Jonathan Pettigrew, Neuro Trauma

When Jonathan Pettigrew’s car left the road at about 4:20 a.m. the morning of October 1, 2006, the force of the resulting accident caused what is known as a “hangman’s fracture.”

So severe was his neck injury that the now 20-year-old rural Galesburg resident was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident, which occurred on G Avenue near 38th Street. Remarkably, emergency crews at the scene and in the Emergency and Trauma Center at Borgess Medical Center were able to bring John back from the brink, although early on the prognosis was not good.

“They told me later that most people with hangman’s fracture either die or are paralyzed for life,” said Jonathan, sitting in his dining room on a cool but brilliant fall day. Compounding his condition were multiple fractures of his leg, jaw, nose and breastbone. Barley a year later, however, Jonathan has recovered so thoroughly that he was able to get back his driver’s license and think about returning to college. And rather than a career in cooling and heating, he is considering earning a degree in respiratory therapy – one of the many medical skills used by the experts at Borgess to save his life.

For several months, before Jonathan could drive again, he relied on this brother Josh, 16. “My brother hauls me around when he is not at school,” Jonathan said before he regained his license. “When I learned to drive, I hauled him around. This time it’s his turn.”

Born November 16, 1987, in Galesburg, Jonathan played football at Galesburg High School where he graduated in 2006. The day before the accident he had worked the 3 to 11 p.m. shift and then went to a party and bonfire for a friend who was about to go to school at Ferris State University. Although it was not known at the time, Jonathan’s heart was weakened by a birth defect and doctors now think that the defect was preventing his heart from pumping properly. The resulting weakness, they told him, most likely played a major role in causing the accident.

One of the volunteer fire fighters first on the scene was a friend of Jonathan’s. She went to his grandfather’s house to seek help in contacting Jonathan’s parents, John and Sue, about the accident. “They tried to call us on the phone but we sleep in the back of the house and the fans were running,” said John. “We were awakened by knocks on the door and away we went to Borgess. In the ER they told us Jonathan was not responding. He did respond to us, but they took him away for treatment and we didn’t see him for four or five hours.”

“One of the first things someone told me after the accident is that my son’s head was no longer attached to his spine,” Sue told the Kalamazoo Gazette in February. “He was very, very sick.” Subsequent tests revealed that Jonathan’s head was still attached to his spine but precariously so.

Jonathan remained in the Neurointensive Care Unit for 47 days, undergoing a series of operations to fuse his neck bones at the break, put a rod in his left leg where is was broken in two, repair his broken nose and jaw and repair the heart defect, the condition that had not been detected until after he was hospitalized.

Jonathan’s last memory was leaving work the night of the accident. Most of what he knows about the subsequent hours, days and weeks is what he has been told. Heavily sedated while in the NCU, he has a stronger memory of the rehabilitation at Borgess-Pipp Hospital in Plainwell, where he spent another 40-plus days.

He returned to Borgess and remained hospitalized until February 16, 2007. “It was all scary.” Jonathan said of the early days and weeks after the accident. “But my treatment at Borgess was excellent. There were a lot of people helping me and I owe them all a big thanks.”

Jonathan’s right arm still gives him a little trouble and he has drop-food on his left leg, which was so badly broken. “Still, I feel lucky all the time,” he said. “I’m so happy to be walking. I try not to think about the accident and the time after.”

John said that his son received excellent medical care. “I’m very impressed with the people at Borgess and I always will be. All physicians and nurses along with other professionals, our friends, our family – we could not have made it with out their help and caring.” As he looks at his son, John says simply: “It is definitely a miracle. Totally awesome. We are a blessed family."

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