As Adessa Ellis lay unconscious and barely breathing on the shoulder of the highway, the only sign of life was the intermittent blink of the tiny heart symbol on her sports watch.
Just seconds earlier, Ellis had been cycling with her best friend on a training ride for her latest Ironman competition. Ellis was in peak physical condition, honed from years of grueling bike rides, long-distance runs and lap swims. It was a cool Saturday morning in February and the pair had been riding side-by-side along a wide shoulder on Highway 90 in Sugar Land.
“We were mid-conversation when suddenly to my left, I felt heat, wind and heard a crashing sound of metal, and Adessa went flying,” her friend and training partner Michelle Nelson wrote on a cycling website.
A vehicle had veered into the shoulder, striking Ellis from behind and flinging the triathlete’s body nearly 30 feet. Nelson was untouched. Ellis never saw it coming.
Nelson raced to her friend’s side to find Ellis bloody, crumpled and motionless. Inside her broken body, her heart struggled to beat.
Ellis was taken by Memorial Hermann Life Flight® to what is now Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute in the Texas Medical Center. By the time the 38-year-old mother, veteran UPS driver and competitive athlete arrived at the hospital, she had lost all vital signs. By all accounts, Ellis was dead.
Trauma is by far the leading cause of death for people under the age of 47, accounting for nearly half of all deaths in this age range. Every year, more than 192,000 people die from a trauma-related injury, according to the National Trauma Institute. Emergency departments across the country log more than 41 million visits from patients suffering from a traumatic injury, and trauma accounts for more than 2.3 million hospital admissions each year in the United States. For trauma survivors, the road to recovery can be daunting and difficult, pockmarked with pitfalls and setbacks and challenging therapies and rehabilitations.
“Being a trauma survivor, and being a family member of a trauma survivor, is deeply demanding both physically and emotionally,” Dr. Michelle McNutt, trauma surgeon affiliated with the Red Duke Trauma Institute and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth said. “Oftentimes, for those who are lucky enough to survive the actual trauma, the survival itself is just the beginning of the battle.”
Still, trauma survivors who approach recovery with a solid support system and an optimistic attitude tend to recover easier than those who don’t share the same positivity, Dr. McNutt said. For Ellis, that would mean tapping into the same inner reservoir of fortitude that allowed her to complete six Ironman competitions and more than a dozen marathons. The first step, though, was bringing Ellis back to life.
She had suffered a blunt cardiac arrest in which the heart stops beating as a result of blunt force trauma, a horrible injury that few survive. She also had severe internal bleeding. Dr. McNutt knew the team’s only chance at saving Ellis was using a dramatic procedure called an open thoracotomy in which the surgeon cracks open the left chest, clamps off the aorta to preserve blood flow to the brain and opens the membrane enclosing the heart to check for damage.
“Open thoracotomies are widely considered the last-ditch effort to save the life of a patient at the point of death due to an extreme chest injury. It was a long shot, but I also knew it was her only shot,” Dr. McNutt said.
Once Ellis’ heart rate returned and her blood pressure rebounded, Dr. McNutt and her team rushed Ellis to the operating room to search for the source of bleeding in her abdomen. A lacerated liver turned out to be the culprit. Dr. McNutt packed the wound with special material to help it heal and Dr. Timothy Achor, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and UTHealth, worked to repair her badly damaged leg.
“Not only did they save her life,” her husband, Mack Blakenship said, “they put her back together again.”
Few people could’ve sustained the gruesome injuries that Ellis did that day, but her finely tuned athletic conditioning ended up being a fundamental boost to her survival. Because she had been in such incredible physical shape, her body was able to withstand a short period of no blood pressure and no oxygen better, and she was able to walk away from the wreck with zero brain damage, Dr. McNutt said. “Her outlook is very good. She’s had a few setbacks and still has a long road to recovery ahead, but her internal injuries have healed and she’s going to be walking again soon. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Recovery hasn’t been easy. Ellis continues to tackle her challenges each day with the same mind-over-matter approach she took to training for triathlons and marathons. She is determined not to be a victim. She is a survivor. “I’ve never not finished a race,” Ellis said. “And I’m not about to start now.”
Today, May 18, is National Trauma Survivors Day, a celebration that seeks to draw inspiration from and provide support to survivors of traumatic injuries and their caregivers, opening the road to their recovery from trauma.
Today is the day to honor Ellis and all other trauma survivors and their families. They inspire us with their strength, courage and perseverance and for providing hope and support to others.
Memorial Hermann invites the community to take part in this event by printing this sign. If you are a trauma survivor, fill in the sign with a phrase such as “I am a survivor!” For all those who support trauma patients, write a note of inspiration such as “I love a survivor,” to aid in the recovery process. Then take a picture of yourself holding the sign and share it on our Facebook page or Twitter feed with the hashtags #TraumaSurvivorsDay and #NTSD. Be sure to tag your friends and family along with @memorialhermann.
Together, let’s create an unprecedented voice of compassion and solidarity from the trauma community on behalf of our patients and their families.