Hunter Withrow had 2 encounters with Akron Children’s Hospital’s Air Bear® medical transport helicopter within a few weeks last year. The first experience he remembers; the second he doesn’t.
The first was a Memorial Day weekend event in Wooster. People were able to meet the crew and look inside the helicopter during one of Air Bear’s many appearances at community events. Hunter, then 14, met the transport team. His mother, Nicole, snapped photos of the visit.
The second encounter happened a few weeks later in June. Hunter was riding an ATV on his grandfather’s farm and turned into an electric fence. The wire strung between fence posts severed his trachea and nearly decapitated him.
He was somehow able to get up and walk to his grandfather’s house.
“He was in shock,” said Hunter’s father, Rich. “He was in a bad way. His grandfather put him in a pickup truck and rushed him to Wooster Community Hospital.”
The hospital did an emergency tracheotomy — a surgically created hole through the front of Hunter’s neck and into his windpipe (trachea) — so he could breathe. They summoned Air Bear to take him to Akron Children’s, where doctors stabilized him and inserted a tracheostomy tube in his neck.
With a paramedic, respiratory therapist and critical care nurse aboard, Air Bear flies to Wooster in about 12 minutes compared to a nearly 60-minute drive by car. The transport helicopter made hundreds flights last year, but Hunter’s injury was not like any other.
“It’s not often we see such a severe injury,” said transport nurse Penny Amsden, who met Hunter during the event a few weeks earlier. “For him to survive the injury is wonderful. It most definitely could have been a different outcome.”
Hunter’s distraught parents drove the 35 miles from the Wooster hospital to Akron Children’s, where they were ushered to a private area.
“We were in complete and utter shock. We were barely able to stand up,” Nicole recalled. “They had a clergy member with us, which was very comforting. When we were allowed to see Hunter, they let us sit right next to him, talk to him and hold his hand.”
Nicole was taken with how the emergency room staff looked after the family.
“They were very open and communicated with us about what was happening. It’s hard to find words to express our gratitude for an experience like that. We felt cared for. There was a real connection there.”
Hunter was airlifted the next day to a hospital in Cleveland, where he would undergo surgery to reconstruct his mangled windpipe.
Hunter said he doesn’t remember much immediately after the accident.
“But I remember being awake and being on a paralytic they gave me so I couldn’t move,” he said.
Over the next year, he underwent multiple follow-up surgeries, and he still has more surgeries to go.
Hunter has bounced back faster than anyone predicted. His tracheostomy has been removed, and he’s breathing on his own, though his wind is not back to normal. He draws about 40% of a normal breath, which makes it difficult to climb stairs.
“He’s home and he’s alive, which is a miracle,” said Nicole. “No parent can ever be prepared for such a thing.
“We are all so grateful that Hunter wasn’t taken from us that day.”
The family is hopeful surgeons will be able to increase his ability to take deep breaths and be more physically active.
Hunter will enter the 10th grade at Wooster High School. He works part-time at The Grande Ranch, his family’s restaurant on the outskirts of Wooster. The restaurant has been in Rich’s family since 1942 – the first to serve pizza in Wayne County, Rich said.
Rich said his son has taken the injury in stride.
“He’s a happy, go-lucky kid,” he said. “He was most upset that he couldn’t play football or wrestle this past year. He’s really focused on being able to breathe normally and being active again.”