SAN ANTONIO – The chances were slim, but this story defies statistics.
Stephanie Johnson Athey was sitting at the VIA bus stop at the corner of Culebra Road and Zarzamora Street on Aug. 28 when a white car slammed into the bus stop, hitting four people.
“This guy had asked me what time it was, so I looked at him, said the time. Then I hear screeching,” Johnson Athey said. “The next second, I woke up and I’m on the ground and I couldn’t breathe. I could feel my son moving, which kind of comforted me a little bit, making sure that he was still OK."
Nearly all of her ribs had been broken. One of them had pierced her heart, causing the sac around the heart to fill with blood.
Dr. Doug Pokorny, a trauma surgeon at University Hospital, was called in to help when Johnson Athey arrived.
It was easy to see she was pregnant, but she wasn’t responding.
“I went and tried to feel the pulse in her groin, couldn't feel it,” Pokorny said. “The people at the head of the bed tried to feel the pulse in her neck. They felt a pretty weak pulse, and then they lost it pretty quickly.”
“Essentially, her heart stopped,” he said. “She was clinically dead.”
Pokorny said he had seconds to contemplate whether to save the mother first, save the baby first or try to save both simultaneously.
“As fast as I could, I grabbed a knife and performed a C-section right there on the table,” he said. “We had the baby out in under a minute.”
As a team worked to warm and resuscitate Johnson Athey's son, Ethan, Pokorny cut into the child's mother’s chest, working to save her life.
“We opened her chest up and removed her heart from that pericardial sac and started to compress it, like CPR, from the inside,” Pokorny said.
About four hours later, once the mother and baby were stable and in recovery, Pokorny asked himself, "Did that just happen?"
Meanwhile, Johnson Athey was just beginning to ask questions of her own.
“I woke up with a tube in my mouth. I had a feeding tube,” she said. “My arms were restrained, so I couldn’t pull the tubes out.”
Despite that, she said, she had a feeling her son was alright, and he was.
At first, as Ethan was being cared for in the neonatal intensive care unit, Johnson Athey could only see her son via Face Time.
“When I finally saw him in person, I couldn't hold back. I was crying,” she said. “Holding him for the first time was amazing."
Ethan has suffered seizures since the accident and his emergency birth, but he is being given medication to curb the episodes. Johnson Athey and her husband, Bobby, said the treatment is working and the baby's recovery is going well.
Pokorny calls Johnson Athey's recovery phenomenal. He said her drive to see Ethan has certainly helped.
“This is truly something that doesn’t happen. But it did this time,” Pokorny said. “It’s a true miracle.”
“I would rather him survive than me, but we got lucky that both of us did,” Johnson Athey said.
She and her husband have plans to one day tell Ethan about the day he was born.
“We’re going to tell him when he’s older, when he can comprehend how special he is and what a miracle he is, that we all survived that,” Johnson Athey said.
Johnson Athey is still in the hospital and her baby boy remains in the NICU. She visits him daily, and Pokorny visits her.
“I check on her every single day. Absolutely. She's my patient until she gets out. And then she never gets to get away from me,” Pokorny said, jokingly.