A patient with an abdominal gunshot wound is wheeled into the UF Health Jacksonville Trauma Center.
He is moaning and in pain, and James Dennis, MD, immediately knows he will need to operate.
Fortunately, Dennis is not only a trauma surgeon, but also the hospital’s chief of vascular surgery. The vascular injury he is about to discover will be a challenge even for him to mend.
Just outside, the patient’s wife, Susan Parks, searches for a parking spot. She is seven months pregnant and has their 1½-year-old son in the car. She has never been here and doesn’t understand why the ambulance passed other hospitals on the way. She will soon learn she’s at the region’s only adult and pediatric Level I trauma center—the one place that might be able to save her husband’s life.
Brett Parks, a U.S. Navy air crewman training to become a flight engineer, was scheduled to meet a client for his personal training business that night. Then he heard screams for help. He chased down a mugger, caught him and planned to hold him until police arrived. He had no idea the man had a gun hidden in his sweatshirt pocket until he heard a shot and fell to the ground. As he lay on the concrete, expecting to die, he wondered what kind of woman his unborn daughter would become without a dad around. Then a woman knelt at his side and began to pray. He looked up at the purple evening sky and began to pray, too. Right then, he knew he was going to live.
All through the night, the trauma team works to save Brett’s life. The bullet has pierced his intestines and traveled downward, destroying several inches of his inferior vena cava, the largest vein in the body, which carries blood to the heart. Three doctors’ hands are inside Brett’s open stomach, trying to use pressure to stop the bleeding. Two suction hoses constantly suck the blood away. Still, the bleeding won’t stop.
They activate a massive transfusion protocol, which directs the hospital’s blood bank to send coolers full of blood to the operating room every 15 minutes. By the operation’s end, Parks will have received 51 units of blood products and lost 13 liters of blood, more than double the average person’s blood volume. Anesthesiologist Peggy James, MD, uses warming blankets to combat the chill of surgery and blood loss, but Brett’s temperature keeps dropping. The colder he gets, the sicker he becomes, and the less likely his blood will be able to clot.
Surgery resident Eric Roberts, DO, wonders out loud whether they will ever be able to stop the bleeding. The patient will die if they don’t. Buried under the iliac artery, the vena cava is difficult to reach. The doctors try the one option left: cut through the artery, tie it and push it out of the way. It halts blood flow to Brett’s right leg, but at last gives them the access they need to stop the bleeding.
Resident Chester Royals, MD, believes it’s nothing short of a miracle that the patient lives through the surgery. This will be the story he thinks of when future patients’ families ask him if he’s ever seen a dying patient defy the odds.
After four hours of surgery, Brett is taken to the ICU just after midnight. His temperature is 96, just one degree above hypothermia, and no one knows whether he will live through the night.
Roberts has to tell Susan her husband might die. A father to two small children, himself, he will never forget this moment.
Susan is trembling and worried, but she is also strong. She and Brett are Christians and she knows God will decide his fate. In her heart, she believes he will survive. She has known her husband since they were in high school together in Miami, when she was a cheerleader and he was a football player. Her Brett is a fighter. In fact, he bench-pressed 315 pounds for the first time in his workout today. He is the strongest he’s ever been.
Brett’s vital signs become stable enough to return to surgery. He is rushed back to the operating room for a bypass graft, a small tube that brings blood flow back to his right leg by connecting it to the femoral artery in his left leg. Like the bullet that remains inside him, the tube will become a permanent addition to his body.
As the days pass, Brett, who is kept in a medical coma, goes into surgery more than a dozen times. He loses a kidney and part of his colon, which the bullet had mangled. He is placed on dialysis and has extremely high fevers. He undergoes a temporary ileostomy and a tracheotomy. And the muscles in his lower right leg turn gray, indicating they are dead. The sickly leg stresses his one remaining kidney. In tears, physician’s assistant Heather Wood tells Brett’s wife amputating may be his best shot at survival.
Susan doesn’t hesitate.
“You do whatever you need to do to keep him alive,” she says.
