How does the worst experience of someone’s life transform into one of the most positive? According to Heather Andrews, a patient of Dr. Peter Millett, “God hand-picked someone special when he chose Dr. Millett to do what he does every day. I cannot have imagined going through my extraordinary battle and personal experience with anyone other than Dr. Millett and the entire team at the Steadman Clinic.”
A Gorgeous Sunny Day
Heather Andrews, a 42-year old native of Pennsylvania, loves the mountains. So much, that after she attended school she ended up living in Vail for several years before returning home to Philadelphia. Today, although she resides in Philadelphia with her husband and children, her love of skiing, rock climbing and the beautiful outdoors brings her back to Vail throughout the year.
A talented and avid skier, Heather has spent more time on the slopes around Vail than most ski enthusiasts who visit there. Her own children have followed in her footsteps and can often be found skiing with her. But suddenly, on a March afternoon in 2007, as she and her husband were skiing together in Vail on a mountain they all know very well, one event changed her life forever.
“It was a fairly normal ski day,” said Heather. “I was at the bottom of China Bowl taking the catwalk down to Blue Sky Basin. We had a lot of friends in town and I remember thinking about the rest of the day and my list of things to do. I was daydreaming and not really paying attention to my surroundings.”
As a result, she found herself skiing on the edge of the catwalk, something she didn’t normally do. It was spring skiing and the snow was very slushy. As she tried to move by a slower skier who was snow plowing, her ski caught an edge and she lost her balance. Normally, Heather would just ski out of this situation, but as she was already on the edge she found she had nowhere to ski and flew directly off the catwalk.
Instantly, Heather went over the edge of the mountain into a ravine (without any snow covering) and dropped 40 ft into a rocky creek bed—but not before the tip of her ski got stuck in the side of the mountain. With the rest of her body falling forward, her tibia—which is the bone that runs on the front of the leg—also referred to as the shinbone—snapped. After that, she flipped many times, smashing that same leg into the side of the rocky cliff over and over and over again before finally landing on the rocks at the base of the ravine.
Heather distinctly remembers lying in the ravine in a complete and total state of shock. Her immediate thought was that she could feel all of her limbs and she was totally aware that her only injury was her leg.
Within minutes of reaching her, the safety ski patrol assessed her situation and worked to get her off of the mountain. “The pain I felt in my right leg was so intense, I couldn’t talk or react,” said Heather. “I completely shut down. My pain level was at a stage 10 on a scale from 1 to 10. Once I reached the ambulance, they immediately shot me up with pain medications and from there, the processes that would overtake my life for the next three years began.”
The Fight of her Life
Heather was rushed to Vail Valley Medical Center. While in the ER, Heather’s husband Peter, phoned her dad who ironically and miraculously was upstairs visiting Dr. Peter Millett for a shoulder injury. Dr. Millett graciously ran down to the ER to assess Heather. After just a few minutes, he informed the family—who now were gathering in the ER—that her situation was incredibly serious.
In addition to her broken tibia, she received internal injuries in the same leg including a smashed patella and many compound fractures of the shin where the bones were poking through the skin. The fracture extended into her knee joint which created a complex knee injury; it was among the worst of injuries that Dr. Millett had seen. He concurred that she would need surgery immediately. The family looked at Dr. Millett and asked him to do it. Within an hour, they were in surgery.
The rest of this story has so many twists and turns and personal heartache, that it is a miracle anyone would be able to come out of this experience unchanged.
During that very first surgery, Heather was put in an external frame to support the leg. With this fixator in place, she would then lie still in the hospital for a full week so that the swelling in her leg could decrease. A week later, a very intricate operation was performed by Dr. Millett to repair the broken tibia using metal plates and a lot of screws. For several weeks more, Heather was required to stay in the hospital so that her tissues could heal and so that the wound vacuums could do their work on the part of her leg where the bones had poked through the skin—the internal area around the compound fractures.
During these weeks, Heather went through intense physical therapy to strengthen the areas associated with the broken tibia, compound fractures of the shin and her complex knee injury. Several weeks into her therapy, Dr. Millett concluded that the bone was not healing and that Heather would need surgery yet again in order to close these wounds; this was the only way they would be able to save her leg. At this time, with the assistance of his partner, Dr. Viola, who is a microvascular specialist, Dr. Millett performed a muscle flap roll-over procedure where muscles and skin were moved to cover the area of defect in her leg. After wearing a splint and remaining very still for another week, the cast was removed; everyone was pleased because the surgery took. Upon re-splinting the leg, Heather was finally sent home in late April.
An Emotional Homecoming
Going home for Heather—many weeks after her accident occurred—created a flood of emotions. Without the support of her doctor and his team, how would she survive?
“I was very scared to go home. Dr. Millett’s team including the Vail Valley Medical Center nurses, the physical therapy staff, and Dr. Millett himself had become my extended family. When I was there receiving treatment, I felt upbeat, positive, grateful, when I was given the green light to be able to go back home, I felt happy to be able to go home, but sad because I now had to do this on my own,” said Heather.
For more than 11 months, Heather would be on crutches as she tried to resume a normal life back in Pennsylvania. She re-visited Dr. Millett at the end of 2008 and learned that a section of bone was not healing entirely due to the severity of the break. At the end of that year, an additional plate was put in her leg and a bone graft was performed as well. Heather’s bone responded beautifully! Months of more rehab and therapy followed.
Today, Heather is stronger and healthier and able to walk and run and ski without pain. She is almost through with all of her surgeries. Dr. Millett will remove the old plate that was put in immediately after the accident and Heather will begin her final healing.
A Life Changed Forever
It would be impossible for Heather to come through this unchanged—and the truth is—she is changed forever. “The level of attention you receive during your stay at the Steadman Clinic is just so profoundly top notch. The right hand constantly speaks to the left hand. I was never alone during this process—calls were returned, nurses were there to help me, Dr. Millett was by side the entire time. Every single aspect of the treatment these guys offer is just hands down the best in the world. When I visited doctors in Pennsylvania and New York, I’m constantly disappointed—even really good doctors and hospitals. Once you have received the care like I had with Dr. Millett at the Steadman Clinic, nothing compares.”
Three years and six surgeries later, Heather is coming closer to being back to her normal self. She is able to exercise and has had no residual effects from the tragedy (i.e. nightmares, phantom pain, etc.).
Heather ends by saying, “When you have a doctor like Dr. Millett watching over you, you just don’t worry. I felt like he was my angel the entire time I was under his care. I have a leg today because of his incredible skill. To have been his patient, to have had him fix my leg makes me the luckiest woman in the world! For months and months I have wanted to put into words what his care has meant to my family and me and I was so pleased to take part in this profile study. Everyone needs to know the gifts and talents of this incredible orthopedic surgeon and everyone at the Steadman Clinic. I will be forever grateful.”