On Top of the World

Multidisciplinary team helps Richard Rowe pursue his travel dream after traumatic injury

Richard RoweAmateur photographer Richard Rowe sat in the passenger seat as a friend drove down a country road. Looking down at his camera to examine the images he'd just taken of a quaint old barn, he never saw the oncoming vehicle cross the center line and strike their car head on.

He recalls very little of the next two months.

"I vaguely remember my friend Jason, who was driving, yell something like, 'Look out!' and sometime later someone saying, 'Mr. Rowe, you've been in a car accident,'" Richard says. "It was a long, long time before I was thinking clearly again."

Richard grew up in Billings, Montana, and lives in Poolesville, Maryland. At the time of the crash, he was enjoying photography along with his other passion – travel. He and his wife, Cheryl, were visiting Richard's sister in Manhattan, Kansas.

The region's best trauma care

The University of Kansas Health System offered the nearest Level I Trauma Center as verified by the American College of Surgeons. Richard's extensive injuries would demand the expertise of the most skilled multidisciplinary team.

A thorough evaluation identified substantial damage. Both of Richard's occipital condyles – the bony protrusions that connect the skull to the vertebrae – were broken. His nose and jaw were broken. His sternum was crushed. Most of his ribs were broken, as were both femurs – the large bones of the legs – and his left tibia and fibula, the lower leg bones. He had a crushed ankle and broken toes. He had a pseudoaneurysm in the left carotid artery and an injury to the small bowel.

"I became involved in Richard's care as the ICU attending physician," says trauma and critical care surgeon Stepheny Berry, MD. "He had become septic overnight and had free fluid in his abdomen, suggesting a small bowel injury that required emergency surgery. My colleagues and I took care of him in a multidisciplinary team approach essential to a positive outcome. We offer the subspecialty coverage necessary to care for the most critically injured patients."

"Our role in orthopedics is to stabilize any injury that is not life-threatening until such a time as it is safe to take the patient back to the operating room," adds orthopedic surgeon John Sojka, MD. "Here, we work intimately with numerous subspecialty service providers, such as trauma and interventional radiology experts, to preserve life and limb. Together, we prioritize and address the needs of patients like Richard who have experienced complex polytrauma and collaborate to promote recovery and healing."

Richard received numerous surgeries. He spent six weeks in the surgical ICU and remembers little about the experience. His son and daughter arrived from the coasts, and they and his wife took turns staying with him, ensuring he was never alone.

"I wanted to get up and go home," Richard says. "I had to be told repeatedly what had happened, as it was a good while before it sunk in."

The road to recovery

When his strength and stability allowed it, Richard began physical therapy.

"I remember giving the therapists a really hard time," he says. "I was still feeling angry and sorry for myself, and I did not want to do the work I needed to. I have a deep appreciation for the therapy staff. They truly see people at their weakest and worst and never give up on helping us move back toward our better selves."

After two months as an inpatient, Richard transitioned to The University of Kansas Health System's rehabilitation unit, where he stayed for 3½ weeks. Richard and Cheryl then moved into Richard's sister's home.

"This was a very emotional time," Richard says. "I was out of life-threatening danger and again lucid, but it began to sink in what a difficult road I had ahead of me. Cheryl and I were so thankful my sister could accommodate us. I could not bear weight, and there was no way we were ready to make the trip home."

Richard received physical and occupational therapy along with therapy to relearn how to swallow. He had relied on a feeding tube in the weeks after the accident, and it took time to move beyond the liquid meals that had become his staple.

"The first thing I tasted by mouth was a cherry Popsicle," he recalls. "I never had a particular liking for those, but that one tasted just like heaven."

At one point, an illness revealed gallbladder problems. Surgery resulted in another hospital stay. But Richard returned to therapy the moment he was able, eager to become strong enough to head east.

Richard Rowe and his nephew
Richard and his nephew hiked across 500 miles of ancient pilgrimage routes in Spain after he made a full recovery from his injuries.


Seven months after the accident, Richard and Cheryl returned home.

"I count myself very lucky," Richard says. "We could not have handled this without the support of so many, especially my wife who endured so much emotional trauma herself and was by my side providing loving care the entire time. I'm very thankful to have gotten my mobility and independence back. I can walk. I can travel. I have freedom."

He also credits his sister, who opened her home to him for months, and his son and daughter, who made multiple trips to support Richard and Cheryl.

Richard soon tested his strength. An avid traveler with a fondness for Spain, he set a goal to visit the Camino de Santiago. That trip wouldn't entail common sightseeing, but rather involved a grueling trek across 500 miles of ancient pilgrimage routes. Richard teamed with a physical trainer to prepare for the excursion.

In 2016, he and his nephew together achieved Richard's dream.

"I feel very blessed to have completed it," Richard says. "In a way, it hasn't sunk in. It was such a long road."

Dr. Berry credits the quality of care her team provided along with Richard's determination and attitude.

"Richard had many injuries that were each life-threatening, but given their combination, made his full recovery a testament to our team and to his hard work and persistence to improve," she says. "It could have been easy for him to get down about his injuries, but he persevered. He was going to get to Spain, and no injury would prevent it."

"Having a highly motivated patient who truly wants to get better makes every difference, and Richard was that patient," Dr. Sojka adds. "He recognized the severity of his situation and knew what he had to do to improve, but his positive attitude, work ethic and supportive family got him where he wanted to go."

Living to the fullest

Richard, now 71, traveled to Patagonia with his son in early 2018 and tackled strenuous, high-altitude hiking. He and Cheryl plan to visit the iconic La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in 2025 when a major renovation is complete. But meanwhile, he relishes the little things.

"I do what I want to do as much as I can," he says. "I volunteer at a local museum. I read. I take walks. I watch my grandsons grow."

He and Cheryl also bought a camping trailer and travel the country.

"I want to keep doing what I'm doing for as long as I can, and I thank the team at the health system for that," he says. "The people I met and the care I received were terrific. The doctors are amazing, and the nurses have everything to do with day-to-day well-being and comfort. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow, or even this afternoon. I am thankful for every day."