This time, Andrew Kerwin, MD, chief of acute care surgery, and Hud Berrey, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon, are in the OR. Brett is again in great fortune: Few surgeons on this earth have experience that would compare to Berrey’s. During his 35-year career, Berrey has handled amputations in war zones, headed the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Amputee Clinic for eight years and even taught amputation surgery classes in Vietnam.
The damage to Brett’s leg is extensive, and Berrey will later note, “He would have lost the leg above the knee 99 times out of 100. But I’ve done this a few times before.”
The doctors salvage the leg well below the knee, which will make a world of difference in Brett’s mobility.
Susan continues her vigil at Brett’s bedside while her mother and Brett’s mother take care of their toddler. They almost always have company, as family members, co-workers and friends visit the room. Brett’s best friend leaves a missionary post in Nicaragua to be at his bedside. Churches across the country pray for him and 70,000 people follow updates on a website his family sets up. Many in the hospital become attached to the family and they nickname Brett the “miracle man” because he has beaten some difficult odds.
After three weeks, Brett finally becomes well enough to wake up. He gives Susan a wink, and she knows her Brett is still in there. A few days later, when he is able to speak, he asks her, “Susie, do I still have a foot?”
When she tells him he doesn’t, he asks, “Do you still love me?”
“Brett, I didn’t marry you for your foot,” Susan answers.
Brett will learn there are a lot of people who love him. Wood organizes the staff and community to throw a supersized baby shower that brings him to tears. Brett’s co-workers from VP-30 show up one Saturday to put up the family’s Christmas lights. He receives a check from JT Townsend, a former TraumaOne patient who set up a foundation to help people with serious injuries, and a medal from the governor. The mayor declares Dec. 5 Brett Parks Day.
But Brett doesn’t consider himself a hero.
“I’m just a dude who stuck his nose in something and got shot,” he says. To him, the heroes are the more than 370 UF Health employees who each played a role in saving his life.
“When I think of the UF Health crew, all the hours that were put in, all the care. How do you thank someone for that? Thank you doesn’t seem good enough. It seems like an insult,” he says.
The best way he can come up with is to live his life to the fullest and appreciate the second chance he was given. He’s starting his own ministry, Second Shot Ministry, to tell his story as a motivational speaker.
Brett speaks about the heroes in the hospital and also God’s decision to keep him alive. Because to Brett, it was no coincidence that the hospital’s chief vascular surgeon was on duty that night, or that a massive hematoma – an internal blood bubble – prevented him from bleeding to death before the ambulance arrived. It was no coincidence a UF Health resident, Owen Salfen, MD, overheard the gunshot from his nearby apartment and cared for Brett while he waited for the ambulance. And when they arrested the shooter and gathered eye witnesses from that night, police never found the woman who prayed at Brett’s side. Brett says she was his angel.
“I feel like God has had his hands in this from the very beginning. The reason I worked out so hard all my life, God instilled that in me for that moment,” he says.
There are still tough days, and there are medical setbacks. But there are also so many special moments, so many reasons to be thankful. Susan says she is impressed with her husband, who made a choice to see his changed life as a challenge to conquer rather than a reason to feel sorry for himself.
“Now Jason has someone to play ball with, Stella has someone to walk her down the aisle and I have someone to grow old with,” she says. “What more could you ask for?”
“Spend five minutes with Brett and you’ll know why he survived,” says Emily Alderman, RN, who was often assigned to Brett’s room. “He still has a lot to do on this earth and there was no way this was going to take him down. It only made him stronger.”
Many who cared for him say Brett and his family helped the staff as much as they helped him because his story gave them hope.
“Their impact on us was really profound,” Kerwin says. “No matter how bad your day may be, if you just think back to Brett’s story, that washes away the bad and reminds you why you chose to work in this career. I don’t think we’ll ever forget Brett Parks.”
A Night for Heroes
UF Health Jacksonville honored Brett Parks and the heroes who saved his life at its annual A Night for Heroes Gala.
The black-tie dinner, which is a fundraiser for TraumaOne, raised $160,000 for TraumaOne. Learn more at A Night for Heroes.