This is a story of how a tragedy was turned into a passion for medicine. It all begins with me, a 15-year-old at the time, on April 30th, 2016. That morning I went about my day as usual as I got ready to go hunting with my dad. I got dressed, loaded everything into the truck, refused to eat (as usual), and climbed into the truck and fell asleep. Arriving at the location in my dad’s red pick-up truck; my dad let me know that it was still too dark and early to head out. Heeding his words, I fell back asleep. Some time goes by until I feel a shake on my left shoulder, “Let’s go” my dad says, so I packed up, threw the gun around my shoulder, and departed with him into the woods. It was still quite dark. The trees were black against the grey gradient sky however, we pressed on. It was some 300 yards or so later, still only able to see a few feet in front of us, when my dad said, “Let’s set up the decoys and sit over there”. I helped him set up the decoys and he motioned me to follow behind him towards the bushy pine tree that we were to set up under. My dad was about 15 yards ahead of me when I started bringing the gun around in front of me. As I was doing this there was an instance of pure silence, this silence would mark the moment that would alter the course of my life. As the silence faded, I could hear myself screaming, my dad running towards me. Falling to the ground on my back I realized I had been shot. I couldn’t feel pain in this moment, so I figured I wasn’t too badly injured. At this time my dad had instructed me to wrap his belt around my thigh while he went to get the truck and call 911. I did this by sliding the belt underneath my thigh and running the strap down as tight as I could and then pulling upwards on the rest of the strap. This was far from perfect as I was still on my back and while it was tight on the underside it lifted up at the top of my thigh unlike how an actual tourniquet wraps itself around the entire limb tightly. I now know that improvised tourniquets like belts have a high failure rate. At the time however, I was doing what I thought was best. It was during this time while I laid on the cold hard Earth watching the sun rise that I made peace with whatever God existed. I wasn’t banking on a religion, but I figured if I died here, I might as well make peace. Afterwards, I remember thinking that if I was to die, I would lose feeling in my extremities. Next to my head was a thorn bush which I poked with my finger. I felt that pain, the only pain I could feel at the time, which reassured me I was still doing alright all things considered. It felt as if time had been going by so slowing as I laid there waiting for my dad to return. I remember seeing my camo pants turn a dark color in the little bit of light I had. Thankfully after some time I saw the headlights of my dad’s truck coming through the trees. When he reached me, he had picked me up and placed me in the passenger seat of the truck. While he was driving out of the woods back onto the road that's when the pain kicked in. It felt as if someone was tearing my flesh off the bone. At that moment I leaned to my right to see what my right leg looked like. I could see the severed artery pulsating blood, the bone, strips of flesh hanging, and through the hole to the other side to the floorboard of my dad’s truck. It was at this moment I realized that I was in some deep shit. We were supposed to meet the ambulance at the gas station only about a mile away from where my injury had occurred. Pulling into the gas station I was still trying to struggle with the pain. During this time my dad came over to check on me, along with one of his friends who was out hunting at the time, more would come to check on me as the minutes passed. Still awaiting the ambulances’ arrival, I realized I was hungry and thirsty. Funny enough, while holding the belt with one hand I downed two cans of Brisk Iced Tea, a bottle of water, and 8 Jimmy Dean sausage links. Only the maple flavored ones because they are the best! After finishing my meal there was more waiting for the ambulance.
Being in a rural area, it took them 40 minutes to arrive at my location. Keep in mind all I have is a simple leather belt around my thigh. As the EMS personnel walk up to me two of them don’t do anything. I remember seeing them off to the side with their hands on their hips. Only two people cared for me. One was an older gentleman and the other was a young woman. I remember telling the older gentleman that I would haunt him for the rest of his life if he let me die. He reassured me I would be ok as he started cutting off my clothes. They were going to slow for me, so I pushed them aside and grabbed the trauma shears and cut my own clothes off. I left my underwear on because no one was seeing my junk! It was at this time they had thrown non-CoTCCC recommended tourniquet on my leg just above my knee. This bungee cord like tourniquet didn’t work, that's why I'll never forget that moment when I heard the Paramedic say “The bleeding has been mitigated”. Well mitigated doesn’t mean stopped, so while I was losing less blood, I was still bleeding!
When they moved me to the stretcher, I saw my blood coagulating in the bottom of the truck and painting the concrete like a river of red all the way down to the storm drain. I was loaded onto the ambulance and given an IV. It was at this moment I told the Paramedic I was going to take a nap. I remember him yelling at me to stay awake, but I told him I was tired and that I will wake up outside the hospital. Waking up 45 minutes later outside the nearest hospital I remember saying “I told you I'd wake up!” to the Paramedic as I was wheeled into the operating room. The next thing I remember is them pouring iodine over me, shouting out my blood type, A+, before they put the mask on me to put me under. The next thing I remember is waking up being loaded on a helicopter to UPMC in Pittsburgh PA. The captain, who was wearing rocket aviators, gave me a thumbs up before I fell asleep again.
