The last thing Sue Flanagan remembers about that day a year ago in June was pulling away from a store in Duncan on the back of a motorcycle driven by her husband. When she regained consciousness, it was September.
"Oh my God, how did I miss the whole summer?" she asked when she awakened.
Renee Howe was driving her SUV near Chickasha when a car in front of her sped up. "That's all I remember," she said.
Dick Tago remembers a co-worker at a Lawton concrete plant yelling, "Watch out guys, the wall's coming down!"
Each of them almost died because of horrific accidents. Each lived probably because of where they ended up - Trauma One Center. The facility at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, the only Level 1 trauma center in the state, is where the worst trauma cases, many of them gruesome, end up. Patients there often have multiple injuries that are life-threatening - children mangled by machinery, a rancher trampled by her cattle, vacationers who jumped headfirst into shallow pools, victims of falls, crashes and explosions.
Like others who work at Trauma One, Dr. Jason Lees sees a lot of tragedy, including an average of five deaths a week. "A lot of stressful situations," he said. "There's a high degree of burnout and turnover in trauma."
He can't imagine being anywhere else. When you spend your days trying to save lives, it's hard to walk away.
"You go home and feel like you've really accomplished something," he said. "There are not a lot of jobs that have that."
Still, he said, in the medical profession, trauma surgeon "is not a job a lot of people are looking to have." There are long hours and late nights, and you never know when several gravely injured patients might arrive. When they do, you don't have the luxury of lengthy consults, extensive testing and time to consider options.
"In this business, you sometimes have less than 30 minutes to make a decision," Lees said. Depending on the procedure, he said, "If you think about it for five minutes, the patient dies."
What you do have, he said, is a team you count on - fellow physicians and surgeons with different specialties; nurses and other staff members with extensive expertise and experience; and an atmosphere of camaraderie that can develop only under extreme circumstances. The result is a place where patients and their families can go from despair to hope, where light can break through the darkest clouds.
Here are some of their stories.
Flanagan, 50, remembers nothing about her accident, but others filled in details. After attending a motorcycle "hog rally" and looking at recreational vehicles for sale, Flanagan and her husband, Bob, were headed home to Sherman, Texas, on their Harley. A pickup whose driver was talking on a cell phone coasted through a yield sign.
The crash threw Bob from the Harley, which rolled over Sue. "The truck ran over me once I was on the ground," she said.
Bob suffered broken ribs and numerous lacerations. Sue suffered a shattered pelvis, tissue damage to her legs, broken cheekbones and loss of hearing in her right ear. Despite not wearing helmets, the couple had no brain damage, she said. "We were very lucky."
Bob has returned to work as a supervisor at a meat processing plant and has another Harley. Sue, who has undergone numerous surgeries, has progressed to walking with a cane. "I'm so grateful I made it through."
Tago tried to run, but the retaining wall collapsed, crushing him and two other men under 5,000-pound concrete blocks.
The accident on June 15, 2007, at a concrete plant in Lawton smashed his pelvis, his right arm and shoulder and numerous internal organs. Tago remembers being loaded into an ambulance, he said, but "I didn't wake up for another month." When he did, he learned his friend had died at the scene and another worker died a week later. "The bad news hit me really hard," he said.
Tago underwent 24 surgeries and had to learn to walk "all over again."
Three years after the accident, Tago, 45, still sees a psychiatrist to deal with anger over the accident. His family helps him keep a positive attitude, and another thought calms him down. "The good Lord spared my life for a purpose," he said.
While enjoying a September Saturday along the North Canadian River in 2005, Alex tried a tricky double jump on his all-terrain vehicle. The 14-year-old Mustang boy flipped over the handlebars and landed on his face, the four-wheeler landing on his back.
He suffered facial and skull fractures and damage to one eye. "He was very unrecognizable," said his mother, Arlene Randall.
After awaking from a 10-day coma, Alex's memory was so bad he retained thoughts for only a few minutes. "We called him five-minute Alex," Randall said.
In a follow-up visit, doctors noticed Alex had developed a post-traumatic aneurysm, a bulge in an artery in his head that could be fatal, "a time bomb that was ready to go off," as Randall put it. Today, Alex, 18 and working as a diesel mechanic, appears to have made a near-total recovery.
"He's a walking, talking miracle," his mother said. "God truly has a plan for this boy."
After an SUV rammed head-on into Howe's car, she tried to calm her 3-year-old son, Carson, who was riding in a child's seat. Howe was upside-down at the time, trapped for 45 minutes in the wreckage, and emergency workers had to give her an IV as she was suspended in the vehicle.
She doesn't remember the wreck or the aftermath, though, only the moment immediately before when a car in front of her mysteriously sped up. At the trauma center, staff told Howe's husband, Jeremy, that if Renee lived 24 hours, she would have a 50-50 chance of survival. Howe suffered multiple liver lacerations and required 46 units, about seven gallons, of blood. Surgeons rebuilt part of one leg with metal rods and pins.
She spent six weeks in the hospital and six more weeks in a wheelchair "learning how to walk all over again." Today, you can't tell Howe, 29, had been in an accident. She credits the trauma center for her recovery - and the whole experience for her rejuvenated outlook on the life she relishes.
"It changes your perspective," she said. "Just realizing what's important."
Did you know?
Trauma One triumphs
For all his injuries, Alex Randall got the "Sticks and Stones Award." For his surviving his accident, Dick Tago received the "Chuck Norris Award."
Others received the "Humpty Dumpty Award" (most broken bones) or the "Turnip Award" (most blood received). The awards were made recently by the Trauma One at OU Medical Center to recognize some patients who were recovering from severe injuries.
"Because it tends to be a very serious situation, we try to put a little bit of light on it," said Dr. Jason Lees, trauma surgeon.
By the numbers
- Trauma One at OU Medical Center handles about 2,800 patients a year.
- 85 percent involve blunt trauma (such as car, all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle wrecks, slip and falls).
- 14 percent involve penetrating trauma (knife, gunshot, etc.).
- 1 percent involve other trauma (burns, drowning, etc.).