Steven Gauthier has no memory of the eight weeks he spent inside Blake Medical Center’s ICU fighting for his life and at one point, losing it.
The 54-year-old former Navy pilot and Air Force retiree from Niceville, Fla., in the Panhandle was traveling through Parrish in early March 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the state.
The last thing Gauthier remembers was pulling out of an intersection when he was t-boned by another vehicle. He wouldn’t wake up for months and when he did, Gauthier was in another hospital, one of five at which he would undergo care for his traumatic injuries.
That accident set in motion a lengthy and intense chain of medical care from people Gauthier on Thursday had a chance to thank.
From Manatee EMS to Tampa General’s Air Medical staff, to Blake’s trauma surgeons and ICU nurses, is why Gauthier thought it was important to return to Blake Medical Center to meet some involved with saving his life.
After shaking hands and giving out many hugs Gauthier took the time to answer some questions about his experience and how it felt to finally see the faces of his medical guardians.
“It’s been great,” Gauthier said. “I’ve thought about them for a long time. I wanted to see them because I wanted to thank them for saving my life. I didn’t know everything they did for me until last June. They were very dedicated so I wanted to thank them.”
Gauthier said meeting all those involved in his care, “Is part of my healing process. I’m very appreciative to them. It’s very easy to feel that I wasn’t going to make it and stop and they didn’t, they kept fighting. I was touch-and-go for a long time and they kept fighting.”
Even when Gauthier’s heart stopped for more than eight minutes three weeks into his stay at Blake, staff refused to give up on him.
As a veteran, Gauthier already had the experiences to appreciate life in a different view than most, but his brush with death deepened that appreciation.
“I definitely have,” he said. “You think more about what you have here and try to appreciate it all the more. You don’t sweat the little things very much.”
The crash caused multiple and severe injuries, including head trauma and crushed bones.
Gauthier was unresponsive at the scene when Manatee EMS arrived. His heart rate had skyrocketed and his blood pressure plummeted to 50 over zero. He was on his way out when Manatee EMS went to work. A short time later, Tampa General’s Air Medical staff flew into the scene.
“He was extremely critical,” said Kathy Koch, a flight nurse paramedic who cared for Guathier along with her partner, flight paramedic James Houston. Gauthier would need a full blood transfusion during the flight.
Koch said without the work of those first Manatee EMS personnel at the scene, things could have gone much worse.
“They made all the right decisions. This is truly an opportunity to celebrate the whole continuum of care in the trauma system,” Koch said.
Virtually everyone involved with Gauthier’s care said it was one of the worse cases they have seen.
Jessica Burnell, a Blake ICU nurse, spent every work day of Gauthier’s two-month coma caring for him. She became not only his critical care nurse but family to the Gauthiers, who because of COVID restrictions implemented in the early months of the pandemic had to rely heavily on her and other medical staff for information.
“I remember him coming in with a lot of broken bones,” Burnell said. “A friend of mine’s husband was one of the first one’s on the scene. So it’s really heartwarming to me to have a little personal part of the story with him. Seeing him today makes it all worth it.”
Burnell said her friend’s husband assumed that Gauthier’s vehicle was full of strawberries when he first drove up to the accident scene. But it wasn’t the red of crushed strawberries that he saw.
Trauma surgeon Dr. Erwin Rusli said he sees a lot of similar cases, but he acknowledged Gauthier’s injuries were among the worse he’s treated.
“I remember how badly damaged his organs were,” Rusli said. “Steven had just about every injury you can think of. He had every service in the hospital helping him out. His vital signs were so deranged, he basically came in without vital signs.”
When asked at what point staff thought they should give up, given what they were seeing, Rusli said never.
“We don’t give up,” he said. “We just don’t give up here. Steven is obviously one of the tougher cases we’ve had, but we don’t ever give up. As much as we know about medicine and how people can and can’t recover, you never know. And we see miracles like this where a patient comes back to us.”
Seeing Gauthier speaking, smiling, holding his wife’s hand brought a surge of emotions to the medical staff.
“I’m choked up,” Rusli said. “I don’t really get choked up but I think this whole year has been crazy with COVID. We normally would have a trauma survivor’s day or patients that we’ve seen come back to us but we couldn’t do that this past year and half to two years so it reminds me of why I went into medicine. Medicine can sometimes be a thankless job but seeing Steven come back and looking as great as he does, it has me choked up.”