Making A ‘Swift’ Recovery

Published: April 15, 2004
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Yankton Doctor Overcomes Potentially Fatal Car Accident Injuries

Dr. Don Swift of Yankton is a survivor, but you won’t see him on the popular reality shows. He survived a near fatal car crash near O’Neill, Neb., last November.

The doctors in Sioux City, Iowa, have no explanation for Swift’s full recovery. They can’t explain why he is still alive.

“All the prayers, for whatever reason, I can’t thank people enough,” said Swift, who casually gestures with his broken are still enclosed in a metal brace, while talking about the ordeal. “They are why I am still here.”

Last Nov. 4, Swift and his two coworkers, Zita Hans and Lori Stottler, were headed to an outreach clinic at Ainsworth, Neb. He travels to a different outreach clinic every Tuesday to see patients. It is a service offered by Yankton Bone & Joint in Yankton, where Swift practices as an orthopedic surgeon.

Swift doesn’t know why he took the Ford Explorer — or “Exploder,” as he affectionately calls it — that day.

“It was the one day I didn’t take my trusty Oldsmobile,” remarked Swift.

“The girls had said that I had said it was a beautiful day. The road was nice. We were going at the speed limit,” said Swift. He has no memory of the day.

Also, Hans recalls they decided not to take their usual turn to Ainsworth northwest of O’Neill and took State Highway 281, north and west of O’Neill, which they rarely traveled.

Swift remarked it was a beautiful day to his nurses. Hans remembers there was quite a bit of frost on the ground. Swift said snow had been predicted the previous night but it had rained instead. Later in the day snow was expected.

All three passengers had their seat belts on.

Suddenly, they hit a patch of black ice. Hans felt the Explorer lurch a couple of times. The surface looked no different than usual except it was new.

The white SUV rolled forward end for end first and then side to side a few more times. Hans remembered the pain while rolling, and then the quiet when they stopped. She maneuvered herself out of her seat belt and crawled out the front passenger window.

“It was hard to orientate myself because I was upside down,” said Hans. “When I did realize that, I undid my seat belt and got out of the vehicle.”

Hans can’t remember if she felt like losing consciousness because there was just too much going on to think about it. Swift said Hans directed everyone at the scene.

Hans tried to communicate with the other two passengers and got no response. Stottler was riding in the back seat and was violently tossed inside the back area of the vehicle. Her head was laying out the back end where the window should have been. Eventually she did regain consciousness and asked if she was dying. Hans was quick to reassure her.

Swift gave no sign of life.

Road construction was going on in the area where they crashed and the employees of the John Prouty Construction Company of O’Neill were quick to offer assistance. As Hans pulled herself out of the vehicle, workers were sliding down the embankment to help. Due to the loose gravel and heavy frost on the ground, the workers had a hard time standing up. They threw new sand around the area so the EMT squad could reach the victims.

Prouty was on the phone calling Swift’s office. Hans asked him to let them know when he suddenly said, “Oh no, there goes the ambulance.”

The ambulance squad from O’Neill responded quickly to the call. At first sight, Prouty worried the ambulance would also roll when hitting the icy spot in the road. The ambulance did slide almost 100 feet before stopping.

Hans recalls a man from the EMT group who was very small. He was able to put a collar on Swift after Hans informed the crew Swift had a previous neck injury and a neck fusion. The EMT was small enough to fit into the vehicle and also secure Swift with a backboard.

Swift believes the information given the EMT team and the precautions they took may have saved his life. The crew needed the Jaws of Life to extract Swift from the vehicle.

By this time, Hans was being transported to the O’Neill hospital with a pelvic fracture among other small injuries. Stottler was also transported there with a broken collarbone, a punctured lung and several large bruises all over her body.

Swift had difficulty breathing and needed to be intubated. His lungs had collapsed. Because of his condition, they flew him immediately to Sioux City.

At one point, it was reported that Dr. Swift had died. It was discovered later that information on the fax was misread when it was sent out to notify the media of the accident. Still, it did not look good for Swift.

When rolling forward, the top of the SUV crunched down on Swift’s head and snapped it forward. The break was similar to someone who was hung with a hangman’s noose. His spinal cord was unprotected. Swift explained the vertebra was pushed forward and that stretched the spinal cord. Now, he has to concentrate when he walks because his legs feel funny, probably due to the stretching. The nerves should repair themselves and normal feeling should return in 12-24 months.

His left arm was extended out the drivers’ side window when his Ford Explorer rolled. It was a mess by the time the vehicle stopped rolling side to side.

“They tell me at one point, when one of the construction guys was there, I kind of came to for a second when I was hanging upside down,” said Swift. He could see the bone sticking out and all the blood. So he said, “Hey, there is a black bag in the back with some dressing in it. Can one of you guys dress my arm?” Hans directed the worker to the bag and he started working on Swift’s arm.

“Zita was on top of it, at the crash site, directing everyone,” added Swift.

When he was admitted in Sioux City, Swift’s head looked like a pumpkin. When his wife Anne arrived, she was shocked to see his condition. When the officials notified her of Don’s accident, they told her he had an open fracture of the arm and a little trouble breathing. She was prepared to bring him home in a day or two.

That did not happen.

Swift said he had tubes everywhere. When they removed the intubation tube a couple of days after the accident and took Swift for x-rays, they found his neck broken in two places. Immediately he was taken to surgery. The first surgery was on the upper break of his neck. After a second surgery was performed on the other break in his lower neck one week later, a halo was placed on his head, which kept the neck stationary. As he came around, the doctors and nurses found they had to restrain him. That was a very positive sign to them.

The drugs administered to Swift like morphine affected his recall of what happened the first 15 days of his recovery. Sometimes he felt as if he was suspended from the wall looking down. The combination of the chemicals given Swift and his massive head injury color created memories intertwined with many hallucinations.

“One day there were cartoon characters, all life-size, in the room,” Swift recalled. “It was the day the tubes came out and I said, ŒLook Anne, look at the ceiling, look who is there.” Anne and family just agreed with him, aware of the huge amounts of drugs being given him.

“It’s funny, I can tell you things,” mused Swift. “I had a nurse who would give me milk, or loosen this. She was a good nurse, tough, firm. Her name was Betty. If I wanted to check on a patient and she would firmly tell me, ŒNo Doctor’. Well, she didn’t exist.” Swift found out later there was no such nurse down there.

On day 15, physical therapists assisted Swift out of bed to begin the road to walking again. He laughed because it wasn’t much the first few days. He went to therapy everyday and still does now.

Swift spent three months wearing that halo, laying flat on his back, but he was home. When he needed to get up, his wife Ann would grab one of the rods and place the other hand on his back and lever him up. The screws didn’t really hurt but he felt as if he was suspended from the ceiling.

Now, 4 1/2 months later, Swift smiled broadly and reported he is back to work two half-days a week. He does low intensity workouts three times a week. Other than the brace on his left arm signaling it is still healing and a scar from his jaw line to his collarbone, one would never know how close to death he came.

“Truly, this is a miracle,” said Hans. “I have a very strong faith. I prayed when we were rolling, I prayed when everyone was running around after the accident.”

Swift acknowledges the prayers as well.

“I am very thankful that Lori, Zita and I were spared,” Swift added.

There is some reason why he is still here. Hopefully, some day he will know.