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Former patient steps up to help others with traumatic injuries

Jun. 29, 2023, 10:20 AM

William Nolan and his fianceé, Cassie Rooke, enjoy active lives, including taking long walks with their dog, Grizz. Nolan volunteers as a Trauma Peer Visitor to support others hospitalized with serious trauma.
William Nolan and his fianceé, Cassie Rooke, enjoy active lives, including taking long walks with their dog, Grizz. Nolan volunteers as a Trauma Peer Visitor to support others hospitalized with serious trauma.

by Jill Clendening

When Nashville native William Nolan was recovering from traumatic injuries at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2020, visitor restrictions due to the pandemic meant he spent countless, difficult hours alone without the support of friends or family.

Nolan and his now-fianceé, Cassie Rooke, were hiking at Percy Warner Park in May 2020 when a fast-moving storm knocked a large tree down on top of them. They were transported to VUMC and were soon in surgery to repair extensive trauma. Rooke had serious injuries to her legs and an arm, as well as numerous upper-body injuries. Nolan had a serious pelvic injury, leg injury and various upper-body and internal injuries.

His most devastating trauma was a brachial plexus injury that separated the nerves in his left arm from his spinal cord, leaving his arm paralyzed. After waiting eight months to see if any nerve regrowth would restore movement, Nolan decided to have his arm amputated.

Nolan now tells others it was one of the best choices of his life. He has returned to working full time for the state of Tennessee’s Department of Finance and Administration, is planning an April 2024 wedding with Rooke, and is getting back to the outdoor sports and activities he loves such as hunting, boating and fishing. Rooke’s injuries have also healed, and she’s working as an oncology nurse, a job she loves.

Before he even left the hospital, Nolan told his medical team he wanted to use his experience to help others hospitalized with serious trauma. After completing an interview and screening process, as well as required volunteer training, he’s now a VUMC Trauma Peer Visitor, supporting others recovering from life-changing injuries.

“Being in the hospital with traumatic injuries — that’s a pivotal moment,” Nolan said. “Now, when I think of my life, I always think ‘before the accident’ and ‘after the accident.’ And throughout my whole time in the hospital, my family couldn’t come in, and I really couldn’t interact with anyone except the medical staff.

“The medical staff were all awesome, but it was tough. And not being able to talk to anyone else who had gone through something similar was really hard. Then, fast forward to eight months after the accident, and I was struggling with the decision about whether to keep my arm or not.”

Through social media he was able to connect online with several other men who had also experienced brachial plexus injuries that caused permanent paralysis, some of whom had chosen arm amputation and others who had not.

“A couple of them had such positive perspectives on their lives,” Nolan said. “They had families, they had kids, they had active hobbies they enjoyed. You know, when you’re facing losing a limb, you go through a lot of thoughts and feelings. At times, it felt like my life was over.

“It was super beneficial to have someone to talk to who could say, ‘No, you’re still going to have a great life. It might look a little bit different, but it will be great.’ I hope I can have that positive impact on others’ lives. I want to be a bright spot in their day — to be someone who can relate to what they’re going through. It helps me to feel like I can make my experience mean something.”

VUMC has had a Trauma Peer Visitor program, an initiative supported by the Trauma Survivors Network of the American Trauma Society, for about 15 years, but the pandemic halted the program, said Cathy Wilson, MSN, RN, outreach educator and coordinator for the Division of Acute Care Surgery. Now it’s active again, thanks to the help of Nolan and other former patients and their families who want to give back.

“This is a community of patients and families who are looking to connect with one another and rebuild their lives after a significant injury,” she said. “Trained peer visitors strive to help the newly injured person through a difficult time and serve as a positive, supportive role model.”

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