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Western Wisconsin teen returns to hockey after miracle recovery

Surgeons were able to save teen’s arm after go kart accident

As an 11-year-old, Cody Brightbill’s life consisted of two seasons – hockey season and go kart racing season. He was young, but his passion and talent for both sports shined through at an early age.

But on July 4, 2015, a terrible accident nearly derailed his future.

“His arm was essentially ripped off,” said Dr. Peter Cole, an orthopaedic trauma surgeon at Regions Hospital. “It was hanging by the nerves and vessels and a little bit of skin. His bone was completely ripped apart at the elbow.”

Cody was warming up for a go kart race when one of his arm restraints was unknowingly unrestrained from his five-point harness. At first the restraint was flying freely in the wind, but as Cody slowed down to get into place for the start of the race, the restraint got tangled in the kart. The restraint, along with his right arm, was pulled into the rear axle, bringing him to a sudden stop.

“When the accident happened, I was focused on trying to help free my arm and get out of my kart,” said Cody, who is now 13 years old. “I was wondering why everyone around me was freaking out.”

Cody was airlifted to Regions where he was rushed to the operating room.

Treating a mangled extremity

“There was a lot of bone damage and soft tissue damage,” Dr. Cole said. “We needed to determine if we were going to be able to save the limb or amputate.”

The response to a case like this is broad. In Cody’s operating room, there was more than 70 years of trauma and limb saving experience. There was a vascular surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a traumatologist, Dr. Cole and a team of nurses working to help Cody.

“Knowing it’s a child and knowing that regenerative capacity that children have, in my mind, we were absolutely going to save Cody’s arm,” Dr. Cole said.

But, would Cody play hockey again?

“I am someone who never takes the hope away from a family or a patient because, frankly, I believe in miracles,” Dr. Cole said. “But having my own sons, around the same age, playing hockey and knowing what that sport demands for success, I just couldn’t imagine him playing competitive hockey again.”

Dr. Cole met with Cody’s family that night. Understandably, they had a lot of questions. They were stoic, quiet and respectful as Dr. Cole discussed the damage done to Cody’s arm.

But when Dr. Cole told them he didn’t think Cody would play competitive hockey again, the family broke down.

12 surgeries to repair Cody’s arm

Despite the prognosis, nobody gave up hope, not Cody, Dr. Cole or the team of doctors.

“I’m very thankful for everyone who helped me get to this point,” Cody said. “My recovery was like none other. I had to work extremely hard to get my arm the way I wanted it to be.”

Cody’s recovery has been an intense two-year process. In the first year, he had therapy sessions, two to three days a week. He needed to wear special braces at night. And his recovery also came with homework, including countless exercises and lifting weights.

“It’s traumatizing to see your child seriously injured,” said Andrea Brightbill, Cody’s mom. “As a parent, you would stop at nothing to protect your child from any sort of harm, so when something like this happens, it’s devastating.”

In all, Cody had 12 surgeries. It’s been a long journey. And it is clear success was thanks to a family supporting each other when they needed it the most.

“I’ve never felt so helpless in my life as when I was unable to take away my son’s pain. I would’ve given anything to take his place.” Andrea said. “Cody was our rock. I’m not sure he ever realized the extent to which he was helping us all manage every last step of the way.”

Back on the track and back on the ice

Unbelievably, Cody is back on the track and back on the ice. He is racing again and playing competitive hockey. It’s the ultimate outcome, and the wonderful results aren’t lost on either patient or doctor.

“When I was in the hospital I told my parents that I would be out on the track the following year, but I wasn’t sure about hockey,” Cody recalled. “I returned to racing and playing hockey and I couldn’t be happier. It’s really awesome to be able to do all the things I used to do before the accident.”

“It’s a miracle, and this is something that is exciting for us to see,” said Dr. Cole. “It keeps our team coming back to work every day. We need to be there to help the next patient like Cody.”

Helping others like Cody

The Regions Hospital Foundation Wine Auction will be held on Saturday, September 16. Proceeds from the event will help fund a program called the Regions Hospital Orthopaedic Trauma Center. Funding will be used to enhance care for patients, promote the discovery and innovation in the area of fractures and injury and educate the next generation of specialists to handle these types of catastrophic injuries.

“Due to the nature of my son’s injury and the extent of his recovery, I can only begin to imagine what Dr. Cole and the Regions orthopaedic department will continue to accomplish in the future,” said Andrea.

For more information about this year’s Wine Auction, go to thewineauction.org.

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