived. She monitored the young man’s pulse and blood pressure while Lewis worked on stopping the bleeding.
“If you cut the veins in the upper arm, you can bleed to death in 3 minutes,” Chapman said. “He probably wouldn’t have lived if he’d had to wait for an ambulance.”