Pretoria teenager’s ‘miracle’ survival after 15m fall
Brave girl in good spirits and on the road to recovery
The mother of a teenager who fell 15 metres when a zipline at an adventure park snapped says she immediately realised the severity of her daughter’s condition when she saw her child being rushed from the Netcare 911 helicopter to a trauma unit, even before the rotor blades had stopped.
Pretoria teenager Carmen Botha was on a school excursion in the Hartebeespoort Dam area on 21 January 2016 when her mother, Gerna, received a phone call from her teacher to say her daughter had fallen the equivalent of almost five stories and had been critically injured. Gerna says that because of the remote location, it took paramedics from Hartebeespoort EMS about 20 minutes to reach Carmen, as they had to traverse fairly rough terrain.
Gerna says the paramedics at the scene explained Carmen’s injuries to her over the phone and allowed her to speak to her daughter.
“While waiting for the helicopter to arrive at Netcare Milpark Hospital’s level 1 trauma unit, I did not want to face up to the possibilities. I was terrified and unsure of what life was going to throw at us. In that moment there is a pool of fear that grips your heart, but there was no hysteria, we were just deeply wounded with sadness.”
“As the helicopter landed at the hospital, I could see that they were busy resuscitating Carmen. We were not allowed to see her and the hospital had arranged for a trauma counsellor to be on hand to guide us through dealing with our daughter’s condition,” Botha recalls.
- Life-saving treatment
Hartebeespoort EMS arrived on the scene to find Carmen’s condition unstable and immediately called Netcare 911’s aeromedical service for assistance.
Emergency care practitioner, Jared Mc Dowall who was part of the Netcare 1 helicopter crew on the day, says that when he arrived on the scene with his colleague, Adrian King, Carmen was very pale and in severe pain. On examining her they suspected a spinal injury as Carmen could not move and had no feeling in her lower body.
“We carefully loaded her into the aircraft. On route we were giving Carmen fluids intravenously. Throughout it all her blood pressure remained dangerously low. She was not responding and we therefore prepared an adrenaline infusion as there was a gradual decrease in her oxygen levels and she was deteriorating fast.”
“Carmen went into cardiac arrest eight minutes away from Netcare Milpark Hospital and we immediately started resuscitating her in the aircraft. Her condition was dire,” Mc Dowall says. “We managed to get her heart pumping again with the aid of adrenaline. However, her heart was beating too slowly. I continued with compressions while Adrian prepared another adrenaline infusion. Despite our very best efforts her heart stopped again and we had to shock her to stimulate her heart rhythm.”
Once the aircraft had safely landed at Netcare Milpark Hospital we rushed Carmen into the trauma unit where the fully briefed trauma team was ready and waiting for her.
Netcare Milpark Hospital trauma programme manager, Rene Grobler, says Carmen’s injuries were extensive. She had a ruptured spleen, bruised lungs caused by severe trauma to the chest, a liver laceration, a fracture of the spine, internal bleeding and broken bones. Her survival probability was calculated to be at a very low 16 percent.
“The first few hours in a trauma situation are the most crucial. The trauma team had their work cut out for them as she had to be taken back into theatre that night due to the severity of her injuries. No efforts were spared to save Carmen.”
Now, 30 days later, the teenager is awake and talking, and has made great progress. She recently underwent a further procedure for her spinal injuries. While Carmen does not yet have feeling in her lower limbs, the doctors are waiting for swelling in her spinal area to reduce as this will give a better indication of whether she will make a full recovery.
Gerna says the trauma team treating Carmen made critical decisions as the family sat waiting at the hospital for the first 48 hours, praying their daughter would survive. During the first 12 hours, Gerna says she counted that Carmen received more than 20 litres of blood.
- The road to recovery
When Mc Dowall and King went to visit Carmen a week ago they could not believe the incredible recovery their patient had made. “She had colour in her cheeks and was joking with her older brother. I cannot explain what joy I felt seeing her like that,” they say.
Gerna describes Carmen as a very confident, mature, happy, friendly, independent and beautiful child with a very close relationship with her family and especially her older brother. She says the family is taking it one day at a time and that Carmen has good days and some bad days, but goes through every day bravely and without complaining.
“Without faith we would not have come through this. We are privileged that we have experienced an amazing miracle: the right paramedics were dispatched to the scene and they made all the right calls, including that Carmen needed to be airlifted. She was taken to the right hospital with the right specialists there to treat her,” Gerna says.
Grobler explains that Carmen was placed on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ecmo) machine to help her breathe, so her lungs would have time to heal.
“It was not just the technology at the hospital that saved her but everyone – paramedics, specialists and nursing staff – working together. If you look at the medical facts and the chances of survival you will know that this is a miracle. Carmen is eating, she is unable to sit upright due to her injuries but she remains in good spirits and does maths in her mind.”
Carmen has since had a back operation and will later be transferred to a rehabilitation centre for further treatment, her mother adds.
- Support from around the world
Gerna says, “Some days you take a bit of an emotional knock but then you lift yourself up again. The way we are being treated by the doctors and staff at Netcare Milpark Hospital has helped a great deal. It helps that she is being treated by the best. The specialists are completely transparent with us. The nurses have been absolutely phenomenal. These are strangers who treat your child like their own and who have become like family.”
The family are appreciative of the support they have received from around the world, with people sending flowers and messages of prayer and hope, she concludes.