While at the first hospital they did bypass surgery to replace the severed popliteal artery right where it branches into the anterior and posterior tibial arteries. They also had given me 30 units of blood just to keep me alive, which is almost as much as 3 fully grown adults worth! Thanks to their work I was able to stay alive, I was for sure on the brink of death when I got there. While that battle was over, the war was far from it. I remained in the ICU for a whole week. During that time, I went into multi-organ dysfunction. My lungs collapsed twice, the first time I was fully conscious and only able to communicate through writing on the palms of people’s hands until someone dropped their phone, snatched it, and went to notes. The second time I never woke up after surgery and stopped breathing, yet even that didn’t put me six feet under. Finally, my kidneys had shut down and I filled up with fluids and looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy for a day, but once again that didn’t stop me.
After a long, hard fought battle with trying to save my leg, there was very little left that surgeons could do. I had upwards of 25 surgeries, most of which were debridements where they remove the dead tissue from the good. It was on May 12th that the surgeons came to me and told me that there was nothing left that they could do. If I waited any longer, they said the vein graft would burst because there wasn’t enough muscle and tissue supporting it. I asked the surgeons how’d they take it and they replied with “with a guillotine like instrument”. I proceeded to make French Revolution jokes as my mom broke down. I would end up waking up to having one leg and immense phantom pain. A piece of me had been taken away for the rest of my life.
I then spent 3 weeks recovering. Bandage changes hurt the most, but other than that nothing exciting happened except how I was told if I didn’t start eating they would give me medical marijuana or a feeding tube. When I asked if I could smoke it and they said no I decided I might as well just start eating. I slowly learned how to hop on a walker until I could hop to the end of the wing and back to my room. I left the hospital only crying twice, when I got a care package from a close online friend, and when I saw one of my history teachers. He was the first non-family member to show up after my injury.
I spent the rest of the summer of 2016 healing and going to physical therapy. I was able to continue and push through the new disability I had by giving everything my all. Therefore, only after healing for 3 months and only having a prosthetic for a week I was able to walk into high school my junior year. I would continue with physical therapy until one day my PTA recommended, I talk to a man named Adam Hartswick. I had known of him and that he lost his legs above the knee in Afghanistan to an IED. He came to speak to my school when I was in 8th grade, unfortunately that also was the day I received my one and only detention for saying “What the hell!”. Our mothers had also known one another as Adam and his mom would come to the dentist office my mother worked as an administrator at. Adam willingly took a few hours to come speak with me at one of my physical therapy sessions. From that day forward we became brothers.
It was through my injury and Adam’s knowledge he would share with me that I found a passion for trauma. One day he invited me to come shadow him at his job teaching TCCC (Tactical Combat Casualty Care). I rode down with him and took notes as each slide had gone by. Just as Adam had finished sharing his story with the class and how aspects of TCCC saved his life his boss Craig Hall tells me it was my turn to go up and share my story if I wanted. I hesitated naturally as I had nothing prepared and never had shared my story in front of anybody before. Shaking in my socket (ha get it?) and having Adam give me motivation, I went to the front of the classroom and shared my story, like I did for you in this story, and demonstrated how it happened. After I was finished, they all clapped as Craig told me to head downstairs to be a part of the scenarios. I was told to hold this shotgun and vest and pretend to be a casualty. I’ll never forget Justin Romanello’s eyes as he tells the other instructor that I lost my leg due to a shotgun blast. I didn’t mind however and continued with the scenarios being dragged through the snow in full business attire in the middle of December. I was frozen to the bone. After scenarios were over, I changed in Adam’s truck, went inside and was handed an IFAK and told I had passed the test! A 17-year-old with no prior experience passed my first medical class!
It was on our way home Craig had called us and invited us both to the Christmas party. When I showed up at the Christmas party Craig had pulled me aside and asked me to join the crew working with them as a role-player and to help merge the military and civilian world using what I learned. It was at this moment I wanted to do nothing besides continue my understanding of medicine especially in the trauma field.
I have since helped to teach dozens of classes from New Hampshire to Maryland. Sharing my story in every class and enforcing the importance of tourniquets. I have achieved much in my time with Adam, Craig, and the other instructors. I am now a junior in college, became a national champion in shot put and javelin, got certified in both TCCC and TECC, and currently gearing up to get my EMT certification so I can get out there and use the skills I know to help save lives. I will not stop at my EMT certification. I will continue to teach at every class I can, and possibly go to nursing school as well. After my EMT certification my goal is to become a full-on instructor for Penn Tactical Solutions and start officially teaching classes.
I would never go back and change anything if I could. Losing my leg was painful, still is, but the man I have become is who I am happy with. From turning my tragedy into a passion for medicine was the most therapeutic thing that happened to me. From Adam lighting the flame to Craig giving me the chance, I am happy to call everyone I have met on my journey my brothers, a family.