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Back in Action

Leading trauma care powers Cole Forney's return to the field

Cole Forney with his mother ChristyLinebacker Cole Forney, 22, had a lot going for him. A senior at Northwest Missouri State University, home of the Bearcats, he relished his role on the football team and was closing in on earning his degree in corporate recreation and wellness. He was starting to explore professional opportunities, looking for ways to combine his love of athletics with a desire to help other people as family, teachers and coaches had always helped him.

A patch of icy road threatened to take it all.

On January 17, 2017, Cole and a teammate were on their way from Maryville, Missouri, to William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, to begin internships. As he exited the highway on this cold, wet night, Cole hit a slick spot and lost control of his truck.

The vehicle hit a concrete barrier. Cole was ejected and thrown 30 feet.

"I remember saying, 'Buddy, hold on!' to my friend, and then I don't remember anything for the next 10 days," Cole says. His teammate fortunately sustained only minor injuries, but Cole's situation was far more severe.

The region's only Level I Trauma Center

Emergency responders rushed Cole to the nearest hospital, where the care team immediately recognized he required the attention of trauma specialists at The University of Kansas Health System, which offers Kansas City's only Level I Trauma Center as verified by the American College of Surgeons.

"At first, it was beyond overwhelming," recalls Christy Forney, Cole's mother. "He couldn't be life-flighted due to the weather. His lips were the color of paper. I was so relieved once he received blood and could be transferred. I felt The University of Kansas Health System was where he needed to be."

The list of Cole's injuries was long and frightening. A ruptured diaphragm. Fractured ribs, left arm and pelvis. Lacerated spleen and liver. Acute blood loss and respiratory failure. Brain hemorrhage. The list went on.

"For the first few days, we did not know whether Cole would live," Christy said. "We were so thankful to work with so many people doing everything they could for Cole. We received so much compassion and support."

Time-critical diagnosis

When a life-threatening or disabling condition such as trauma, stroke, heart attack or severe burn occurs, minutes matter. When emergency responders bring these patients to The University of Kansas Health System, they activate the time-critical diagnosis team while en route. This ensures that the right care providers are on hand to provide the full spectrum of care for critical patients when they arrive.

A proven approach to quality care

Cole was stabilized, ventilated and sedated. He underwent several surgeries. He remained in the surgical ICU through February 6.

"Cole received excellent care during his stabilization, so our team's main responsibility was to support his body's organs while they recovered from the injuries," says trauma and critical care surgeon Robert Winfield, MD. "Our management of his needs was guided by protocols and standards we use on all critically ill patients in the surgical ICU. This is the safest and best way to deliver consistent, quality care."

The team of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, physical therapists and occupational therapists focused on weaning Cole from the ventilator, safeguarding against blood clots and stress ulcers, managing antibiotic use and promoting early mobility.

Cole experienced some delirium when removed from the support of the ventilator. While this is a common occurrence among critically injured patients, it can be distressing to family members to observe their loved one's confusion.

"One of the most important things we could do was offer reassurance that Cole's disorientation was not unusual," Dr. Winfield says. "I hope we were able to provide Cole's family with comfort and understanding as they dealt with the seriousness of his injuries."

Orthopedic surgeon Archie Heddings, MD, and his team also played a crucial role.

"We collaborated with the trauma team to help determine which injuries required immediate intervention to save life or limb and which could be addressed later, as every surgical procedure in effect represents a new trauma," he says. "We addressed each injury to provide reconstruction to restore balance and function."

One step at a time

Upon discharge, Cole headed to an inpatient rehabilitation facility to continue his recovery.

"He stayed only 10 days. The doctors said he was a train wreck on paper," Christy says with a laugh. "But he actually looked pretty good. He worked on independent living skills, but was anxious to get back to school and to his life."

"Cole had tremendous drive," Dr. Heddings adds. "I just love that about him. Doctors cannot achieve a fully successful outcome without the participation of the patient. After we did our jobs, Cole took it from there."

Once back on campus – using a wheelchair for mobility until late March – Cole applied the work ethic he brings to schoolwork and football to his ongoing healing and strength-building.

"We have a great athletic training staff at Northwest," Cole says. "They expect me to bring it every day and wouldn't let me slack off. They taught me the principles that got me through my recovery, to take on a challenge one step at a time."

"Cole has always been a goal-setter," Christy adds. "He is very resilient and very strong."

Taking the field

Among Cole's first goals was to return to the football field. He missed the first two games of his senior season, but was on field for the third – eight months after the accident. He made just a few snaps, but he played. And his playing time and ability increased with each game, including the eagerly anticipated Fall Classic held at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Bearcats won.

The Forneys credit Cole's care team with helping him overcome daunting obstacles.

"My care team was awesome," Cole says. "I never met anyone in a bad mood, and I really needed that encouragement and energy to stay positive when I was bored and isolated in the ICU. My caregivers were always there for me."

"There is no place I would rather have been than The University of Kansas Health System," Christy says. "Especially once we realized the gravity of Cole's situation, we knew we were exactly in the right place. All of Cole's doctors are at the top of their fields, the best of the best. We are forever grateful."

Dr. Winfield notes that the health system routinely undergoes rigorous review to consistently meet the highest standards of trauma care in the world.

"We have trauma care experts physically in the hospital 24/7/365, along with access to all of the specialists and resources necessary to manage any trauma patient," he says. "As the busiest trauma center in the metro area, our systems are tested and proven daily. Cole is one of many people we've been fortunate to help not only survive traumatic injury, but thrive and return to doing the things they love."

A whole life ahead

Cole looks forward to completing his football season and to graduating in the spring. He's considering working in athletic training, strength training or rehabilitation. He'd like to take his turn providing support for others, as many over the years have provided support for him. Sports, he feels, armed him with valuable life lessons that saw him through his challenging recovery and will continue to serve him into the future.

"You know, people look at the accident as if it was so terrible, and it was bad, but I found a way to push through," he says. "I had an amazing support system in my family and friends and care team. I have this sense of confidence now, that if I could get through this, I can get through anything."