Sledding accidents land about 20,000 children in the emergency department each year. Researchers found those ages 10 to 14 were more likely to sustain fractures while those 15 to 19 were more likely to have sprains or strains. Traumatic brain injuries made up nine percent of the total.
The ninth grader cried in her room. She was in intensive care and afraid she’d never walk again.
Valarie Potter had crashed into a fence while sledding down a hill on New Year’s Day. She didn’t remember the accident, just the blood “gushing” out of her nose. She had severe fractures in both legs and the artery behind her left knee was torn.
The torn artery was a big problem.
“In children, up to a third with this type of injury lose their leg,” Dr. Marcus Balters, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Alegent Creighton University Medical Center said. “It wasn’t life-threatening but it definitely was limb-threatening.” In some cases, he said, doctors might not catch the problem right away; even if they did, the surgery to repair the damage was a complex and risky one.
When she smashed into the fence, Valarie hyperextended her leg, forcing it in the opposite direction of how it’s meant to bend. This stretched the artery behind her knee—then tore it, stopping blood flow to the leg. “There was just no place for the blood to go,” Dr. Balters said.
The “fix” in the operating room was difficult because of the location of the tear. “There are so many muscles and other things attached to the knee,” he said. Dr. Balters, with Vascular Surgeon Timothy Baxter, removed a vein from the patient’s groin on the opposite leg, then performed a bypass to the crumpled artery.
It was the first of six surgeries—and she’ll need more.
“Dr. Balters did a fantastic job restoring blood flow to her leg and saving her limb,” Orthopedic Traumatologist Justin Siebler, M.D. said. After the limb-saving surgery, Dr. Siebler’s partner, Casey Beran, M.D., used “external fixators,” or pins through the bone that attach to a steel rod on the outside to stabilize the fractures the evening of the injury. As Valarie’s condition improved, Dr. Siebler fixed the very severe fractures in both legs. It wasn’t easy. “Working around her left knee as to not disrupt Dr. Balters’ fine work was the most challenging part,” Dr. Siebler said.
Keeping an active 14-year-old in bed was another challenge. As part of Alegent Creighton Health’s continuum of care, Valarie moved to the Immanuel Rehabilitation Center, where she learned bending exercises and how to navigate steps—sliding up and down on her rear end.
Valarie’s had discomfort—she said the stitches itch and drive her crazy—and she’s impatient. But she told herself she’s lucky she’ll walk again.”You just gotta be strong,” she said.
She’s already had six surgeries, with more to come. She won’t be able to put any weight on her leg for a while. Then it’s three months in a wheelchair and three more months of physical therapy.
She doesn’t know yet what limitations she’ll have in the future but she has a goal–to race her older cousin Anthony—and beat him.