July 26, 2012

‘Miracle man’ rolls down long road to recovery

He was going less than 30 miles per hour, but James Simmons’ motorcycle was no match for the car that pulled out in front of him on Lock 4 Road in Gallatin.

James Simmons, who suffered massive injuries in a March motorcycle accident, goes through a rehab session at the Vanderbilt Orthopaedic Institute Fitness Center in Medical Center East. (photo by Joe Howell)

He was going less than 30 miles per hour, but James Simmons’ motorcycle was no match for the car that pulled out in front of him on Lock 4 Road in Gallatin.

A bystander in her yard said that on impact he looked like a kung fu star, spinning three times in the air before landing on his face. Simmons was wearing a helmet, but fractures in every limb of his body, facial wounds and internal injuries made his survival unlikely.

Simmons grew up riding dirt bikes and purchased a road bike a few years ago. He and his wife, Angie, loved heading to Gatlinburg on it, plus it saved gas on his daily commute.

On March 15, he was returning from lunch to Pioneer Coach Interiors, where he worked customizing tour buses. All he remembers is leaving the parking lot, then nothing before waking up in segments in the hospital, hallucinating about being in the jungle or bugs crawling on the ceiling.

“Sumner County EMS said they had never seen anything like the crumpled mess he was. They didn’t know where to start and had to hold him together on the stretcher,” Angie said.

Bad weather had grounded LifeFlight helicopters, so the EMS crew took Simmons to Sumner Regional Medical Center to be stabilized before transporting him on to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The first priority was the uncontrolled bleeding from the wound in his right leg.
Ten hours and 25 units of blood later, the bleeding was finally under control and Simmons was stable.

Jill Chabot, MSPT, works with motorcycle accident survivor James Simmons during a rehab session at the Vanderbilt Orthopaedic Institute Fitness Center. (photo by Joe Howell)

“His life was saved because of the incredible trauma system here at Vanderbilt,” said Manish Sethi, M.D., assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation. “The General Surgery Trauma Team and Orthopaedic Trauma Team all work seamlessly together. I’ve seen this institution do so many incredible things for people and it is because of that team spirit.”

Vanderbilt’s Trauma Service admits more than 100 patients from serious motorcycle accidents each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 4,502 motorcycle-related deaths in 2010, and estimates that motorcycle injuries and deaths average nearly $12 billion a year in medical care costs and productivity losses.

Sethi said he and Micket Ott, M.D., assistant professor of Surgery, were in a “battle royale” to stop the bleeding and save Simmons’ life.

“I was very concerned because he had a vascular injury to the leg and bilateral femur fractures among his other very serious injuries, and it’s well-documented that patients with those injuries have a high rate of mortality,” Sethi said.

Once Simmons was stable, the focus turned to saving his limbs. Over the next two weeks, a team of surgeons including Alex Jahangir, M.D., Aaron Perdue, M.D., and William Obremskey, M.D., addressed each of his many injuries.

Angie Simmons got a knock on her door in East Nashville a few hours after Simmons’ accident.

“The police showed up and I didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t one of those moments where you know something is wrong,” she said. “Then they told me about the wreck and it was blur, blur blur.”

She and daughter Ciara were given a ride to Vanderbilt, and at about 2 a.m. the next day, the medical team decided to take him off sedation to assess his brain function. Simmons’ heart had stopped many times, once for over 20 minutes, and it was unclear how much damage had been done.

“He was so swollen I couldn’t recognize him. His eyes and ears were completely swollen shut and he was wrapped up like a mummy,” Angie recalled. “But then he started wiggling his thumbs and his toes. I knew then that he was in there. Whatever would come on the outside with his body, I knew he was still in there.”

But doctors cautioned Angie not to get too hopeful. He would need nine major surgeries, and each came with tremendous risk.

“Every time he had surgery and didn’t have an infection there was a little more hope. He never had an infection. People started calling him ‘miracle man,’” Angie said.

Simmons was in excruciating pain, but worse than that was not being able to see his daughter, who was too young to come on the trauma unit. They used FaceTime and wrote letters during the 15 days he was on the unit.

He spent six weeks at Select Specialty Hospital for rehabilitation, and was discharged home on May 10. He was in a wheelchair, scars snaked all over his body and his smile was missing a lot of teeth, but he was alive.

Simmons spent his Fourth of July holiday having his gallbladder removed, and possibly has more surgery in his future, but is looking forward to getting back to normal.

One of his main goals was to return to playing bass at Highland Park Church, something he accomplished last Sunday. He has also progressed from a wheelchair to a walker.

“You don’t realize what you take for granted, like walking to another room,” he said. “I believe I was left here for a reason, there’s a lot left for me to do, and I plan on getting back to normal life.”