The road conditions were perfect for a leisurely family motorcycle ride on April 8, 2012—it was one of those glorious early-spring Kansas City days that makes the heart sing. Denise Lewis-Dillard, a seasoned cyclist, adjusted her helmet, pulled on her gloves and hopped on her Harley while her husband, John, prepared his bike for the Sunday outing. The couple’s 11-year-old son, Juleon, straddled the back of his dad’s bike, settling in for the ride just as he had many times before.
It wouldn’t be long before the blue-sky, sunny day would take a wrong turn, ending with Denise crumpled next to a fire hydrant following the sudden impact of a crash. Instead of cruising the streets of Kansas City, Denise would be transferred to the Level 1 Trauma Center at Research Medical Center.
Denise, 45, is known to be an articulate, matter-of-fact woman. So a strategic decision she made at the beginning of her motorcycle ride was typical—except this would be a life-saving decision. Her cycle was malfunctioning, careening through a Raytown intersection and headed for an oncoming vehicle. “I realized if I kept moving forward, my family was going to see me die,” says Denise. “Instead, I veered away from the car and steered my bike toward the only stationary object I could see. I asked God to protect me and my family.”
Denise spent a split second calculating her grim options and implemented an escape plan, ejecting herself from the bike as it smashed into a yellow fire hydrant.
What happened next was surreal, says Denise. She remembers first responders peering down, gently transferring her to a gurney, plumping pillows around her and situating her in the ambulance. She remembers joking with one of the paramedics, thinking everything was okay.
It wasn’t until the ambulance maneuvered a corner on its way to Research Medical Center’s Level I Trauma Center, that Denise had the first indication of her physical state. Momentarily paralyzed from pain caused by traumatic knee injuries, the paramedic used a band to strap her knees together. “Even then I was oblivious, calmly answering questions,” says Denise, who in retrospect is shocked she never lost consciousness.
Fast-moving nurses and physicians in the Emergency Room shifted Denise to an operating table and cut away her clothing. “I politely asked them to stop cutting my leather jacket,” says Denise. “But the whole time I was thinking how accommodating and pleasant they were.”
The next thing Denise remembers is waking up in the intensive care unit, her home for the next five days. H Scott Bjerke, MD, FACS, a fellowship-trained traumatologist and director of the Level 1 Trauma Center, assessed Denise’s injuries, Vic Zadoo, MD, FACS, medical director of the Midwest Hand Center at RMC, and Jason Mlnarik, DO, a fellowship-trained traumatologist, performed surgery to repair her broken pelvis and a broken left hand. Denise also sustained road rash on the right side of her face and lost quite a bit of flesh on her right inner thigh. The surgeons placed a pin in her left hand, 22 staples across her abdomen, a large pin spanning left to right on her buttocks and a permanent plate with five screws strategically placed to make her pelvis stay in place
“The fire hydrant caught my left hip and snapped it back,” says Denise. “The doctors worked their magic so that my pelvis would have natural movement.”
Denise, a born goal-setter, moved to Research Medical Center’s physical medicine and rehabilitation floor on April 12 and came face-to-face with the internal and external effort required to regain strength. She worked with occupational and physical therapists, who Denise calls her cheerleaders.
“In fact, the support I received from everyone, beginning with Dr. Zadoo and Dr. Mlnarik, was superlative,” says Denise. “They were soothing, almost like old friends. They were proud of and pleased with their work—it gave me comfort to see them so passionate about their goals to get me back to normal. We were all of the same mindset. It was truly a team effort.”
Research Medical Center has five trauma surgeons on its Level 1 Trauma Center team, plus a hand surgeon and two orthopedic traumatologists that provide care for complex pelvic fractures such as Denise’s. “It’s not often that a designated Trauma Center has a specially trained orthopedic traumatologist, let alone two,” says Dr. Bjerke.
According to the Trauma Center Association of America (TCAA), traumatic injuries like Denise’s are the cause of nearly 170,000 deaths each year in the United States. That accounts for 400 deaths each day—many of which can be prevented. In its continuing commitment to the community to provide excellent medical care, Research Medical Center’s Level 1 Trauma Center, the highest level designated by the Missouri Department of Health, reflects the hospital’s unwavering dedication to provide advanced life-saving emergency and trauma care 24 hours a day, seven days a week to patients such as Denise Lewis-Dillard.
“I believe if not for the grace of God, Drs. Zadoo, Mlnarik and Bjerke and the nurses, therapists and staff of Research Medical Center, I wouldn’t be here today,” says an emotional Denise. “Their skill and compassion, with God guiding their hands and hearts, helped put me back together.”