COLUMBIA, Mo. - Thousands of people will be watching on Nov. 17 as the U.S. Army Golden Knights elite parachute squad thanks the physicians and staff of University Hospital's Frank L. Mitchell Jr., M.D., Trauma Center in the best way they know how - by jumping out of an airplane at 120 miles per hour.
The team will land on Faurot Field during halftime at the University of Missouri vs. Syracuse University football game and recognize the Frank L. Mitchell Jr., M.D., Trauma Center staff and trauma surgeon Chris Nelson, M.D., and for saving the life of their teammate, Sgt. 1st Class Howard Sanborn.
Nelson was paged on the morning of Sept. 9, as Sanborn was loaded onto a medical helicopter headed to University Hospital. A member of the Golden Knights, Sanborn had been on an early morning bicycle ride with another teammate for their daily workout. The team was supposed to perform a jump at a Truman State University football game in Kirksville later that day. But Sanborn and his friend were hit by a car.
When Sanborn arrived at University Hospital, the University Hospital trauma team saw that Sanborn had sustained Class I trauma - the most severe category of life-threatening injuries. Their first job was to assess the extent of his wounds. Immediately, they discovered that Sanborn had suffered a serious spinal cord injury. He also had a mild traumatic brain injury, multiple broken ribs, bruising of his lungs, multiple cuts and abrasions, a fractured right shoulder and bleeding from a pelvic wound.
"Howie had experienced a massive amount of trauma, but the most immediate danger was from blood loss," Nelson said. "After we assessed his condition, we proceeded to the operating room to stop the bleeding. If we didn't, there's a high likelihood he would have bled to death."
After almost two hours in the operating room, Sanborn awoke in the intensive care unit with the bleeding stopped. He soon learned that his spinal cord had been severed and he was paralyzed from the waist down. It was not an easy diagnosis for Nelson to share with his patient, but Sanborn's determination convinced Nelson that he'd continue to thrive after his accident.
"I can't imagine a person with a better attitude," Nelson said. "Howie has a lot of spirit. He immediately wanted to do everything he could to get out of the hospital. That makes all the difference for someone with injuries like his. You can either give up or work harder than you ever have. Howie's not afraid of hard work. He's the very definition of a warrior, through and through."
Nelson knows what his patient is capable of because of their shared experiences. Like Sanborn before he joined the Golden Knights, Nelson had served as an Army Ranger before heading to medical school and becoming a trauma surgeon.
"We developed a bond based on that," Nelson said. "Being a Ranger means being part of a small brotherhood, like a fraternity. When you meet another Ranger, there is an unspoken bond that allows you to talk to him like your oldest friend, even though you've never met him before."
That connection has meant a lot to Sanborn, a dedicated soldier who joined the Army in 2000. Since then he's excelled in Army Ranger school to become an elite paratrooper, served two tours of duty in Iraq, endured the arduous boot camp and selection process for becoming a Golden Knight and traveled to 40 states as an ambassador to the American public. Having a physician who understood his Army background gave him comfort and helped propel him forward in his recovery.
"Dr. Nelson put me back together and saved my life," Sanborn said. "He's also been there to give me a boost when I needed it. One day he came in with his own Army Ranger challenge coin, and he gave it to me. That's something that means a lot to any soldier - he's carried that medallion since he got out of the Army in the '90s. He told me, 'I want you to have this coin to help you remember to just keep driving forward and not to give up.'"
Sanborn isn't giving up. When he was hurt, Sanborn was training for his fifteenth triathlon race. He's put those plans on hold for the moment while he's in Chicago receiving specialized rehabilitation therapy, but he plans to get back to sports soon. Just days after his injury, he already was talking about competing in the 2016 paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. He credits the staff of the Frank L. Mitchell Jr., M.D., Trauma Center for saving his life and allowing him to make those plans for the future.
"I can't say enough about the care I've received from everyone at the hospital," Sanborn said. "From Dr. Nelson, who treated me when I first arrived, to all of the nurses who have taken care of me, the physical therapists, the housekeepers and everyone else. The Army has taught me a lot about teamwork and how there's no such thing as a little job. The staff here follow that philosophy to a tee. They all do their jobs the best they can, and they do it with a smile. This place is full of very big people."