One Year Later, Co-workers and Family Reflect on Teamwork that Saved Stabbing Victim

May 15, 2014

Stabbing victim Stephen Wafford (center) and his grandfather,

Hermon Wafford, returned to Mercy Independence after Stephen's

hospitalization at a tertiary facility to thank the local

surgery crew for saving his life.

A year ago this month, Stephen Wafford and about a dozen Mercy Hospital Independence co-workers were fighting for his life. Thanks to heroic efforts of teamwork, a little clinical magic and, no doubt, some divine intervention, he now has a long, bright future ahead of him.

It was around midnight Saturday, May 4, 2013, when Stephen, a 19-year-old college athlete, was delivered by his friends to the Mercy ER after being injured in an altercation on campus. Since no ambulance had been called, ER nurses Kyle Davis and Tonya Kendrick had no forewarning of the critical situation that was about to unfold.

An initial assessment of stab wounds the young man clutched on his left side, steadily trickling blood through his fingers, told the nurses that Stephen was in grave condition. The trauma-trained crew took immediate action.

Attending ER physician Dr. Greg Mears was immediately summoned. The infusion of fluids and blood products was begun, and lab tech Stephanie Hobby was alerted that more blood would be needed, prompting her to order back-up supplies from two nearby hospitals. Meanwhile, the on-call surgery crew was called in and began prepping the OR for the patient.

Surgeon Chris Lewis ordered a rapid-scan ultrasound, which revealed internal bleeding around Stephen’s heart. Internally and externally, the blood continued to pour out as fast as it could be infused. There was little time to act.

As Dr. Lewis scrubbed in for surgery, the ER team worked to stabilize Stephen enough for transport to the OR. They were now assisted by nurse anesthetist Kim Pinkerton, who suddenly noticed a change in the patient. As she felt for a pulse in his neck, she found nothing, and immediately began chest compressions. With each compression, more blood was lost through the open wounds in Stephen’s side. Nurse Davis and Pinkerton quickly exchanged places, Davis compressing while Pinkerton applied pressure to the wounds. Also at the bedside was respiratory therapist David Eighmy, who felt the pulse return and called for compressions to stop. The team had brought Stephen back.

From there, they held their collective breath and closely monitored every next heartbeat, as the sixth and seventh bags of blood products were infused and Stephen was carefully but quickly moved to Surgery.

In the OR, the crew had physically and mentally prepared for a case they all knew would push them past their levels of routine comfort. Once Stephen was on the table, Dr. Lewis and team went to work calmly and methodically, but with a necessary urgency. Their objective was to control Stephen’s bleeding and keep him alive, and ultimately transfer him to a larger facility for critical care.

The first incision was to the abdomen to explore one of the stab wounds as the potential source of bleeding. All hopes were that the source would be found here, where repair might be less complex. Dr. Lewis wasted no time as he quickly explored the abdomen and, unfortunately, found no bleeding source.  
The obvious next step was to explore the chest, and opening a chest is not an everyday occurrence in this small-town operating room. In the briefest of pep talks, Dr. Lewis rallied the team, “Everyone take a deep breath. Here we go…”   
So, with unconventional methods and supplies, Stephen’s chest was opened, and there, Dr. Lewis quickly discovered the source of bleeding – a laceration to the left ventricle of the heart and a severed coronary artery.

For several minutes, he worked to repair the hole, as an assembly line of multiple co-workers delivered more than 20 units of blood products.  Once the hole in the ventricle had been patched, Dr. Lewis began to close up incisions. Just as he finished closing the incision around Stephen’s heart, another turn of events – his heart stopped.  Dr. Lewis, however, did not miss a beat. He gently took hold of the heart by hand and massaged, quickly restoring the rhythm. Stephen was back again.  
As the remaining incisions were closed and Stephen was stabilized for transport, a call for life flight was made. To complicate matters, however, inclement weather in the area had grounded all helicopters. The team soon received word that a fixed-wing medical plane would be sent, with an ETA of approximately 40 minutes.
After a tense several minutes of post-surgery monitoring, the flight crew arrived in the OR and began preparing for the transfer.  Mercy co-workers exchanged war stories of the night with the flight crew – the Mercy group reporting on their harrowing experience with Stephen in surgery; the flight nurse about a frightening plane ride in bad weather, at one point only 300 feet above the ground.  
The Mercy team’s story seemed to trump, and the flight nurse praised the surgical team for nothing less than heroic actions to save Stephen.
“This is an incredible event, a miracle,” he said. “Patients with this type of injury rarely make it this far even in a large trauma center, let alone in a rural community hospital.”
Once Stephen was safely en route to a tertiary facility, the Mercy teams took time to sit down, breathe and reflect on the events of the evening - to comprehend the miracle that they had just experienced.  
Nurse anesthetist Pinkerton recalled, “That was the point when the adrenaline had begun to drain out and you just wanted to sit down and bawl.”
Surgery Supervisor Rachel Jamison said, “We all realized the hand of God had touched each of us in a miraculous way and guided us through this event.”
Today, Stephen’s mother, Tracy Wafford, reports that he is doing well. While he is not currently able to play college football as was his original plan, he is back to taking college classes in his hometown.
“He’s not one hundred percent, but compared to where he was a year ago, he is doing well,” Ms. Wafford said.
“And we owe it all to the doctors and staff there at the hospital in Independence. If it wasn’t for the surgeon and the staff there, he wouldn’t be here.”
Reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the incident, Ms. Wafford said, has been helpful in the healing process for the entire family, and just like the Mercy team, they have acknowledged that God had a hand in saving Stephen that night.
“This (reflection) has been therapeutic for my family,” she said. “Especially for Stephen, to know all he went through and to know God worked through Dr. Lewis and Dr. Mears and the nursing staff to save him – my son, somebody they didn’t know.
“I don’t think saying thank you will ever be enough.”