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VIDEO: Trauma researchers focus on Nova Scotian who came back from death and coma in amazing shape


Curtis Coley was not expected to survive events that saw his heart stop three times

HALIFAX, N.S. —

Curtis Coley is a living miracle. 

He's a son who the province's medical trauma director says had less than one per cent chance of surviving horrific injuries sustained in a car crash.

He's a young man who died three times and was brought back through heroic medical treatment.

"Traditionally, in trauma resuscitation, if you have that kind of problem before you get to hospital, it's thought that treatment is futile... (the paramedics) did CPR I think (for) 28 minutes and got him back, which is remarkable in itself."

- Dr. Rob Green

It was Nov. 29, not quite a year ago, when the police called Wendy Coley in the early-morning hours. They asked her if she owned a Toyota Yaris. They asked her who would have been driving. Her son, she replied. They answered "Oh."

Curtis, 22, was overdue to return home from visiting a friend.

"As soon as they said 'Where do you live?' I thought he was dead," Wendy said in an interview at the Bedford Sunnyside Mall on Wednesday, her son sitting beside her and very much alive.

He had gone off the road in bad weather and down a steep embankment. He suffered massive injuries. A stranger called 911.

Dr. Rob Green, the medical director of Trauma Nova Scotia and critical care physician at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, said their LifeFlight paramedics were dispatched directly to the scene, an unusual directive as the helicopter usually picks up patients from nearby hospitals.

"They did a number of procedures in the field because his heart actually did stop," Green said. "He had no blood pressure, his heart stopped, he wasn't breathing. Traditionally, in trauma resuscitation, if you have that kind of problem before you get to hospital, it's thought that treatment is futile, it's very unlikely that they are going to survive, but these paramedics kind of kept working and working and working. They did CPR I think (for) 28 minutes and got him back, which is remarkable in itself."

A stopped heart, massive organ damage

When he got to the hospital, Curtis's heart stopped again, and again they resuscitated him. Then he went into surgery to repair the massive damage to his organs.

Originally from the Midlands region of England, the family will be in Nova Scotia 10 years in April.

Wendy and her husband Allan had separated but he met her at the hospital, and the family, including Curtis's brothers Joel, Harrison, Mitchell and Ethan, braced for the worst.

"You're just so devastated," Wendy said. "You're just in shock, I think, which lasts a long time. You're just numb to it all. You're going through the motions.

"We honestly didn't think he would survive that first night. But he did."

He was in surgery for eight hours, They removed his spleen, his liver had to be repaired, as did his heart. His lungs were "shredded to pieces," Wendy said.

Green said they repaired what they could and then Curtis went to the ICU, under his care.

"We honestly didn't think he would survive that first night," Green said. "But he did."

And then the weeks of waiting began while he was kept in a medically induced coma. Wendy just stayed at the hospital, sleeping in a room for families or on a couch wherever she could, and sat with him every day.

Curtis Coley and his mom Wendy pose for a photo in Bedford's DeWolf Park on Wednesday afternoon. Curtis was involved in a near-fatal car accident almost a year ago. - Ryan Taplin
Curtis Coley and his mom Wendy pose for a photo in Bedford's DeWolf Park on Wednesday afternoon. Curtis was involved in a near-fatal car accident almost a year ago. - Ryan Taplin

Fear of brain damage

He was on a ventilation machine as the damage to his lungs was so severe. There were more procedures to clear clots from his lungs, which kept collapsing, Wendy said. There were bouts with pneumonia. There was the ever-present question of whether his brain had been damaged from lack of oxygen.

Then Dr. Green told her they had to wake him up. He just couldn't spend the rest of his life in that condition. They had to see if he would live and what was left of his mind.

They brought him out of sedation and he slowly surfaced. It took some time, but one day Curtis nodded at Dr. Green. Then he gave him the finger.

"I was giving everyone the finger, apparently," Curtis said on Wednesday with a laugh.

"I was giving everyone the finger, apparently."

It looked like he was slowly recovering over about three days and she went home for a shower while Allan Coley took his turn being with Curtis. That's when Curtis had a heart attack and was being resuscitated again.

"By the time I got there, he was sat back up in bed and everything and he was all right. They got him back."

It was a genetic condition known as Long QT, Wendy said, which can lead to heart rhythm problems. It had never affected him before. The answer for Curtis was a defibrillator implant that he still has. He may have the option in the future to have it removed a few years from now if it turns out he no longer needs it.

A miracle and a mystery

From that point, he started to recover fairly quickly. He had to learn to walk again and be weaned off the ventilator. Even though the medical staff had taken active steps to move his limbs and his body around to keep his muscles from completely wasting away, he still had atrophied from a very fit young man who worked a physical job as a landscaper to almost a skeleton, Wendy said.

"I must say, the staff, they were just fantastic," she said. "All the time I was there ... you don't sleep, really. I'd be on a couch and I'd just go in there and sit with him at three o'clock in the morning. The staff were brilliant. You get to know them so well."

Curtis has no memory of the day or so leading to the crash, his time in a coma or any more than little bits of the first couple of weeks after coming out of it.

"Why would he survive and another 22-year-old wouldn't. … that's what all this research is about."

He didn't realize it was two months down the line from his last memory, didn't know what had happened to him, didn't know the calendar had turned to 2019.

"It probably took a couple of weeks after me being awake, when all the drugs started wearing off," Curtis said.

Curtis is both a miracle and a mystery because he shouldn't have survived his injuries. Obviously, he was young and fit, so he had that going for him.

"But why would he survive and another 22-year-old wouldn't," Wendy said. "And so is there anything they could do to help that or not. And that's what all this research is about."

Helping others survive

They have agreed to help Dr. Green and the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation with ongoing collaborative cross-country research into trauma. They are sharing their story to assist with the 2019 Molly Appeal campaign, aiming to purchase a sophisticated mass spectrometer, a machine that will vastly speed up the analysis of trauma characteristics in blood chemistry. The results from current trauma patients could help with the treatment of the next ones who come into their care.

This would be the start of a track that would be years in the making.

And Curtis is the vanguard of that.

"Without this research, Curtis wouldn't be here now because they wouldn't have known what to try, what not to try, what works, what doesn't, through everything they've done with everybody else," Wendy said.

"It certainly gave him his life. Gave him a second chance."

Curtis got out of the hospital on Feb. 10. He's working part time at the Dairy Queen in Stewiacke, the next exit down the highway from their Shubenacadie home. And he's on the waiting list at NSCC for admission to the carpentry program.

"We're hoping he gets in next September, but that gives him a good year," Wendy said.

He's doing physio twice a week at the Truro hospital to slowly strengthen his body once again. And if there was any brain damage, his neural pathways somehow found a way to reroute themselves.

"It's not going to be easy but I'm just happy to be here," Curtis said. "It could have been a lot, lot worse."

Green said he's proud of the care that Curtis received. The efforts of so many medical professionals turned a less-than-one-per-cent chance of survival into a special story.

"When they come and visit me — I've seen them two or three times since then — I can't tell you how happy I am," Green said. "He's just a good kid. Just a really good kid."


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