Couple takes on recovery together after storm injuriesApr. 21, 2021, 3:00 PM
by Emily Stembridge
On a beautiful Sunday in May 2020, Cassie Rooke and William Nolan decided to go on a hike at their usual spot in Percy Warner Park.
On the way, Rooke’s father texted her to warn of an impending storm. However, the weather app on Rooke’s phone showed the storm would not approach for several more hours. The clear blue skies reaffirmed this, and the couple continued on the trail just like any other day.
However, this hike would prove to not be like any other day. A derecho (a widespread, fast-moving windstorm) quickly approached the area, sending a tree crashing down on Rooke and Nolan. Neither of them remembers the incident well, but their rescuers — a group of runners, one who happened to be a surgeon — say Rooke was calling out for help while Nolan was drifting in and out of consciousness.
The rescuers immediately called for emergency services, and the couple was transported to VUMC. “They found us just a minute or two after the tree fell. It was definitely good timing, especially since most everyone cleared out of the park after the storm came through,” Rooke said.
Upon arrival at VUMC, William Obremskey, MD, MPH, professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, worked on repairing the extensive trauma Rooke sustained, including injuries to her left arm and right leg.
“Dr. Obremskey washed both of my legs out, closed both of my legs up, repaired my left arm, left collarbone and left scapula,” Rooke said.
“After surgery, he came into my room to tell me all the stretches and movements I needed to do. I always looked forward to seeing him because I could tell how much he cared that I made a full recovery.”
While Obremskey was operating on Rooke, Phillip Mitchell, MD, assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, operated on Nolan. Mitchell was able to repair injuries to Nolan’s pelvis, lower leg and ankle, while Niels Johnsen, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Urology, repaired Nolan’s bladder.
“Dr. Mitchell treated all of my urgent orthopaedic injuries,” Nolan said. “He’s just an awesome doctor. I cannot say enough good words about him. From the waist down, he’s made everything pretty much the way it was before.”
Nolan also suffered a brachial plexus injury, resulting in the nerves in his arm being severed from his spinal cord. This left his arm paralyzed. Nolan described this feeling as dead weight — both physically and mentally. Mihir Desai, MD, MS, associate professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, later worked with Nolan as he came to the decision to undergo an amputation of his affected arm.
“Dr. Desai coached me through my amputation,” Nolan said. “He helped me understand why I was making that decision and was very supportive of it. He’s an awesome surgeon, and an even better guy. I feel that way about all of the surgeons who operated on us.”
Recovery from these injuries is challenging enough but adding a pandemic into the mix created unique circumstances for the couple. “When I left the ICU, I could’ve really used my family there with me,” Nolan said. “It was one of the toughest parts, not being able to have them in my room with me.”
Rooke and Nolan both recount feeling loneliness and disappointment that they could not have family visit them in a time of need, but they agree that their nursing teams eased that pain as much as possible — even passing letters back and forth between the couple, who were in separate care units.
“There were so many nurses who were supportive during our hardest times,” Rooke said. “We had some bad days in the hospital, and they were always there for us. They were so helpful when they knew our families couldn’t be there, and they went above and beyond to make us as comfortable as possible.”
Rooke recounts speaking to her mother on the phone in the days following the accident, expressing disappointment that the fresh strawberries she had recently purchased would go bad during her recovery. The next day, Rooke’s nurse in the Emergency Department brought her fresh strawberries to enjoy from her hospital room.
Having gone through the accident and recovery by each other’s sides, Rooke and Nolan say the experience undoubtedly brought them closer together. They now have a shared experience — one that most 23-year-olds would never imagine themselves in.
“Both of us wish the other person didn’t get hurt, but at the same time, it helped that we were going through this together,” Nolan said.
“We can lean on each other, mentally and emotionally,” Rooke added. “We can relate to each other when no one else knows what it feels like to go through what we’re going through.”
Approaching the one-year anniversary of the traumatic accident, Rooke and Nolan are ready to turn it into something positive by helping others going through similar events. Nolan hopes to one day counsel patients who are going through traumatic injuries, serving as a mentor while they cope with their accidents and make difficult decisions in the course of their recovery.
“As COVID restrictions start lifting, I’d love to get into the trauma unit and talk to people who need someone who understands what they’re experiencing,” he said. “I’ve had people coach me and talk to me about their experiences, and I want to be that for other people.”
As an ICU nurse herself, Rooke is now able to relate to her patients in a way she never could have imagined. “I’m a lot more emotionally invested in my patients now,” she said. “I can’t relate to them completely, but I can share what I went through and reassure them that there is hope past what they’re going through.”